Not for the first time, either, but the previous challenge had to do with methodology. The new questions raise the possibility of fraud.

Professor Spagat says the Lancet paper contains misrepresentations of mortality figures suggested by other organisations, an inaccurate graph, the use of the word “casualties” to mean deaths rather than deaths plus injuries, and the perplexing finding that child deaths have fallen. Using the “three-to-one rule” – the idea that for every death, there are three injuries – there should should be close to two million Iraqis seeking hospital treatment, which does not tally with hospital reports…

Professor Gilbert Burnham, Dr Les Roberts and Dr Shannon Doocy at the Centre for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Maryland, decided to work through Iraqi doctors, who speak the language and know the territory…

Dr [Richard] Garfield also queries the high availability of death certificates. Why, he asks, did the team not simply approach whoever was issuing them to estimate mortality, instead of sending interviewers into a war zone?…

Another critic is Dr Madelyn Hsaio-Rei Hicks, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who specialises in surveying communities in conflict. In her letter to the Lancet, she pointed out that it was unfeasible for the Iraqi interviewing team to have covered 40 households in a day, as claimed. She wrote: “Assuming continuous interviewing for ten hours despite 55C heat, this allows 15 minutes per interview, including walking between households, obtaining informed consent and death certificates.”…

Professor Burnham says the doctors worked in pairs and that interviews “took about 20 minutes”. The journal Nature, however, alleged last week that one of the Iraqi interviewers contradicts this. Dr Hicks says: : “I have started to suspect that they [the American researchers] don’t actually know what the interviewing team did. The fact that they can’t rattle off basic information suggests they either don’t know or they don’t care.”

The Times pointedly notes that Burnham and Roberts both oppose the war. Meanwhile, one researcher advocates setting up a blog where the authors could engage with their critics and defenders. Super idea; that wouldn’t turn into a name-calling fiasco about the merits of the Bushitler’s war within five minutes or anything.

Exit question: Is this another lesson about the perils of using stringers?

Tags: Maryland