The article in Science reports that Gilbert Burnham, the chief Hopkins researcher, disputes the Oxford-Holloway team's premise. He says some side streets "were included" in the sample and that "the methods section of the published paper is oversimplified." When the Science reporter asked Burnham to specify how many such streets were included, Burnham replied "that he does not know exactly how the Iraqi team conducted its survey; the details about neighborhoods surveyed were destroyed 'in case they fell into the wrong hands and could increase the risks to residents.' "
I sent Burnham an e-mail asking him about this point. He replied:
I did not ever tell the writer from Science that the raw data have been destroyed. Absolutely NOT! It is sitting right here! What I did say is that our Iraqi colleagues are very concerned about security, not just theirs but the neighborhoods they surveyed. They have asked us for the moment not to release the data to others as there might be some identifiers there. I am sure that we can remove any unique identifiers, but I am bound to honor their requests, as they have staked so much in collecting the data. We will be discussing this over time with our Iraqi colleagues, and I would imagine that in due course we can make it available to those interested.
I wrote back, saying I was puzzled. "Identifiers" are often coded in survey data so identities can be kept secret. Didn't anybody do that here? He replied:
Under human subjects regulations we could not keep unique identifiers, so we limited the information collected—such as street and house numbers. The team did not write down information on the forms on the specific decision making process for each location. (Italics added.)
If I understand this statement correctly, I'm astonished. It sounds as if he's saying he didn't destroy the data because they never existed in the first place. If that's the case, how does Burnham know whether his instructions on methodology were followed at all? How can anyone verify the findings? And this is a peer-reviewed article. Who were these peers? And what did they review?
Burnham did not write back to my subsequent requests. The other main author, Les Roberts, did not respond to any of my e-mails.