Trump Inauguration: (Crowd) Size Matters, So Who's Lying?

Not since “dressgate” has an optical illusion caused so much havoc.

Posted Jan 23, 2017

Facts matter. The truth matters. In general, it’s better to have true beliefs rather than false and (as Jamie Whyte says in Crimes Against Logic), “If someone is interested in believing the truth, then she will not take the presentation of contrary evidence and argument as some kind of injury.” (p. 16). That said, some truths are more important than others—and whether Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s shouldn’t be an important issue. After all, why wouldn’t it be? Obama’s was the biggest crowd ever by leaps and bounds; Obama was the first African-American president and people are more apt to show up to witness historic events. The size of Trump’s crowd doesn’t tell us about what policies he is going to enact from the Oval Office and I’d much rather talk about what Trump is going to do (or not do) regarding climate change and education.

But Trump has managed to make the size of his inauguration crowd one of the most important issues on the planet now. How? Because he not only claimed, beforehand, that his would be bigger than Obama’s—he seems to be refusing to admit that it wasn’t. Indeed, he instructed his new press secretary (Sean Spicer) to say Trump’s crowd actually was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” and to scold the media for publishing stories and evidence to the contrary. This included pictures that compared Obama’s and Trump’s crowd size that Spicer said “were intentionally framed in a way… to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.” Indeed, both Trump and Spicer claimed that the crowd went all the way back to the Washington Monument; Spicer even flanked himself with photos that supposedly proved it. To boot, Spicer threatened that Trump would begin to circumvent the media, and “take his message directly to the American people,” if the media continued with this kind of “dishonesty.” Worse still, when pressed on Meet The Press with evidence that Spicer was stating “falsehoods,” Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer was just presenting “alternate facts” and indicated that if the media doesn’t stop lying about the Trump administration, they may “have to rethink our relationship here.”

It seems that the Trump administration is trying to use this incident to justify cutting off the press—perhaps to even establish its own news network (akin to the government run “news” stations that citizens of Russia and North Korea enjoy). So determining who is lying here is really important. If Trump actually had the biggest inauguration crowd in history and the media is covering it up, that’s a serious problem. The media has a moral obligation to hold those in power accountable, but it must do so by telling the truth. But if the Trump administration is telling demonstrable outright lies and threatening to circumvent the media because it is correcting them, that is chilling. Without hyperbole, that is the kind of thing that ruthless dictators do.

Forty years ago (almost to the day), my favorite Sci-fi hero The Doctor reminded us that “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views.” So who is altering the facts to fit their view? Is Trump lying, or is the media lying, about the size of Trump’s crowd?

What the media is saying

Spicer suggested that the media reports about the crowd’s size were a lie because the Park Service didn’t offer up any numbers. If you listen to Kellyanne Conway, we really have no way of knowing. "I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or another. There's no way to quantify crowd numbers." But not only is this a seeming appeal to ignorance (and if the administration really thought this was true, they should just say they don’t know whose crowd was bigger and leave it at that), this is simply false. While it would be virtually impossible to get an exact count, there is a science to estimating the size of crowds—and according to the experts, there were (at most) 600,000 at Trump’s inauguration and 1.8 million at Obama’s.

Another way to estimate crowd size is to figure out how many people used the D.C. Metro. According to Spicer, “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit (on Trump's inaugural day), which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.” (Notice that he is comparing Trump's numbers to Obama's second inaugural, which was smaller than his first.) He didn’t provide a source for where he got these numbers, but according to the WMATA (Washington Metropolotian Area Transit Authority) they are not accurate. The numbers for metro ridership actually break down like this:

              By 11am: Obama's 1st, 513,000 / Obama's 2nd, 317,000, Trump's 193,000

              All day: Obama's 1st, 1,100,000 / Obama's 2nd, 782,000, Trump's 570,557

But, of course, this is all according to the media—and the reliability of the media is part of the question here. Is there any way we could just tell for ourselves?

Well, not exactly. Although there is photographic evidence, it was provided by (at some stage) the media. So unless you took the pictures yourself, you can’t know (for sure) that they weren’t altered. But the Trump administration isn’t claiming that they were altered; they admit that they are real pictures. They just say they are misleading. And they’ve provided their own photographic evidence that seems to contradict the media’s. So with a little basic logic and critical thinking, I think we can get to the bottom of this. Whose pictures are misleading?

Javier Zarracina/Vox
Source: Javier Zarracina/Vox

The photographic evidence and that pesky white building.

By now you’ve seen the side by side comparison of Obama and Trump’s crowd. (CNN even has a fun one you were you can slide back and forth between the images.) As you can see, it seems to clearly show that Obama’s crowd was much bigger. But there are a number of excuses that have been floating around to suggest that comparing these photos is misleading.

Some claim that the pictures were taken at different times of day. If the Trump picture was taken, say, at 7am, but Obama’s picture was taken at noon (right when the swearing-in happens), comparing the two pictures wouldn’t really be fair. But the picture of Trump’s crowd was taken only 26 minutes earlier than Obama’s (11:04 vs. 11:30). There is no way enough people showed up in 26 minutes to surpass the size of Obama’s crowd. Indeed, we know they didn’t because a time lapse video of the entire event shows that at no time did Trump’s crowd size approach anything close to Obama’s.

