A recent editorial reminded me of the problems of estimating army sizes. Many ancient armies were not divided into neat units of uniform size, they did not have a central quartermaster’s service or staff which tracked numbers, and as Thucydides reminds us everyone lied about the strength of their own forces. Reporters who want to estimate the size of a demonstration face similar problems and rhetorical pressures (chose a high number to shock, or a low one to dismiss? Trust the police or the protestors? Base it on whether the crowd seemed larger or smaller than one whose size you ‘know’?) Like ancient historians, modern reporters don’t always give a source for their numbers, but when people ask them they tend to be frank:
It is not a question of “fabricating,” as the reader suggests, but trying to give your best guess. Some people are good at counting numbers of people in a grid and then extrapolating that to the larger size crowd. If you try that, you will often find a smaller number than your initial estimate.
In this case, as in the case of Ford Fest, an exact number is impossible. Estimates from event organizers are invariably, and not unexpectedly, generous while others may have an interest in playing down the number.
I think the first question is, do you really need an estimate of the crowd size? If so, it is better to ask the police for their best estimate and attribute that number to them.
– Sylvia Stead, “Public Editor: Crowd Estimate Depends on Your Point of View,” The Globe and Mail.
On a smaller scale, I have noticed that the number of migrants said to have been found in a container at Tilbury Dock has grown from 31 to 35 in successive BBC stories (low count and high count).
A recent interview on the Science for the People podcast discussed a book on rumours and ethnic stereotypes in epidemics. While modern societies are very different from ancient ones, many historians will recognize a few similarities with Thucydides’ account of the plague at Athens or Procopius on the plague under Justinian. The episode is available here.
Lastly, there is a faculty strike in Ghana over the government’s unilateral replacement of their book and research allowance. Since academics in poor countries lack resources both to do research and to make their difficulties known, it only seems fair to mention this, although I will link press releases by the union and the government.