Politics & Policy

Going to War with the Numbers

Murtha's suspect, university-outsourced stats.

As Rich Lowry wrote last week, Rep. John Murtha spent the last few weeks leading House Democrats in a “cynical,” “‘slow-bleed’” antiwar offensive by attaching absurd conditions to the funding of an American troop surge in the war in Iraq. Murtha argues that here there can only be a political, not military solution, as though it has no effect on the political process whether Shia militias are murdering Sunnis unchecked or laying low to avoid the surge. In a howler, he maintains that if we leave, “al Qaeda’s going to disappear.” Maybe if we spread pixie dust and close our eyes?

But Murtha also has been trying to justify his anti-surge strategy by propagating the notion that the Iraqis want U.S. forces out of their country. To this end he keeps regurgitating statistics according to what he calls “the latest polls.” The congressman’s message, according to Zev Chafets?

Look at how many Sunnis want U.S. forces out, how many Shiites approve of killing Americans, how many Iraqis disapprove of their own leaders . . I’ve got the numbers right here, scientific as a Con Ed meter reading and twice as authoritative.

Who are the meter-readers upon whom Murtha relies to validate his pitch? Herein a tangled tale:

The survey Murtha quotes was published last September by the Center on Policy Attitudes, a small think tank affiliated with the University of Maryland, “partnered” by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.

…neither Brookings nor the University of Maryland actually did any polling. They contracted the job out to a U.S. firm, D3 Systems — which subcontracted it to KA Research. Matt Warshaw, a D3 spokesman, says KA Research is owned by Iraqis and Turks, but isn’t prepared to name them.

Chafets went on to critique the survey: It is based on dated statistics and on claims of interpersonal types of interviews difficult to imagine successfully conducting under the present circumstances in Iraq; also, there have been no real outside verification of KA’s data.

Murtha and his fellow Democrats’ antiwar offensive has life-and-death consequences for the citizens of Iraq, our troops at war there, and for this nation’s security. Campuses, think tanks, and others who provide the foundation for the arguments underlying this offensive — and all other such stances relating to our and world security — have the strictest responsibility to ensure that their research is strongly evidence-based.

In the present instance, political and higher-education leaders should demand that the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution immediately account, fully and clearly, for the veracity of Murtha’s data as well as for the methodology by which they were derived. (Murtha himself is not likely to take up this challenge.) Moreover, there is a gaping need for more across-the-board reporting by our universities and other research entities on the content and quality of both their own research and that which they outsource.

The processes of academic peer review historically intended to ensure such quality are in disarray and often fail. We can no longer tolerate their laxity and apparent manipulation by ruthless partisans such as Murtha, above all when war outcomes and our future well-being hang in the balance.

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