Known knowns

By Megan McArdle

I rarely pay attention to claims that "casualties in Iraq are down this month" because anyone who's followed the place even cursorily knows that they're remarkably cyclical, peaking each year right around Ramadan. (And don't get me started on the people who wrote that the peak in October 2006 was some sort of attempt to influence the American election.) But I didn't know why:

August 31, Juan Cole was shrill about administration and media statements that GI deaths in Iraq were down for the year. His point was that temperatures get to 120 degrees, so summer means low combat. He produced a table contrasting 2006 with 2007 by month: deaths are higher in 2007 than 2006. He asked for a visual display and many responded. I'm posting mine here.

But this is just part of a pattern of communicating, where true facts are presented within a limited context, so that the resulting asymmetry of information creates a false impression. Most of us don't know that Iraq temperatures reach 120 degrees in July so that physical activity like combat is down. On the other hand, if an official announced that lowland US snow fall in July was the lowest it's been all year -- duh. The difference is that here in the US we all know about July snow fall, so there's no asymmetry.



But as the author points out, many of the administration and military folks making those sorts of claims do know this (or at least, I certainly hope they do; if they don't, we're in worse trouble than I thought). They nonetheless produce meaningless claims about how casualties have fallen.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/known-knowns/1877/