© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite


whitefrightrallyLike clockwork, a big Washington rally is followed by a pie fight about numbers. Let’s look at two examples, one each from the left and right.

Organizers of the Million Man March in 1995 estimated as many as two million in attendance. When the U.S. Park Police put their estimate at 400,000 — a huge success by every measure but the uh, name — Louis Farrakhan threatened to sue. As a result, the Park Police no longer provide estimates.

Glenn Beck estimated the crowd at his rally last week at 500,000+. AirPhotosLive, a company commissioned by CBS News to do the estimate from the air, put it at 87,000, plus or minus 9,000.

Farrakhan claimed racial bias. Beck claimed media bias. But in both cases, it’s interesting to note that the estimates of organizers (both subject to very human confirmation bias) come in right around five times the third party estimate. I wonder if this is a known pattern.

Not long before the Beck rally, Connor (15) and I stumbled conversationally on the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes — more about that another time — and I found myself wondering about those multitudes. IF the story is based on some actual gathering, it’s fun to wonder how the numbers, reported vs. actual, would compare.

Start with the immediate fivefold increase, add at least two generations of oral transmission before the gospels are written down (each retelling with a strong incentive to make the miracle more impressive by inflation), and it’s not hard to imagine that we started with a handful of extra mouths, and the needs of the miracle drove the numbers ever-higher. It’s how folklore (and politics) works.


Aerial photo of the Jesus rally at which seven loaves and a few fish are alleged
to have fed the multitude. Organizers estimated 4,000-5,000 in attendance;
Pharisees put the number as low as 75 and note that many brought Lunchables.

Painting: Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Lambert Lombard, 16th c.



This was written on Thursday, 02. September 2010 at 11:43 and was filed under church-state separation, critical thinking, myths. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. The sentence “… the estimates of organizers (both subject to very human confirmation bias) come in right around 20 percent of the third party estimate” doesn’t sound right.

    It’s actually the 3rd party estimates that come in at 20 percent of the organizers’ estimates.

    BTW, I’m not sure if “confirmation bias” is really the right term, here. People are really crappy estimators and if you combine it with wishful thinking, that’s how the organizers arrive at their inflated numbers. I run into the exact same problem whenever I try to estimate how long a task (pretty much any task) is going to take me to finish. 🙂

    However, confirmation bias does come into play when you consider whose numbers your going to believe.

    Comment: nonplus – 02. September 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  2. @nonplus: Thanks for spotting the inverted stat! Fixed.

    As for the term, it depends on how you frame it. Two estimates are available (their own wild guess, and the third party’s estimate) and they go with the one that confirms their preference for a large turnout. A classic confirmation bias scenario to me. But whatever floats yer boat, terminologically.

    Comment: Dale – 02. September 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  3. It is interesting, isn’t it, that when a relatively impartial third party estimates the crowd at a political rally run by someone like Glenn Beck or Louis Farrakhan, it’s the third party who is accused of being biased? As if the source of the 5x inflated estimate is perfectly neutral?

    I think nonplus is correct; people are generally pretty bad at statistics and estimation, and particularly bad at estimating their own biases.

    Comment: Saganist – 02. September 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  4. Hilarious parallel!

    From a scientific standpoint, I’d always wondered (if the story were true) if Jesus honored the law of conservation of mass and energy and use materials from earth to produce the extra food, or did he just throw all physics out the window and make the food magically appear? Perhaps I’ll ask that one in my next discussion with a believer….

    Comment: BrianE – 03. September 2010 @ 8:46 am

  5. Hell, if you don’t “take physics and bin it” (as Tim Minchin said in “Storm”), what’s the point of being God?

    Comment: Dale – 03. September 2010 @ 8:54 am

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