Any fool can compare irrelevant statistics.

The editors at Opinion Journal put forth their case for the success of “the surge” in Iraq:

What’s more important is to note the changes that have taken place in Iraq, all of which indicate that the “surge” is working and that we are at last on our way toward a positive military outcome. As General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker prepare their testimony to Congress later this month, it’s worth pointing to a few indicators:

I’ll get to the indicators in a moment. I just want to demonstrate how clearly the editors have stated their interpretation of the included data points.

  • There were 30 “multiple fatality” (usually suicide) bombings in August 2007. In August 2006 there were 52.
  • There were 120 daily attacks by insurgents and militias last month, down from 160 in August 2006.
  • 60,000 prisoners were being held by the U.S. and Iraq as of last month, up from 27,000 a year earlier.
  • Iraqi security forces currently number 360,000, up from 298,000 a year ago.

Regarding the first two points, is it a relevant comparison to use statistics from last August, when the surge was merely a glimmer in the Bush administration’s eye? Wouldn’t monthly statistics from just before the surge began be more informative? Or at least important for context? Regardless of the outcome, using statistics from 6 months before the surge began looks like cherry-picking.

The last statistic is rather empty, outside any other context (wages, employment opportunities, actual merit-based achievements of the security forces, to name a few), so I’m discarding it.

I find the third indicator most interesting. Merely having twice as many prisoners is a measure of success. There is no mention of findings of guilt in a court of law. They’re prisoners, which means we have 33,000 more terrorists in captivity. Allow me to be kind and say that’s incomplete. Due process, burden of proof, innocent until proven guilty? Sound familiar?

We can’t be sure that the prisoners are receiving any sort of judicial oversight, so the increased prisoner statistic is just a worthless number, although the Journal’s endorsement says much. It’s just as easy to conclude that our military is rounding people up and imprisoning them without cause. I assume the only reason we’re supposed to accept that the prisoners are justly held is because we’re America and we’re just. It’s a worthwhile assumption rooted in our history, although the Bush administration regularly demonstrates its lack of interest in continuing its practice. But even if that assumption is correct, this statistic’s current form is nothing more than propaganda.

One thought on “Any fool can compare irrelevant statistics.”

  1. “Regarding the first two points…”
    Using any statistics from a period which is not relevantly comparable to the period in question is a big no-no in statistical analysis.

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