Friday, May 27, 2016

We Got More Numbers Than You, Neener, neener!

(re-post from my other blog, the now-defunct Facile Nation, 9/19/2009)

There’s a political jockeying over numbers of participants at rallies & events – who knew?! *I* didn’t know (stop laughing at me; it’s not nice) (actually, go right a head and laugh, I’m laughing myself) until a friend posted a link on Facebook and I responded with a link and she countered with better data. So in poked around and found out it really was better data and that lead me to learning a whole bunch of interesting stuff about demonstrations and rallies and events held in Washington D.C.

First, the National Park Service used to provide official crowd estimates but no longer, not since Louis Farrakhan threatened to sue them over their estimate of 400,000 attendees at his Million Man March. This lead Farrakhan to approach Dr. Farouk El-Baz of Boston University* to provide a more favorable estimate: 837,000 +/- 20% (20% seems like a large margin of error but maybe that’s standard; remains to be seen). Check out Boston University’s account.

Second, there were lots of excited estimates of how many people would attend the inauguration of President Obama during the last few months of 2008. These ranged from 2 million to 5 million persons. The early estimate of the size of the crowd on January 20, 2009, was 1.8 million which was later halved (no longer online).

Third, Jane’s (the intel source) does IHS satellite analysis of such crowds and they estimated the PBHO inauguration crowd as 1.031 million and 1.411 million people present (not including the 240,000 ticket holders presumed present – why they aren’t included in the visual count, I don’t know). There’s an interesting article from a St. Louis newspaper (no longer online) which cites the L.A. Times article linked above (no longer online) as well as other sources.

Fourth, people use these estimates to support their position or discredit the opposing position. That’s the part that hadn’t occurred to me. Actually, the fact that estimates have such massive fluctuations hadn’t occurred to me, either. It would be instructive to notice when various media outlets consistently use low-ball estimates for one group and higher estimates for another.

That’s actually the part that’s most weird to me: I can’t understand wanting bad data or being comforted by bad data. I have no problem that we have different views and opinions — that goes with being human and it’s always helpful to me to hear a different POV — it makes me consider my position: is this a position I hold out of habit? Have the facts on the ground changed? Is my philosophical underpinning sound?

So I don’t understand why anyone would keep bad data (e.g. the “Dan Barna of NPS” quotes re: 9/12 protest march which actually referred to the PBHO inauguration) up on their website without updating it or correcting it as soon as reasonably possible. To me, that impacts the credibility of the source because either they don’t care about the real facts, wherever the bad data originated, or they’re not responding to challenges or they’re not sufficiently connected with what’s “out there” (in which case, what kind of source are they?!). I dig around a little but almost everything I find is on the first or second page of my searches; I’ll refine my searches when I discover that I’ve aimed badly (!!) but I’m not searching by ideology. Here’s a blog which reports a lot of varying data, appropriately linked, and I appreciate that (check out the Gormogons link; it’s very entertaining, especially after the UPDATE).

Sometimes it’s really hard to tell what’s going on in real time and I think it’s inappropriate to accuse folks of lying when in fact they may simply be passing along reportage “in the moment” which later changes. Websites change, stories get updated, numbers are adjusted one way or the other. MSNBC made a pretty good on-site report and their local folks estimated hundreds of thousands.

Perhaps the whole “mine’s bigger than yours” contest should be seen as essentially adolescent in nature – and yet in a democratic society, numbers do matter. If you can marginalize the “other side” by dismissing their events as fringe, well…

And I presume goodwill on the part of others, at least until I discover someone is playing fast & loose or holds a very different view regarding the importance of accuracy in data. So – thanks for being my friend! And thanks for not laughing too loud.

You can stop sniggering now…

*Throughout his career, Dr. El-Baz has succeeded in conveying the excitement of scientific research and the importance of using advanced technology. One of his efforts resolved the 1995 controversy about the crowd size in Washington DC’s “Million Man March”. He estimated the number of participants in the march using the same computer techniques applied to counting sand dunes in the desert. From Boston University’s webpage on Dr. El-Baz Farouk.

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