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Splitting the Difference

September 13, 2010

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?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rachel permalink
    September 14, 2010 3:39 am

    While the unwillingness to preference a scientific estimate over a wild guess is certainly a bit frustrating, I am more troubled by the fact that we continually find the need to use numbers to “prove” something about ideas. Would a million people showing up for that speech make his hateful and ignorant rhetoric any more accurate? Should we be trying to convince people not to listen to him by informing them that not as many people as some thought were listening to him at a particular time? Not that I disagree with your point, but I think this can be viewed as a case where trying to make ideas too concrete actually distracts us from thinking about the real issues.

    • Kevin permalink*
      September 14, 2010 4:49 am

      I agree with you in principal; the number of people at the rally doesn’t say anything about the content, other than how many people agree with it. But if we can’t even get people to agree on the most basic facts, how can you expect to have a substantive conversation about the merits of Beck’s rhetoric?

      The problem is the notion that everything is up for debate, everything is he-said-she-said, and the media refuse to take sides, even when there’s pretty clearly a right answer.

      • Rachel permalink
        September 14, 2010 1:03 pm

        I totally agree with that, but I still take issue with focusing the irritation on the details rather than the issues. Of course it would be wonderful if every little piece could be accurately portrayed and discussed, but it feels a little bit like trying to decide the perfect way to take attendance before beginning to think about a decent pedagogical strategy for a class. Accepting that we don’t live in a perfect world, where does it make sense to put the energy of our frustration? I understand you’re using this as an illustrative point, and I think it does it’s job, but my own media irritation lies in a different direction.

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