5X5 Episode 4

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5X5 Episode 4
Do celebrity deaths come in threes?
28th January 2008

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5X5 3 5X5 5
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Do celebrity deaths come in threes? The rogues take on numerology.[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics. Today is Monday, January 28th, 2008. On January 15th, Brad Barron Renfro was found dead in his apartment. On January 22nd, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was found dead in his apartment. And on January 26th, Christian Brando died of pneumonia in the hospital. Some say that deaths. or specifically celebrity deaths, come in threes. And this bit of superstition, while mostly whimsical, is fairly widespread. I'm sure you guys have heard this before.

E: Too many times.

B: Oh who hasn't.

J: His real first name was Heathcliff?

S: Yes.

(laughter)

J: Ohmygod!

B: Yes. Yeah, I was pretty shocked at that as well

E: Like Wuthering Heights?

S: Heath Ledger.

R: Yeah. I mean the idea is that the next person who dies then we're going to wait until we get two more and then lump those together and that'll be three celebrity deaths. It's kind of one of those things that, that won't fail to come true.

B: Right. because so much of it is, it's so vague that it, it's easy for this rule to be fulfilled. First off, define a celebrity. Like Brando, Brando's kid who died. That seems to be pushing it a bit. Also, how long is the window open for the three deaths? This, this makes it very open-ended, like lots of skeptical predictions - because it's so open-ended, there's many ways that it could be fulfilled. Now what about Suzanne Pleshette, who also died, and how 'bout Sam the Butcher from "The Brady Bunch"?

R: You're saying that death comes in fives?

B: I mean, how...

(multiple voices)

S: Suzanne Pleshette died on January 17th, which was in the middle of that sequence, so-

B: Right.

S: -does that mean that celebrity deaths come in four?

E: Yes.

J: Or two groups of three.

E: Three, four, ten.

S: Or, or that does the sequence end with, with Ledger and then Christian Brando began another set of three? So right, and what Bob is referring to is the use of open-ended criteria. So if you have criteria that are not specific and quantifiable and limited, you call that open-ended criteria. This is a very, very common intellectual error or mistake that people make, even researchers often make this mistake, and it allows for the recording of a positive outcome or a "hit" in many situations. And what people don't realize, because we have an inherently poor grasp on statistics, is that by opening up the criteria even a little bit, you allow for this multiplication of possible hits to the point where it can't fail, as Rebecca said. You just wait for that third celebrity to die, and th...and then you've fulfilled your criteria. It can't possibly fail.

J: And of course this is all based on numerology.

S: Sort of. Yeah. It is just a numbers-for-numbers-sake, seeking patterns which people are very, very good at. So much so that we see patterns even when they don't really exist.

B: One thing I like to do is I like to think of the ramifications of, of some of these beliefs. So you've got this rule. Well now, what are the ramifications? That would mean that they're either a god or this force, this force that is kinda lurking around waiting to make sure that this pattern holds. So he, this force is kinda deciding "Alright, we've got two. Now we've gotta get a third celebrity. Is this person a celebrity? Is he enough of a celebrity? Yeah. He is. I'll, I'll make sure he dies." So, I mean, wouldn't that be a necessary component for this to, if it was really true?

S: Well, let's call this force the "Angel of Death".

E: Well, you know, Jay, you mentioned numerology, and you know, if you just do a Goo...Google search, just put in "numerology", the first website you come upon, here's what you get. "Numerology is the study of numbers and the occult manner in which they reflect certain aptitudes and character tendencies as an integral part of the cosmic plan. Each letter has a numeric value that provides a related cosmic vibration." So there, I think that cleared it all up.

R: Ah, that all makes sense now

S: That's pretty much as close as you get to pure magical thinking. It's just infusing magic into this pattern recognition tendency that we have, whether it's numbers or anything else.

J: You know, the thing that's odd about it is you...you'll hear people say "You know deaths come in threes" but they also say "Good things come in threes". So, you know, the fate goes both ways, if, you know, the luck or the bad luck can go in either direction.

E: The important thing is so long as you believe in this, then, I mean, that's good, bad, indifferent, as long as you believe in the power of numbers, then you're onto something - according to the numerologists.

S: Here's another historical celebrity death triad. Within a 24 hour period, the Grim Reaper took Dennis Weaver, Don Knotts and Darren McGavin.

R: I'm sorry. Who?

S: All three died within a 24...Darren, come on, Darren McGavin.

E: Don Knotts?

R: Uh, who's the first guy? These are not celebrities. I'm sorry. Don Knotts, yes.

B: Ohmygod.

E: Dennis Weaver?

S: Dennis Weaver.

J: Yeah, he made all those clothes.

E: From the movie "Duel".

J: You don't remember him?

B: Darren McGavin, Kolchak

S: Kolchak, right, the Night Stalker, come on.


S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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