I’ll commence with a brief review. According to Glenn Beck: using government to give aid to the poor and provide access to affordable health care to every American = dishonorable; grossly inflating the number of people who attended your white religious conservative pep rally/pity party = honorable. Everyone clear on that?
Glenn returned to his radio and television gigs on Monday, boasting that his “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday had attracted at least half a million people. Michelle Bachmann, who, in a ploy to leach Glenn’s heat worthy of Hulk Hogan (or Glenn Beck himself), held her own rally nearby immediately afterward, claimed that no less than one million people had turned out. Sarah Palin, who spoke at Beck’s rally, was, uncharacteristically, a voice of reason. She estimated over 100,000 people in the audience, which is still too high, but at least in the ballpark.
The only independent scientific estimate of the size of the “Restoring Honor” rally’s crowd was commissioned by CBS News and conducted by AirPhotosLive.com. That estimate placed the attendance at approximately 87,000 (which, as I mentioned yesterday, is nothing to be ashamed of).
That estimate was published Saturday evening, several hours after the rally had concluded. Yesterday, following Glenn’s complaints and accusations of media bias, CBS published a follow-up, explaining in detail the methodology involved in arriving at the 87,000 figure.
AirPhotosLive, which also estimated the attendance at Barack Obama’s inauguration and has been contracted by the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security, uses aerostat balloons to photograph crowds from various heights and angles, a technique which allows analysts to account for people standing under trees or behind obstacles, who might be obscured in photos taken from only one altitude or perspective. The photographs are then examined, both by experts at AirPhotosLive and independently by Stephen Doig, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, professor at Arizona State University, and crowd estimate specialist.
For the “Restoring Honor” rally, AirPhotosLive came up with a crowd of approximately 87,000, with a margin for error of 9,000. (Glenn Beck ridiculed how “specific” this estimate was.) Doig’s independent estimate was 80,000, which was not even mentioned in the original story. CBS News actually did Glenn Beck a favor, reporting only the high-end estimate.
On his television show Monday, Glenn used this Associated Press photo taken from the top of the Washington Monument as evidence for his claim that there were “hundreds of thousands” of people at his rally:
Glenn’s website, where he repeats his own 500,000 estimate several times, includes ten pages of photographs of the crowd, nearly all of which were taken from vantage points within the crowd itself and are therefore useless for ascertaining an accurate count.
Conversely, AirPhotosLive utilized over 400 separate photos taken from directly overhead at noon (the rally ran from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M.) to arrive at its estimate of 87,000, +/- 9,000.
Glenn claimed that “anyone with eyes can see this crowd was in the hundreds of thousands.” The day after the event Sarah Palin tweeted that the mainstream media was composed of “sheeple” who refused to “believe their own eyes&ears.”
But that’s just the point. Look at that AP photo again. Then look at this one:
And this one:
And this one taken from behind a banner on the stage:
Do you have any idea how many people you’re looking at? If you were to take a guess, what would you base it on? Imagine standing on the stage and looking out over a sea of people. Do you know how a crowd of 80,000 looks compared to a crowd of 500,000?
The AirPhotosLive estimate has value because it doesn’t ask you to believe your own eyes. It recognizes that in situations like this, your eyes don’t have any way of placing what you’re seeing into a helpful context. That’s why the company documented the crowd and made a careful analysis of the evidence. Glenn Beck may have a deeply held conviction that half a million people came to see him on Saturday, but it has nothing to do with reality. Knowledge of the heart loses to carefully assembled, methodically examined facts every single time.