Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Numbers Game - do the math, hacks!

The big brouhaha over the number of anti-Obama rally-goers in Washington on 9/12, with media estimates varying from "tens of thousands" up to "a couple million", is worth examining. Particularly because these days tweets can repeat and recycle erroneous estimates and the real number of aggrieved folks who attended these tea-parties gets lost in cyber-cobwebs of misinformation. The result is hysterical, not historical, statistics. Experienced reporters know that organizers tend to overestimate the turnout, while officials often underestimate crowds, at least at unticketed events.

Consider this Journalism 101 hint from the Slate website:
How do you measure a crowd?
Basic arithmetic. Estimates depend on three variables: the area of the available space, the proportion of the space that's occupied, and the crowd's density. While the first measurement is objective, and the second fairly easily determined with aerial photography, the third is a little trickier. It's customary to assume that in a very crowded place (like a commuter train during peak hours) people occupy 2.5 square feet, whereas in a looser gathering each person takes up more like 5 square feet.

For better accuracy, you also ought to consider how long the event lasted, because not every protestor stays for the duration. And a separate estimate for the security presence is helpful.
For example, at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem in 2006, police outnumbered marchers almost two to one.

Moonbats and wingnuts exchanged vitriol and snark over the disparate numbers last weekend. Most amusing was blogger Nate Silver's assessment (picked up by the Columbia Journalism Review:
There is a big difference, obviously, between 70,000 and 2,000,000. That’s not a twofold or threefold exaggeration — it’s roughly a thirtyfold exaggeration.”
The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn’t “in error”, as Malkin gently puts it [in her update to her 9/12 tea party post]. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.

Well that last statement is also hyberbole, one assumes. To reach that figure, the male apparatus under discussion would measure 1.7 inches!

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