Author of Iraq body count study censured by a group he doesn't belong to

Gilbert Burnham, the lead author of two papers published in The Lancet on civilian casualties in Iraq, has been censured by the American Association for Public Opinion Research for failing to provide adequate details about the survey.

I don't know what to make of this.  Burnham is not a member of the AAPOR, so I'm not sure why they felt they had to censure him.

On the other hand, I heard enough during my work on a story about the body count to know that the Hopkins team was behaving in odd ways that dramatically piqued the suspicions of their critics.  They made claims about their methodology, and then retracted them.  They kept very close control over their data set, distributing it to only a few people, and refusing to release even well scrubbed data to almost anyone who disagreed with them.   On top of that, they put limitations on what researchers who had seen the data could say to the media.  I repeatedly asked for what seemed to me to be completely anodyne pieces of information in order to investigate claims of "curbstoning" and other polling offenses, only to be told that the researchers who had access to the dataset were not allowed to give out any specific numbers.  

The team's defenders said that they had to do this either for the security of the responders (even though no one was asking for the raw data with identities attached), or because the people who wanted it were too stupid or disagreeable to be trusted with the data set.  AAPOR's position, which I think is right, is that this is not the way the scientific method works.  To the extent that this is, as some have claimed, standard practice in the public health community, it does not validate the behavior; it casts serious doubt on the output of the field.

I, too, may have encountered the Burnham stonewall.  I happened to be writing my story just as the World Health Organization study that was highly critical of Burnham, et. al. was released. Les Roberts, who had become the public face of the team, was making frankly lunatic claims on the radio that the two studies basically agreed, even though the introduction to the WHO study specifically said that their results made it very unlikely that Burnham et. al. had been correct.  This claim was so unusual that when I asked neutral conflict epidemiologists, they patiently explained that I couldn't possibly have heard Roberts correctly, because no one with half a brain would ever have said that.

With controversy swirling, I called the Hopkins PR office, only to be told that Burnham was off in Amman for work and couldn't be reached for comment.  Given that must have already known that the report was due to be released, and roughly what it was going to say--I was told about the report several days before its release, by another journalist--this seemed very strange.  Stranger was the Bloomberg School of Public Health's apparent total lack of interest in explaining the study to a journalist from a major national magazine. I asked them to call me when he was available, but apparently his unavailability covered the entire month of January, and beyond. 

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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