Students in the Mailman School’s Ethics of Human Rights class were stunned when their professor, Les Roberts, announced on the first day of class, “you are all going to interview someone in Iraq.”
Despite student objections that they didn’t speak Arabic or know anyone in Iraq, they found a way. In many cases, students struck up a conversation with a taxi driver who had a friend or relative in the country and then got permission to call or email that contact.
The assignment, counting for half their grade, was to gather information about the violent deaths closest to their homes related to the ongoing conflict in the country and see if these deaths were accounted for in media reports. The year was 2007—just four years after the U.S. invaded Iraq—and violence was still widespread. This year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the war, Roberts’ students are still contributing to what the world knows about civilian causalities in Iraq.
Students designed the initial 2007 study, agreeing on a procedure for collecting information such as the age and sex of the person killed and when he or she died, and how to match that information with media reports.
After completing interviews and crunching numbers, the class concluded that the vast majority of violent deaths—nearly three-quarters—had been unreported. What’s more, most of these reported deaths happened in Bagdad, which had by far the highest concentration of reporters.
A car bomb in Baghdad, 2007
Results were published in the July-August 2008 edition of the journal Prehospital and Disaster Medicine—an unusual feat for MPH students.
The study’s first author, Anne Siegler (MPH '08), says that interviewing Iraqis made her feel much more invested than the typical classroom assignment. “I felt a great deal of responsibility to get the details right, to use the most accurate and fair epidemiologic methods possible, and to report the findings in a way that is understandable to everyone and gets the most visibility in a timely manner.”
“That's the strength of Columbia,” says Dr. Roberts, associate clinical professor of Population and Family Health. “There are really creative students who, when you give impossible tasks, figure out a way to get it done.”
The issue of civilian deaths in Iraq was something Dr. Roberts knew well. In 2004, he led one of the first estimates based on a scientific survey of households conducted—at no small peril to investigators—throughout Iraq. (Unlike the students’ study, Dr. Roberts’ team selected their households by random.) He and his co-authors, including Richard Garfield, a professor at both Columbia’s School of Nursing and the Mailman School, found 100,000 excess deaths since the start of the war, most from violence; results appeared in The Lancet in 2004. A follow-up study in 2006, co-authored by Dr. Roberts and also appearing in The Lancet, found the number had swelled to 650,000 civilians dead from war-related causes. Both reports were politically controversial but widely seen by researchers as the most reliable available data.
The findings were in stark contrast to widely publicized estimates by the British-based Iraq Body Count (IBC) project. Unlike the on-the-ground surveys used in the Lancet studies, IBC employed a passive approach, making estimates of civilian casualties based on media reports. At the time of the 2006 Lancet paper, IBC estimated 50,000 deaths; today the total is in the 110,000-120,000 range. Many in the scientific community, including Dr. Roberts, were skeptical of IBC, which they felt had drastically underestimated the deaths.
The class project had amassed evidence to support this skepticism. Subsequent classes would look at two more facets of the issue and likewise succeed in having their findings published in peer-reviewed journals.
For his 2008 class, Dr. Roberts asked his students to assess how often their hometown newspaper described a violent event in Iraq that involved a death or published estimates of civilian deaths.
“Lo and behold, my class found that there were far more than twice as many articles describing violent events in Iraq in which Americans died than there were articles describing violent events in Iraq in which an Iraqi died,” says Dr. Roberts. This was despite the fact that there were roughly 100 times more Iraqis dying.
The students also looked at five Middle Eastern newspapers. The relationship there was just the opposite. “The lesson from that study was that newspapers don't report information the way we think of data,” says Dr. Roberts. “They select information through a cultural lens that matches their time, matches their readership, and matches the sort of publicly accepted narrative.”
Findings appeared in the November 6, 2009 edition of the journal Conflict and Health.
A third student study, published this February in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, looked at reports of violent deaths of Iraqi civilians in the WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs, a collection of U.S. classified military records, and to what extent these deaths matched newspaper reports in the Iraq Body Count database. The result: nearly two-thirds of casualties in the War Logs were unaccounted for by IBC.
“What's really stunning is that these students could come to a conclusion that was the exact polar opposite of the conclusion that virtually every reporter in the world who wrote about the Wikileaks War Logs releases came to,” says Dr. Roberts.
All told, it was an A+ learning experience.
Beyond the thrill of seeing their research published, students got a chance to design and lead studies that provided new vantages on important and overlooked questions.
In fact, the three papers account for a large amount of what is known about Iraqi civilian casualties, representing a full third of peer-reviewed papers cited in a recent Lancet commentary.
“The role of academia,” says Dr. Roberts, “is to teach tomorrow's generation of thinkers and to grapple with issues in society where somehow thought has failed us. The more society is ill-informed or illogical, the more our skills are needed.”