Counting Game

People who do very unusual jobs: the man who counts then number of people at public gatherings.

MILES KINGTON writing in The Observer, 3 November 1986

You’ve probably seen his headlines, “Two million flock to see Pope.”, “200 arrested as police find ounce of cannabis.”, “Britain £3 billion in debt”. You probably wondered who was responsible for producing such well rounded-up figures. What you didn’t know was that it was all the work of one man, Rounder-Up to the media, John Wheeler. But how is he able to go on turning out such spot-on statistics? How can he be so accurate all the time?

“We can’t,” admits Wheeler blithely. “Frankly, after the first million we stop counting, and round it up to the next million. I don’t know if you’ve ever counted a papal flock, but, not only do they look a bit the same, they also don’t keep still, what with all the bowing and crossing themselves.”

“The only way you could do it accurately is by taking an aerial photograph of the crowd and handing it to the computer to work out. But then you’d get a headline saying “1,678,163 [sic] flock to see Pope, not including 35,467 who couldn’t see him”, and, believe me, nobody wants that sort of headline.”

The art of big figures, avers Wheeler, lies in psychology, not statistics. The public like a figure it can admire. It likes millionaires, and million-sellers, and centuries at cricket, so Wheeler’s international agency gives them the figures it wants, which involves not only rounding up but rounding down.

“In the old days people used to deal with crowds on the Isle of Wight principle – you know, they’d say that every day the population of the world increased by the number of people who could stand upright on the Isle of Wight, or the rain-forests were being decreased by an area the size of Rutland. This meant nothing. Most people had never been to the Isle of Wight for a start, and even if they had, they only had a vision of lots of Chinese standing in the grounds of the Cowes Yacht Club. And the Rutland comparison was so useless that they were driven to abolish Rutland to get rid of it.

“No, what people want is a few good millions. A hundred million, if possible. One of our inventions was street value, for instance. In the old days they used to say that police had discovered drugs in a quantity large enough to get all of Rutland stoned for a fortnight. We started saying that the drugs had a street value of £10 million. Absolutely meaningless, but people understand it better.”

Sometimes they do get the figures spot on. “250,000 flock to see Royal two”, was one of his recent headlines, and although the 250,000 was a rounded-up figure, the two was quite correct. in his palatial office he sits surrounded by relics of past headlines – a million-year-old fossil, a £500,000 Manet, a photograph of the Sultan of Brunei’s £10,000,000 house – but pride of place goes to a pair of shoes framed on the wall.

“Why the shoes? Because they cost me £39.99. They serve as a reminder of mankind’s other great urge, to have stupid odd figures. Strange, isn’t it? They want mass demos of exactly half a million, but they also want their gramophone records to go round at thirty-three-and-a-third, forty-five and seventy-eight rpm. We have stayed in business by remembering that below a certain level people want oddity. They don’t a rocket costing £299 million and 99p, and they don’t want a radio costing exactly £50.”

How does he explain the times when the figures clash – when, for example, the organisers of a demo claim 250,000 but the police put it nearer 100,000?

“We provide both sets of figures; the figures the organisers want, and the figures the police want. The public believe both. If we gave the true figure, about 167,890, nobody would believe it because it doesn’t sound believable.”

John Wheeler’s name has never become well-known, as he is a shy figure, but his firm has an annual turnover of £3 million and his eye for the right figure has made him a rich man. His greatest pleasure, however, comes from the people he meets in the counting game.

“Exactly two billion, to be precise.”

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One thought on “Counting Game

  1. As your 3,000th hit (I rounded up) I wonder if anybody really pays attention to “numbers” any more. It’s gotten to the point that it’s all so abstract, and we’re so self-absorbed, that if it doesn’t happen in our front yard, it doesn’t really “count.”
    I could go on for “hours,” but I have to change my sons 1 millionth diaper, and feed him his 3.5 millionth bottle…
    Good post!

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