Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Counting to zero


I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.

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