Death

Celebrities Don't Really Die In Threes, And The New York Times Once Proved It

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Just a few days after a beloved musician died, you hear about the sudden passing of a movie star. Who's going to be next? These things always happen in threes—don't they? Although such a pattern might make the universe feel more predictable, it's unfortunately not the case. Celebrities do not die in threes.

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How The Idea Was Debunked

It's generally safe to assume that when a rule about the universe comes in a nice round number—the five stages of grief or the idea that your body replaces itself every seven years, for example—it's probably made up. Existence is rarely that neat and tidy. Even so, a claim like this can be tested, and in 2014, Alan Flippen decided to do just that for the New York Times column The Upshot. The New York Times was uniquely positioned to test out the theory because of its massive obituary archive. For the experiment, they decided to define "celebrity" as any person with an obituary of at least 2,000 words. That generally included important people like Lauren Bacall and Mother Teresa, but also allowed in less-glamorous but important figures such as Albert Shanker, the teachers' union leader. (It also overlooked some celebrities, such as Amy Winehouse, who for whatever reason got a shorter-than-average obituary.)

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What did they find? Between 1990 and 2014, 449 celebrities died, and in 75 cases, two of them died within three days of one another. So far, so good. But when The Upshot looked at how many times three celebrities died within five days of each other, they only found seven cases in the 24-year period. And many of those cases didn't exactly pass muster. Would you have noticed conductor Lorin Maazel, writer Nadine Gordimer, and actress Elaine Stritch as a cluster of three celebrity deaths in 2014? What about Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and nuclear scientist Edward Teller's cluster with Johnny Cash in 2003? Even still, there were some very interesting coincidences, most notably in 2006 when James Brown, Gerald R. Ford, and Saddam Hussein all died around the same time. And what about after 2014? Many may remember the surprising onslaught of celebrity deaths near the end of 2016. Still, the only one that rose to the New York Times's requirements was George Michael's death on Christmas Day, Carrie Fisher's death on December 27, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds' death a day later.

Why Do We Think It's True?

The human brain loves to look for patterns. Patterns give the universe a sense of predictability, and predictability is comforting—something sorely needed when dealing with death. There's actually a word for this: apophenia, which describes the tendency to identify relationships where there aren't any. It's a similar drive that leads us to believe in superstitions or numerology. But it's not real. Chalk it up with the rest of 'em: breaking a mirror won't give you seven years of bad luck, Friday the 13th is no more dangerous than Thursday the 12th, and celebrities don't die in threes.

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