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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.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.