Now again, Spicer didn’t dispute their authenticity, but instead claimed that they were misleading because “This was the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual.” But while it’s true that no floor coverings were used in 2009 for Obama’s inauguration, in order for this to be evidence that Trumps crowd surpassed Obama's, you have to think that “people” and “grass” in the Obama picture are indistinguishable. That’s clearly not the case. Large portions of the mall that are clearly empty in the Trump picture are clearly packed with people in the Obama picture.

But what about that picture that Spicer displayed that seemed to show a crowd that stretched all the way back to the Washington Monument?

White House
Source: White House

Indeed, this picture has been making the rounds on social media with captions like “This is the real picture. Why does the media continue to push a false narrative?” On CNN, you can even find a 360 high resolution mega pixel photo that suggests that the above circulated photo is not altered and represents something very much like what Trump would have seen as he took the oath.

Ironically, however, it is this photo that is highly misleading (although not intentionally) and it is so for more than one reason. First of all, while we can easily compare the size of two crowds and see which is bigger, our native ability to estimate a crowd’s size by simply looking is highly inaccurate; and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is. This is why Trump’s assertion that he saw “like a million, million and a half people’ isn’t reliable evidence. (Notice that his own margin of error is half a million people!) Indeed, it’s well known that looking straight on at a crowd is a highly inaccurate way to estimate its numeric size. Our depth perception is not that reliable when it comes to long distances, and the more straight-on you are looking, the easier it is to miss blank spots in the crowd (and misperceive its size and density). And while this photo is not straight on, it clearly has a lot of depth. What you need is an overhead shot that essentially presents a flat image (like the split images above). Indeed, only if you zoom in on CNN 360 Mega Pixel version do you see the bare spots in the crowd that are easily seen in the above overhead photos.

CNN 360 Mega Pixel
Source: CNN 360 Mega Pixel

Second of all (and much more importantly), the photo does not show the crowd going all the way back to the Washington monument—it goes back to a wide white building. That long white building (as far as I can tell) is new (it certainly wasn’t there during Obama’s inauguration). I don’t know what it is called, but it’s placement makes all the difference as to whether or not one can rightly say that Trump’s crowd stretched all the way back to the Washington Monument. As the CNN Mega Pixel photo above shows, you can see the Washington Monument and its flags behind that building, but because of the perspective you can’t tell how much distance there is between that building and the monument.

It took a while, but I finally found a picture that clearly depicts where that building lies.

 Lucas Jackson, Stelios Varias
Source: Reuters: Lucas Jackson, Stelios Varias

As you can see, it lies right beyond “the curve” on the right. According to this official map of the mall, that curve is created by the Smithsonian (14), which places the white building on the walkway between The National Museum of American History Museum (2) and The National Museum of Natural History (3). This means that there are still four large sections of grass behind that building, before you even get to the area in front of the Washington Monument. Now, the picture also shows that two of those grass areas are also covered by white buildings—but even if they are packed full of people, there is no way there are as many people as there were during Obama’s inauguration on those same sections of grass.

So it’s demonstrably the case that not only was Obama’s crowd denser than Trump’s, but it went much further back on the mall. Clearly Trump’s crowd was not the biggest ever.

Conclusion: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Donald J. Trump, Jan 11, 2017.

This means that the media is not lying about the size of Trump’s crowd, and the Trump administration’s outrage on this matter is completely unjustified. Now, to be fair, I can understand how it may have looked to Trump, from his perspective during the inauguration, that the crowd went all the way back to the Washington Monument. Indeed, if you compare  what Obama and Trump would have seen from their perspective, they don’t look that different.

White House
Source: White House

The distance, that white building…it essentially created an optical illusion for Trump. But I know that Trump has seen the photos from the other perspective; he’s talked about them. And Trump now has access to all the resources of the White House: surely he has the ability to evaluate the evidence as well as I can from my living room. So he knows his crowd wasn’t as big as Obama’s.

This can only mean that the Trump administration is not only knowingly and willfully lying about verifiably false things, they are commanding the media to repeat their lies or lose access to the White House.

Instead of elaborating on how worrisome this is, I will simply leave you with a quote. 

"The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command." - George Orwell, “1984"

Update: I was able to convince a Trump supporter, who had posted Spicer's picture as evidence of media dishonesty, with the evidence I presented here. He admitted that he was wrong  and that Trump's crowd was smaller. The exchange was pleasant overall. He deleted the original post, along with the entire thread, in under an hour.

Update: According to PBS, "On Tuesday, the president tweeted a photograph from the inauguration taken from an angle that accentuated the crowd and said he planned to hang the image in the press area of the White House." This indicates that Trump may not be intentionally lying but instead may actually believe his crowd was bigger (merely based on the evidence of his own experience). While some may think this is more comforting, this is actually worse than him intentionally lying. Not only does he seem oblivious to the shortcomings of personal experience (which can easily lead one astray), he is either unable to unwilling to revise his belief in light of contrary evidence. In other words, he always trusts his own experience over and above evidence. Not only does this mean that he can never realize when he is wrong about something, but it means that he is prone to delusion--and he is threatening to cut off the media if they contradict his delusions. 

Copyright, David Kyle Johnson 2017

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