Sunday, August 10, 2008

Stuff Believers Like: #5 Celebrity Death Triads.....

On Saturday, comedian Bernie Mac succumbed to pneumonia, only to be followed into the hereafter by iconic soul singer Isaac Hayes less than 24 hours later. It is only a matter of time before the question of who is next on the Grim Reaper's list is on people's minds. In fact, it has already begun.

Even as I am writing this post there are people pondering which black American celebrity will be the next to die. And this one example, in the form of an online discussion about the liklihood that Samuel L. Jackson is not long for this world, is representative of many more people pondering the same question in other forums. There are probably offices putting together celebrity death pools to bet money on whether it will be Jackson, Morgan Freeman, or, god forbid, Ernest Lee Thomas. I'm certain that at the very least there are thousands of atypically morbid family discussions going on at the dinner table or around the television, with everyone voicing their opinion on who next victim of fate is going to be.

As believers in numerology know, things, especially bad things, come in threes. They believe that numbers are magic and the number 3 in particular is very special. It is a powerful symbol of wholeness, of completion and of the endless cycle of existence. The Holy Trinity from the Christian tradition is the most commonly cited example of the potency of the number three here in America, but cultures throughout recorded history have set it apart as a number with supernatural significance. And throughout said recorded history, or at least as far back as I can google, the hypothesis that celebrities die in groups of three has been around, and example after example of folks pointing out these uncanny chains of demise can be found with a quick trip through cyberspace.

But the reality is that celebrity deaths do not come in threes. They come in droves just like physician deaths, lawyer deaths, cosmetologists deaths and any other group of people you look at. But as pattern seeking animals that are enfluenced by pop mysticisms like numerology, believers will seek out groups of three amongst the recently dead without even realizing the fallacy in their thinking. That fallacy comes in many forms, but none more so than the all too human pastime of confirmation bias, or remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. We pay close attention and make mental notes of all the instances where three celebrity deaths share a temporal relationship but ignore the times when one, two, or five die around the same time. But is that temporal relationship of three dead entertainers even meaningful?

No, it isn't. As I alluded to above it is merely random noise generated by the most prolific and effective serial killer of all time, which is of course time. But even assigning three celebrities that die consecutively to some kind of magical death triad is rife with errors in thinking. What is the appropriate time limit that should be allowed between deaths? Many might say one week, others a month, while a few would probably allow a longer interval. And what degree of celebrity counts. Is it fair to group Arthur C. Clark and Gary Gygax with Jeff Healey? You might think so, and you might be right, but I don't. Who decides?

Ultimately, calling a celebrity death triad, as it were, is no different than any other kind of post hoc reasoning. There is no mystical force that governs the death of our celebrities and sorts them into neat little bundles of three. There are only coincidences that years of flabby and out of shape reasoning skills see as something more.

Addendum (9:30 PM): Just as I was about to publish this post, I was called to attend to an ill patient. On the way to the room I overheard two nurses discussing this very topic. Their money is on Morgan Freeman. I hope they're wrong.


Pittypat said...

And interestingly enough, some very devout people at least semi-believe in this. Wouldn't a loving caring God have better things to do than entertain the world by picking out a third celebrity to die? And why would that loving caring God kill someone off anyway? (Or allow the "devil" to do it!)

Zoo Knudsen said...

Great point. The existence of evil is, in my opinion, the most powerful evidence against the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving god.

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