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They threatened to sue Mike Spagat but that’s not shutting him up

Mike Spagat, famous for blowing the whistle on that Iraq survey (the so-called Lancet study) ten years ago, writes:

I’ve just put up the story about how a survey research company threatened to sue me to keep me quiet. I’ve also put up a lot of data that readers can analyse if they want to get into this really interesting issue.

This time it’s another set of surveys from Iraq that concerns Spagat.

Here’s the background:

The polling companies D3 Systems and KA Research Limited have fielded a number of surveys in Iraq since the invasion.

Some were for internal use only within the US government and must have informed US diplomatic and military policy.

Some got major public exposure, even winning an Emmy Award for ABC news.

Hardly any of the detailed micro data have been released for inspection.

Two datasets done by PIPA of the University of Maryland have been in the public domain and I have them.

Steven Koczela of The MassINC Polling Group obtained four datasets from the Broadcasting Board of Governors through a FOIA.

The State Department has ignored a similar FOIA request (I didn’t know that ignoring a FOIA was an option.)

I [Spagat] have found evidence that many of the data in the six surveys I have are fabricated.

See my [Spagat’s] conference paper for a short summary of this evidence. . . .

I sent the paper to D3 for comment . . .

And here’s what happened next (see page 16 of Spagat’s slides):

Re: D3 Systems, Inc. v Michael Spagat and Steve Koczela:

This firm represents D3 Systems, Inc. (“Our Client” or “D3”). Our client has retained us to commence litigation against you and any entity with which you are affiliated (including .) seeking compensation for, and equitable relief to terminate, your distribution and publication of false and defamatory statements about D3 to its clients and others.

Accordingly, WE HEREBY DEMAND, on and in behalf of our client that you:

1. IMMEDIATELY CEASE AND DESIST further delivery, dissemination, distribution and publication of the Subject Document and any of its content.

2. Deliver to this office within 8 days of the date of this letter a complete and accurate list of all parties to whom you have delivered, or requested publication of, all or any portion of the Subject Document. We note that you have refused to provide this information to our client and we warn you that your continued refusal to do so is not only further evidence of your intention to interfere with our client’s business relations, but also serves to exacerbate the financial damage your actions have inflicted on our client and therefore to increase the amount of compensatory and punitive monetary damages that our client will seek from you.

3. Deliver to this office within 8 days of the date of this letter a list of all individuals and organizations with whom you communicated, or from whom you received information, in connection with the preparation of the subject document.

This letter does not constitute an admission, waiver, agreement or forbearance of any kind. We hereby reserve all of our client’s rights and remedies.

Spagat continues:

What happened next?

1. My College spent a lot of money on lawyers.

2. We decide to write back asking if D3 can point me to a specific problem in the paper. I will gladly correct any errors.

3. D3 and D3’s lawyer do not write back with any specific suggestions.

It was a bluff.

He summarizes what is known:

Recall that I have only been able analyse six polls – many of the D3/KA Iraq polls remain out of reach, including the State Department ones and a series of polls sponsored by ABC, the BBC and other media organizations.

There is no way to really know how valid these polls without examining the data, however, they must be viewed as under a cloud as long as the data remain hidden.

It is also possible that many of the messages emanating from these polls are broadly accurate even if many of the data are fabricated. . . . maybe the historical record in Iraq has not been badly distorted by polling fabrication.

But we need to have an open and honest assessment of the work of D3/KA there so that we can make this call.

I don’t don’t don’t don’t don’t trust surveys where the data are hidden. It’s not necessarily data fabrication. People can exaggerate, for example reporting 2 responses out of 6 as 33% without giving the sample size, or they can gathering and reporting data with no concern for representativeness, or they misleadingly characterize survey responses. Or people can just be confused. Lots of reason to distrust when they won’t share their data, lots of reasons to be wary of making policy based on such surveys.

P.S. More here and here, about which Spagat writes:

I mostly stress the way that a central estimate (of excess deaths in war) seems to just float upwards unchecked. But, perhaps more interesting is what seems to be a related phenomenon that the (gargantuan) uncertainty interval seems to somehow just shrink down to nothing as the central estimate slides up. It’s as if I start out trying to sell you a car on the basis that you should get 20-40 miles per gallon and by the end of the conversation I’m saying that 33 mpg pretty much the worst case scenario if you drive like a maniac.

Maybe that gas example doesn’t quite capture the situation since in this example the top of the uncertainty interval is 14 times the bottom. If you want to take seriously something that wide you are really forced to supress the uncertainty.

7 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    Good job to call their bluff. And great, supportive college to not cave in.

  2. Michael Spagat says:

    Thank you very much for this Andrew. It’s great that you’ve put this in front of such a great audience and I hope there is an interesting discussion.

    Let me just make a couple of clarifications here.

    1. We all know of Andrew’s famous delayed blogging. One big thing has changed since I first described this situation to him. The Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to the State Department came through. Steve Koczela and I now have a mountain of State Department Iraq polls, some fielded by D3/KA and some by other companies. We will be delighted to share but just haven’t had the time to put it all up on a web site.

    2. The quoted material in the P.S. refers to yet another Iraq survey. Most of Andrew’s post is about opinion polls but at the end he refers to a survey that tries to measure the number of people killed in the war (Andrew gets this right but some people may get confused.)

    All this stuff is covered a lot on my blog:

    https://mikespagat.wordpress.com/

  3. Ignoring an FOIA seems to be standard practice. Although they’re required by law to respond within something like 20 days, the truth is for most things you have to sue them to get a response, and most people can’t afford to sue the federal govt.

  4. Steve Koczela says:

    A significant holdup seemed to be the inability of the FOIA office to read SPSS files, which is how the files were saved. That didn’t hold up the BBG FOIA for some reason, but did in the case of State. Couldn’t say why there was a difference. As I understand it, the files went from the Office of Opinion Research to the FOIA office, where they sat for a period of years.

  5. Arnaud Lagarde says:

    Any reaction from ABC/BBC/other media so far ?

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