Using misleading statistics to say Iraq is going well

If even the intelligent and rational fellows at Powerline have to bend themselves into an embarrassing pretzel shape to come up with an argument that we are “winning” in Iraq—or at least that we are not facing utter disaster in Iraq—then it becomes more and more likely that we really are facing disaster. Powerline writes:

Gateway Pundit has pulled together data from a number of sources that suggest that the conventional view is far too pessimistic—indeed, that most Americans’ view of Iraq is so distorted as to be unrecognizable. Among other things, Jim notes that the violent death rate in Iraq is lower than that in a number of American cities, including Washington, D.C.

So I went to the linked article, and saw that Washington has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000, and Iraq has a murder rate of 27 per 100,000, and on this basis Gateway Pundit triumphantly concludes: “Something to think about when you read the next Iraq the quagmire headline!”

Now, this has to be the lamest argument I’ve ever seen. How could Powerline fall for it? Gateway Pundit is comparing the violent death rate for all of Iraq, with all of its 25 million people in an area the size of California, with the death rate of Washington, D.C., the Murder Capital of America, a small city with a population of about 550,000, about 1/45th the population of Iraq. Much of Iraq may be relatively quiet, but if there is ongoing terror mass murder going on in the capital and a few other cities, that’s enough to make the situation permanently unstable, even though the death rate for the whole country is less than that of D.C.

This is a classic example of reaching woefully misleading conclusions via statistics abstracted from the context of reality. It’s like saying that since the fruitfly genome is 97 percent (or whatever) the same as the human genome, therefore humans are genetically virtually identical to fruitflies. Obviously, in the parts of the genome that really matter, humans are completely different from fruitflies. But the statistical, reductive approach doesn’t distinguish between what is important and what is not, between a relatively low (though objectively very high) violent death rate for the entire country of Iraq, and a catastrophic death rate in the capital which has the effect of making self-government impossible.

Meanwhile, see what a more realistic observer, Randall Parker at ParaPundit, is saying about Iraq.

James R. makes a point that I thought about but I didn’t say in the main blog entry: should a murder-filled American city—which is so dangerous that normal people cannot move around freely in it—be the benchmark for what is acceptable in Iraq? He writes:

ParaPundit writes that a Basra police official reports that there have been at least 400 assassinations in the past two months. This translates to 2400 per year in a city of 2.6 million people (2003), which gives Basra a violent death rate of 92.3 per 100,000. Compare this with Detroit at 41.8 per 100,000 and New Orleans (pre-Katrina) at 53.1 per 100,000. Before prospective immigrants who have narrowed their choices to these three cities decide, based on these statistics, to embark for the relatively peaceful climes of Detroit or New Orleans please allow me to relate comments I heard some years ago on Dave Logan’s sports talk show on KOA radio in Denver.

Logan had attended a Super Bowl in New Orleans and was departing his hotel, possibly with a companion, at noon to have lunch at a McDonalds restaurant across the street from the hotel. A hotel guard, armed with a shotgun, asked Logan where he was going. When Logan informed the guard of his intended destination the guard replied that he would recommend not going to the restaurant alone or in groups smaller than five or six people. A caller to the show said he grew up in Detroit and, after many years away, had returned with his wife and children to visit his old neighborhood, to show them where he was raised. As he drove through the neighborhood, at 3 p.m. (or thereabouts) and with out-of-state license plates, he was pulled over by a policeman. The officer informed him that he had done nothing wrong, but was curious about the man’s reason for being in the neighborhood. After he told the officer why he was there the officer informed him that the neighborhood was now so dangerous that it was not safe even in daylight hours and if the man wished to depart he would be glad to escort him to a safe location.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 02, 2006 04:30 PM | Send

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