Tuesday 20 September 2022

Silly numbers and extraordinary claims


Interpreting crowds is never easy, not least because in any crowd there are likely to be many different reasons for the participation of individuals. In 2019, it was estimated that more than 100,000 people joined a march through the streets of Edinburgh in support of Scottish independence. The march was regarded as a huge success by its organisers and gave a huge fillip to independentistas in Scotland. In the same way, marches here in Wales attended by thousands, even if not (yet) on the same scale as those in Scotland have encouraged independentistas here as well. It’s important, though, to put the numbers in context: 100,000 is around 1.8% of the Scottish population (for a Welsh march to achieve the same level would require around 54,000 marchers), and given that it’s a self-selecting subset, it tells us little about what the other 98% think on the issue. Projecting numbers of marchers into an assumption of majority support for their aim is a risky business, to say the least. No matter how impressive the sight might be, no assembly of people can, in itself, tell us much about the opinions of those who are not present. For that, we need opinion polls – as well as real polls at election time.

The same is true – although from the media coverage, one wouldn’t know it – about the huge crowds turning out to watch the monarch’s coffin on its progress from the place of death to its final resting place. Motives for doing so vary. In addition to monarchists, fans of individual royals and lovers of pageantry, vox pops have shown a good sprinkling of republicans as well as others who just felt that the event was historic and wanted to be in some way part of it. Projecting that into an outpouring of love for the Union, and claiming that those taking part are an entirely representative sample of the population as a whole is as silly as claiming that 100,000 marchers for independence are entirely representative of the Scottish population. That hasn’t stopped the unionists, though. To them, the crowds are a clear indication that the idea of Scottish (and Welsh) independence is finished; a dream relegated to the past. We should probably be grateful for the over-simplicity of their analysis and the resultant complacency which it engenders but certainly should not believe it.

At the weekend, there was one estimate that, as well as the huge numbers turning out to physically watch the coffin being moved from one place to another, around 4.1 billion people – more than half the world’s population – would tune in to watch the funeral. I don’t know how they’ve calculated that and I’d like to see their workings, but it reminded me of my old maths teacher talking about the importance of subjecting the result of any calculation to the ‘common sense’ test. By that he meant asking the question ‘does it feel right’? And it simply doesn’t. The best estimate that I’ve seen suggests that of the world’s population of around 7.8 billion, around 5.4 billion are television watchers (in around 1.7 billion households with a tv). We can probably discount most of the 1.4 billion Chinese (where an astonishing close to 100% have access to a television), to say nothing of the 144 million Russians or 84 million Iranians, as well as a goodly proportion of the 1.4 billion Indians and 220 million Pakistanis (the latter of which have other things on their minds at the moment, although one would scarcely noticed from television news reports). There are other places one could add to the list; the point is that, if 4.1 billion of those remaining were glued to their tv sets, it means that rather more than 100% of those with both the facilities and desire to watch proceedings had to have been tuned in.

Like many estimates of the numbers in a crowd, the number is obviously something of an over-statement. Does it matter? In itself, no, not really. The basic fact is that there would have been a very large audience; there was no need to exaggerate that by putting a silly number on it.  As even most republicans must surely acknowledge, the event was a historically significant one – more so for the UK than for any other part of the world, although numbers never reached 100% here. The number does, though, tell us something though about those English nationalist exceptionalists and their belief that what happens on these offshore islands must be equally significant for everyone else as well. And it isn’t just about the belief itself; it’s about the fact that they have a desperate need to believe in their own country’s specialness. One of the best illustrations came from the Speaker of the House of Commons who made the truly extraordinary claim that the funeral of the Queen will be “the most important event the world will ever see”.  That it is a highly significant occasion for the UK cannot be doubted. It marks the end of an era, and it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of that. But “ever”, and for the “world”? That indicates the very exaggerated sense of self-importance which is sadly endemic amongst our rulers. They have a deep need to exaggerate the importance of their little corner of the world and what happens here; everything has to be portrayed as world-leading or world-beating. Being a large and important event isn’t enough: it has to be the largest and most important to validate their own self-belief. It is an essential element of their deeply nationalistic ‘non-nationalism’ that everything about their country is both the best and the most important. As with so much that happens in the UK these days, mere facts will never be allowed to get in the way of such self-aggrandisement.


Anonymous said...

No need for queues. Plenty of online free ticketing platforms could have made it so easy and not forced people to stand in line overnight.

John Dixon said...

Of course. Or they could have been given timed armbands when joining the queue and told to come back at the time shown. But would people have properly understood their place in the order of things if they weren't forced to wait for many hours?

Jonathan said...

Crowds: people called D.Trump a liar. I have fact-checked him quite carefully. The only time I caught him out was when he exaggerated the size of the crowd at his Inauguration. But then he's American, and they do talk big.
As for anti or non-monarchist sentiment. I have been struck by the fact that, of the people I have spoken to in N.Pembs (who include lots of middle-of-the-roaders) noone was planning to watch the show on tv. Even my Clerk to Chambers, a dyed-in-the-wool SE England Tory, turned the show off in the end. Like most I know, I spent the Monday wording

dafis said...

The tendency to exaggerate, to claim a superiority, the over use of terms like world leading, best in class, biggest ever ...etc is symptomatic of an insecurity bordering on a failure to grow up. It is now at epidemic levels among certain types of Brit Nat anglo centric dope. Often these people have received a high level of education but do not seem to have benefitted from it. Will such a deeply embedded view of things ever get erased ?

Spirit of BME said...

Rats!!!! Gutted!! I missed it all,-had to sort out my sock-draw.