“Opinions Vary About Shape of Earth”

The LA Times blows the DC-crowd-size story by embracing the “it’s all a matter of opinion” fallacy.

That’s Brad DeLong’s parody of the sort of “objective” journalism that treats matters of fact as if they were matters of mere opinion; he imagines that headline over a story about a claim that the Earth is flat.

Below is an actual headline and subhead from today’s LA Times.

Crowd estimates vary wildly for Capitol march

How many angry conservatives showed up to protest Obama’s policies? Was it 2 million? Or 60,000? It all depends on whom you ask

Lincoln understood this habit, and struggled against it:

How many legs does a lamb have, if you call the tail as a leg?

Just four.  Calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it one.

How many angry conservaties showed up does not depend on whom you ask.  It depends on how many angry conservatives actually showed up.  And the actual number was clearly well south of 100,000.

Now the particular question of how many showed up doesn’t matter very much.   But writing the story this way rewards lying.  The most important thing for readers to learn from this incident is that the current wingnut leadership lies like a rug.  (Glenn Beck has now further inflated the numbers, attributing a new estimate to “a university” whose name he can’t recall.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on ““Opinions Vary About Shape of Earth””

  1. Wrote a letter to the editor expressing my disappointment with the article. Here's hoping it means something.

  2. And we know that the "actual number was clearly well south of 100,000" because that fits with Mark's priors. Oh, and a spokesman for the Washington DC Fire Department offered a number well south of 100,000 as his estimate, an estimate which, according to the department, he wasn't authorized to make or provide, and an estimate for which there's no reason to think he has any expertise.

    And then there's expert, who provides his estimate based on…press reports! Well, that's one way of approaching the problem. Maybe we can have another expert give his estimate based on tweets and blog reports.

    Lessons to be learned: Glenn Beck isn't to be trusted. Also, neither is Mark.

  3. Mark,

    The article you mock is about the controversy (and right-wing hot air) over how many people attended the rally. It is not, explicitly, about how many people actually attended the rally. This article seems like a perfectly legimitate way to report on a fiery debate occuring in the political sphere at present.

  4. Lessons to be learned: Glenn Beck isn’t to be trusted. Also, neither is Mark.

    Seeing the cotter pins way up the hill and the wheels on the little red wagon wobbling dangerously, the wailing kid in the wagon grasps for anything to keep the wheels from falling off.

  5. Thomas, why should Dan offer a defense of the indefensible? It seems to me you're making a valiant effort yourself.

  6. Thomas, that "well south of 100,000" is possibly a somewhat strident claim, though no objective reporting has contradicted it. In situations such as this, it's not really possible to know for certain.

    Just one question: which do you think is closer to the truth, "well south of 100,000", or 2 million? And what does that say about the relative credibility of the people making those respective claims?

  7. As someone who lives in DC, let me just mention that there were somewhere between one and two million extra people in town for the inauguration; I've heard the figure 1.2 million. The town was practically shut down, it took hours to get on the metro, there were people EVERYWHERE.

    Beck's rally didn't even fill most of the capitol mall. (By the way: Flags were at full mast last Saturday. Pictures showing a full Mall, allegedly from 9/12/09, show them at half mast. Also, they don't show the tents for the 24th Annual Black Family Reunion, which was also happening that day).

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