Splitting the Difference
It’s no secret I love science, but sometimes the conclusions arrived at by science go against the grain of personal experience and conventional wisdom. When it does, many people are unwilling to believe the science, and dismiss it as intentionally misleading or biased. Case in point: Glenn Beck’s Rally a couple weeks ago.
How many people are in the crowd?
On August 28th, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Glenn Beck tweaked the press as he surveyed the crowd attending his “Restoring Honor” rally because he knew the truth. As he said later, “We’ll have aerial photography here shortly on the numbers, but I can tell you that it was in the hundreds of thousands. Let’s be on the low end, 300,000, and maybe as high as 650,000.”
But Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann at her own post-Beck rally disagreed. “We’re not going to let anybody get away with telling us there were fewer than a million people ’cause we were here. We are witnesses!” Crowd estimates flew overhead like the geese over the rally. ABC News went with 100,000 plus, NBC News with some 300,000, and NPR with tens of thousands. Meanwhile, CBS News actually paid for some research and arrived at a figure between 80 and 90,000. Stephen Doig helped calculate it by using aerial photos.
A bunch of media outlets went with rough estimates. People supporting Beck’s positions went with higher numbers, detractors went with lower numbers. But one news organization actually decided to use some science, and arrived at somewhere between 80 and 90,000. Plenty of people weren’t happy with this number. Steven Doig, who used statistical methods to make an estimate of the crowd size was attacked:
Well, obviously I must be a liberal dupe who was paid to underestimate it and, of course, others on the other side of the ideological stream said, oh, yes, you know, obviously you’re doing very scientific methods and clearly that’s very good.
That really amuses me because 18 months or 20 months ago I did the Obama estimate. I came up with a number of around 800,000 being there on the mall for the inauguration. That number was lower than the pre-event predictions, some of which were laughably high, like five million. So my prediction then became embraced by those who didn’t really want to see Obama draw a big crowd and was sort of ignored by supporters.
So, exactly the same methods predicted exactly the opposite reaction from the different ends of the political stream.
The folks at On The Media have been doing a bunch of great reporting lately on myths and fabrications in the media, both current and historic, and it’s well worth listening. What gets me most about this Glenn beck rally thing is how the main stream media dealt with it. It’s understandable that political operatives would try to spin the results – they have a particular ax to grind. But other media outlets just split the difference. When OTM interviewed Dan Keating of the Washington Post how they dealt with it, he basically said they just threw all the estimates into the air, and let them fall on readers minds where the would:
DAN KEATING: I believe we’ve made reference to Glenn Beck’s number. I believe we’ve made reference to Michele Bachmann’s million number, and I believe we may have made reference to the number that CBS derived.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if they just gave each of those three numbers equal weight, that’s a problem. Wouldn’t the normal reader see one as the low estimate, one as the high estimate and maybe wind up with Glenn Beck’s number as the right one? And isn’t that, given that there was no science behind Glenn Beck’s number, foisting a misrepresentation upon the public in order to appear fair?
DAN KEATING: Well, I think it’s hard to completely ignore what people say. We put it in the best possible context we can. We’ll go to a lot of effort to put some science behind a number, and then it kind of goes up into the media atmosphere and gets sucked up in with every other number that people just whip off the top of their head.
And I wish there was an easy way of saying, you know, hey, my number’s better than all your numbers. But the number that we worked really hard to put a lot of facts behind sometimes loses its weight as compared to all the other numbers bandied about.
There IS a way to say one number is better: by saying it’s better, and giving the reason why. Why is that so hard?