FEW MEDICAL JOURNALS have the storied reputation of The Lancet, a British publication founded in 1823. In the course of its long history, The Lancet has published work of exceptional influence, such as Joseph Lister's principles of antiseptics in 1867 and Howard Florey's Nobel Prize-winning discoveries on penicillin in 1940. Today it is one of the most frequently cited medical journals in the world.
So naturally there was great interest when the Lancet published a study in October 2006, three weeks before the midterm US elections, reporting that 655,000 people had died in Iraq as a result of the US-led war.
Hundreds of news outlets, to say nothing of antiwar activists and lawmakers, publicized the astonishing figure, which was more than 10 times the death toll estimated by other sources. The Iraqi health ministry, for example, put the mortality level through June 2006 at 50,000. Iraq Body Count, a nonpartisan anti-war group that maintains a public database of the war's victims, tallied some 45,000 Iraqi dead. If The Lancet's number was accurate, more Iraqis had died in the two years since the US invasion than during the eight-year war with Iran.
President Bush, asked about the study, dismissed it out of hand: "I don't consider it a credible report." Tony Blair's spokesman also brushed it off as "not . . . anywhere near accurate." . . .