A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

a numbers game: the Beirut protests

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 10, 2006

Having left for the archives at 7:45 this morning, I was anxious to find out the latest news from Beirut. No big news yet, but as always I was intrigued by the widely varying accounts of the size of the crowd gathered downtown.

These three articles appeared directly following one another when I searched Google News:

Beirut anti-government rally draws thousands
MSNBC – 12 minutes ago
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Thousands of Hezbollah-led protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Sunday, demanding Prime Minister Fuad Saniora cede some power to the

Beirut security tightens as protests continue
CBC News, Canada – 13 minutes ago
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Beirut on Sunday, taking part in a prolonged Hezbollah-led campaign to force the Lebanese government to

Throng gathers in Beirut to pressure government
Washington Post, United States – 17 minutes ago
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged central Beirut on Sunday ahead of a rally called by the Hezbollah-led opposition, escalating

Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. I understand that crowd estimation is a difficult task, but surely there is an element of wishful thinking involved in some of these estimates – like “if we make it low enough, this problem will go away”, or “if we make it high enough, we will get better placement for this news article”.

(In addition to scientific studies, there are several recent articles covering the issue of crowd size in a US context. Here is one I found particularly interesting, published in May by the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Immigration Demonstrations: Figures A Big Debate

by David Kihara

The May 1 immigration demonstration that shut down southbound traffic on the Strip might have been a highly unusual event in Las Vegas, but the debate over how many people took part in it is typical of any demonstration, experts said.

The Metropolitan Police Department continues to stick to its estimate of 8,000 people, while organizers of the demonstration contend there were at least 10 times that many people.

How could the estimates be so different?

“This is a traditional issue in crowd counting,” said Dr. Joel Best, sociology professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists.”

“It could be the Promise Keepers or gay rights. The organizers often have larger numbers than the police. It’s one of those regularities of behavior.”

From the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s to the Million Man March in the 1990s, the police often are accused of low-balling the number of protesters while the organizers of the demonstration are accused of inflating the numbers to show greater support for their cause, he said.

“If you are organizing a march or a demonstration, you have a clear interest in saying we did a good job and got a lot of people out there,” Best said. “Probably the people who are doing this are sincere.”

On the other hand, many feared that police underestimated the numbers of anti-war protesters in the 1960s to discredit them, he said.

But Clark McPhail, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the nation’s authorities on estimating crowds, said less sinister reasons might exist why police have lower estimates for crowds than the organizers: Officers know the area better and have more experience in estimating crowd numbers.

“They have some sense of relative size,” McPhail said, adding that police might ask themselves, “Is it as big as the one we saw last year?”

Both McPhail and Best declined to estimate the size of the crowd for the demonstration down the Strip but suggested using some accepted methods for calculating marches.

One is to count the number of people in one row and then count the number of rows that pass from the starting position, McPhail said.

Review-Journal photographs taken of parts of the march showed about 25 people in each row.

Time stamps on photos and eyewitness accounts indicate that the marchers were passing a starting point at a rate of one row per second, and it took 45 minutes for the entire crowd to pass that starting point. That would equate to 63,000 people.

That estimate, like those from the immigration coalition and Police Department, is far from definitive.

“Any calculation is not 100 percent accurate,” Best said.


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