Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How big is your rally?

I’ve always been terrible at counting crowds. I have some innate senses that are very finely honed, like my extremely keen sense of direction. But estimating crowds? I’ve always been terrible at it and I don’t even try anymore. If someone asks me how many people were at my shul on a given Shabbat, I just shrug. I haven’t the faintest clue.

Well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. There’s an article in the NY Times today that debunks those massive crowd estimates for concerts in Central Park over the last few decades (HT:DB). James Taylor drew 250,000 people in 1979 in the Sheep Meadow? Elton John attracted 300,000 fans on the Great Lawn in 1980? In 1981, Simon & Garfunkel banished any sound of silence with 400,000 people? A whopping 750,000 devotees of Garth Brooks packed the North Meadow in 1997?

All fantasy, it turns out. On July 12, Bon Jovi played a free concert on the Great Lawn. And this time, the lawn was cordoned off, and though the concert was free, they actually individually counted the people who came in. The final tally, when the Great Lawn was filled to capacity? A paltry 48,538. Which means that Elton John’s 300,000 in the same space? Impossible.

It seems that the crowd counting till now has been more guesswork than anything else. And evidently, the “officials” who made those older estimates are no better at guesstimating crowds than I am.

All of this makes me wonder about the crowd estimates of the massive pro-Israel rally that I (and half the people I knew) attended in Washington, DC on April 15, 2002.

It looked like a huge crowd to me, but I couldn't tell from the middle how big it was. Some papers reported "tens of thousands", a couple reported "over 100,000" and the rally organizers reported over 250,000. On the bus back to NY, one guy was listening to the radio and was getting almost apoplectic over what he felt were underreported numbers, yelling "we've been robbed!"

Turns out, nobody really has any idea how many people came, though I suspect it’s closer to the “tens of thousands” reported by the press than the 250,000 reported by the rally organizers.

The lesson? There isn’t really one, I guess, except not to trust “official” crowd estimates.
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