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“Fudged statistics on the Iraq War death toll are still circulating today”

Mike Spagat shares this story entitled, “Fudged statistics on the Iraq War death toll are still circulating today,” which discusses problems with a paper published in a scientific journal in 2006, and errors that a reporter inadvertently included in a recent news article. Spagat writes:

The Lancet could argue that if [Washington Post reporter Philip] Bump had only read the follow-up letters it published, he never would have reprinted the discredited graph. But this argument is akin to saying that there is no need for warning labels on cigarettes because people can just read the scientific literature on smoking and consider themselves warned. But in practice, many people will just assume the graph is kosher because it sits on the Lancet website with no warning attached. . . .

That said, this particular chapter at least has a happy ending. I wrote to Bump and the Washington Post and they fixed the story, in the process demonstrating an admirable respect for evidence and a commitment to the truth. The Lancet would do well to follow their example.

The Lancet declined to comment on this piece.

And here’s Spagat’s summary of the whole process:

1. The Lancet publishes a false graph.
2. The problems of the graph are exposed, several even in letters to the Lancet.
3. The Lancet just leaves the graph up.
4. A Washington Post reporter stumbles onto the false graph, thinks it’s cool and reprints it.
5. I tell the reporter that he just published a false graph.
6. The reporter does a mea culpa and pulls the graph down.
7. I write up this sequence of events for The Conversation [see above link].
8. The Conversation sends it to the Lancet.
9. The Lancet declines to comment and leaves the false graph up.
10. The Conversation publishes the piece.
11. Someone else sees and believes in the graph?

Over the years I’ve had bad experiences trying to get both academic journals and newspapers/magazines to make corrections but the journals have been the more reluctant of the two. A low water mark was when an editor at Public Opinion Quarterly told me, after a long exchange, that POQ policy is that they don’t correct errors.

The Lancet, of course, publishes lots of good stuff too (including, for example, this article). So it’s too bad to see them duck this one. Or maybe there’s more to the story. Anyone can feel free to add information in the comments.


  1. Clyde Schechter says:

    I don’t think expecting lay people to read the scientific literature about cigarettes is analogous to asking a reporter to follow-up source material to see if it has subsequently been discredited.

    As for Lancet’s responsibility here, I think it would be wrong for them to take down the original graph. There is both historical and scientific value to maintaining a true archive. On the other hand, it would be a service to the reading public if the publisher were to visibly flag the graph as having been retracted or to insert conspicuous references to subsequent criticisms in the case of something that remains in contention.

    • Hello and thanks for your comment.

      You’re right, the best approach would be to leave the graph but flag it in some way. I actually envisioned such an approach in my article in The Conversation but was too brief in my email to Andrew which presented taking the graph down as the only option.

  2. Not Trampis says:

    I think Clyde makes a good point

  3. D Kane says:

    Ah, memories. Lancet/Iraq was where I first became of the widespread (?) rot/politicization of academic research.

  4. jrkrideau says:

    The Lancet seems to take a while to retract things.

    The Andrew Wakefield paper (attributing autism to the MMR vaccine) was up for a long time after it had been discredited. This paper and its surrounding circumstances were what got him struck off.

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