Discredited Lancet study gets even more discredited

The British medical journal Lancet published a study of civilian casualties in 2006 that estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at more than 2% of Iraq’s pre-war population, around 655,000.  Later studies produced numbers of less than a quarter of Lancet‘s totals, and the authors of the study were largely discredited.  Now a research association has publicly rebuked Gilbert Burnham for not disclosing his methodology, and Burnham may face action from his employer, Johns Hopkins:

In a highly unusual rebuke, the American Association for Public Opinion Research today said the author of a widely debated survey on “excess deaths” in Iraq had violated its code of professional ethics by refusing to disclose details of his work. The author’s institution later disclosed to ABC News that it, too, is investigating the study.

AAPOR, in a statement, said that in an eight-month investigation, Gilbert Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on civilian deaths in Iraq.”

Hours later, the school itself disclosed its own investigation of the Iraq casualties report “to determine if any violation of the school’s rules or guidelines for the conduct of research occurred.” It said the review “is nearing completion.”

Both AAPOR and the school said they had focused on Burnham’s study, published in the October 2006 issue of the British medical journal the Lancet, reporting an estimated 654,965 “excess deaths” in Iraq as a result of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. An earlier, 2004 report, in which Burnham also participated, estimated approximately 98,000 excess deaths to that point.

In short, Burnham won’t reveal how he arrived at those numbers, which makes his research completely useless.  Scientific studies have to reveal their entire methodology in order for others to attempt to duplicate the study and its results.  Without duplication, results cannot be confirmed, and most scientists reject them — unless they serve political rather than scientific ends.

In Burnham’s case, politics certainly played a large role in his work.  Last year, the Times of London revealed that George Soros provided almost half of Burnham’s funding for the study.  Soros shoved millions of dollars into his highly vocal opposition to the war and George Bush, funding Democrats and the Democratic Party in their efforts to unseat Republicans over the last three election cycles.  His contribution of less than $100,000 to Burnham’s efforts were chump change, and bought him the propaganda he needed.

AAPOR noted that Burnham’s refusal to share his methodology “violates the fundamental standards of science” and undermines survey research in general.  Even Lancet has stopped supporting Burnham.  It’s time to call Burnham’s work what it is: a piece of pseudo-scientific prostitution in service to a political john.