There's got to be something about the Lincoln Memorial that turns everybody into liars. Last month, a day after standing just a few steps down from the grim visage of Honest Abe, Glenn Beck told a whopper: he insisted that there were half a million people at his rally
on the Washington Mall. This was wrong by about a factor of five; the most reliable estimate is that there were fewer than 100,000
. But the crown for exaggerating crowds has to go to someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum. In 1995, Louis Farrakhan conjured up an estimated 600,000 fictional mall walkers to make his Million Man March live up to its name. When Farrakhan threatened to sue the Park Service, that organization gave up on the crowd-estimation game for more than a decade.
Beck and Farrakhan aren't the only ones peddling bogus numbers. Far from it. Once you start looking for numerical nonsense, you can find it everywhere. In British Petroleum's estimates of how much oil was leaking from the Deepwater Horizon well. In the reports that our schools are steadily improving. In hundreds of dubious polls — including (allegedly) completely phony ones — that pock newspapers and websites. Fake numbers are everywhere because they're a particularly powerful form of propaganda.
People are disarmed by mathematical lies because numbers seem to have an aura of truth about them. We tend not to question their veracity. But numbers can be — and are — made to lie. Those who have figured this out are beginning to alter the way we perceive reality.
Even the simple act of counting is affected. Political meddling has ensured that we can't even tally votes properly; even worse, naked partisanship is destroying our ability to make an accurate count of our citizens. And these battles aren't just in the U.S.; politicos in the U.K. and Canada are busy trying to manipulate their censuses. In a democracy, he who controls the counting controls the populace.
It's easy to laugh at nonsense statistics and bogus formulas — such as the one that implies that female sprinters will break the sound barrier or the one that gives a recipe for the perfect butt. As silly as these examples are, the media gobble them up — and they illustrate how credulous we are when confronted with numbers that lie. And, though nobody was harmed by a Beck or a Farrakhan exaggerating the size of a crowd, our inability to spot dishonest numbers is a serious threat. It can even be a matter of life or death.