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More on Obama's Crowd Numbers: A Conversation with the Berlin Police

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My previous post on Obama's Berlin crowd numbers has been discussed on many blogs and internet forums. In such discussions, the most common response of those defending the widely-cited 200,000 number is that it comes, after all, from the Berlin police department and the latter can hardly be suspected of colluding with the Obama campaign. (See, for instance, the lengthy discussion on Michelle Malkin's blog here and the numerous comments of one "chapoutier.")

In German, this sort of attitude is called Autoritätsgläubigkeit -- faith in authority -- and in German history, it has not always led to the best consequences.

Be that as it may, I yesterday contacted the press office of the Berlin police department to ask if the police was prepared to embrace the 200,000 estimate that has been attributed to it by several news organizations. "More than 200,000," I was told. When, however, I asked whether this was, then, the "official estimate" of the Berlin police, I was told rather that it was the number established by the police "with the organizers of the event" -- i.e. the Obama team.

As explained to me, moreover, the method used to arrive at the figure involved nothing more elaborate than assuming a given number of persons per square meter - four was mentioned as a maximum number - and extrapolating over the surface of the "fan mile." The problem with this procedure is that, as the visual evidence clearly reveals, the density of the crowd was by no means uniform. Four persons per square meter may well be a realistic assumption for the some several hundred meters closest to the stage: i.e. those several hundred meters that, perhaps not coincidentally, are the focus of virtually all the iconic images of the Obama crowd. But the density along the half of the boulevard closest to the Brandenburg Gate, where people were milling about at a seemingly comfortable distance from one another, was clearly far less. (For more visual evidence of the thinning of the crowd, see the Reuters photo here.)

In short, regardless of the estimate of the Berlin police -- and regardless of just why the Berlin police chose to produce this estimate in consultation with the Obama campaign -- to arrive at a credible figure, people will have to do the math for themselves.