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Here in the UK, it seems like every single day this year there has been another celebrity death. Before we have chance to mourn them or celebrate their achievements, another one pops off. People are speculating who will be 2016'ed tomorrow.

See for example this article in the Telegraph

The death of the musician Prince, at the age of 57, just a day after Victoria Wood died from cancer, aged 62, has shocked their millions of fans. But it also appears to prove that 2016 is cursed in some way.

What's going on? Are the celebrities really dying faster than usual, or are we just reporting on them more? Has the level of celebrity whose death gets reported dropped, and is that even measurable? Or - chillingly - is everyone dying off faster, and we're just hearing about the famous ones?

closed as unclear what you're asking by pericles316, Christian, Oddthinking Apr 23 '16 at 9:01

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    Note: this will probably not get a specific answer beyond en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_correlation – Sklivvz Apr 22 '16 at 9:44
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    Now we have to make up a table of "celebrity deaths by year", like is already done for "major earthquakes by year" – Avery Apr 22 '16 at 10:04
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    You should probably change the title. We're here for scientific explanations, not assessments of whether magic is occurring. – PointlessSpike Apr 22 '16 at 10:09
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    Most of that generation were "baby boomers", who, as the name indicates, were a generation post war where the number of births boomed. Is it any surprise that they are dying at 65-85 years old? – Jamiec Apr 22 '16 at 12:16
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    @oddthinking Questions asking for explanations can all be understood to be asking whether the effect is happening in the first place: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/3471/30557 we're supposed to perform this saving construction in our heads rather than force each question to adhere to a particular form "Let's not confuse the form in which a question is presented with its content. I strongly object forcing our users to formulate questions with a specific structure." - Slivvz – user30557 Apr 23 '16 at 16:32
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(Downvoters please note that the question is about people considered celebrities in the UK. If what you're interested in is people considered celebrities in the USA, please skip to Oddthinking's answer. There's nothing unusual about the number of American or world celebrity deaths in 2016)


There's clearly no "curse". There are objectively measurable indicators that can be compared between years, and these do appear to suggest a sharp increase in 2016, approximately double that of recent years, for deaths of people considered celebrities in the UK, without any one obvious apparent causal event (such as a helicopter crash). That said, these are still small numbers (lower end of two figures), and occasional spikes, anomalies or clusters in small data sets aren't unusual and don't normally require a causal explanation.

The same evidence shows the number of deaths of people considered celebrities was rising already, which can be easily explained by mass media reaching a certain age.

There's an objectively measurable of "celebrity" deaths - obituaries written in news publications. Note that these are typically written while a celebrity is still alive then kept on file, so an "obituary use" represents an editorial team's judgement that an individual is a celebrity of note made well before and independent to any public reaction to their death, and most likely written well before 2016 (therefore not a self-fulfilling response to the so-called "2016 effect"). It's obviously not a perfect classification (no human judgement based classification is), and its quality depends on the quality of their editorial process, so I've taken three examples from three different respected UK publications with different approaches:

BBC

In an article on precisely this phenomenon the BBC quote data about the numbers of obituaries they've written in January-March for the last 5 years. This suggests an upward trend and a 2016 spike: 24 in 2016, 12 in 2015, 11 in 2014, 8 in 2013, 5 in 2012.

[Note - these figures were added to the question after I included them in this answer]

enter image description here

They discuss whether this could be explained by expansion of the facility of the BBC to write and publish obituaries, and find that the number of celebrities with obituaries written and kept on file in case of their death is increasing, but at a rate of "a few more every week", following a process that hasn't significantly changed in 10 years, with no one event that would explain a doubling from 2015 to 2016 other than random clustering.

This therefore addresses the question:

Are the celebrities really dying faster than usual, or are we just reporting on them more?

The BBC have had a consistent policy for 10 years which is based on steady inflation through a team actively increasing the number of obituaries on file every week, but 2016 is an anomaly that bucks the trend.

Telegraph

(The Telegraph is a broadsheet sometimes described as the UK's "newspaper of record)

The above article reports:

the Daily Telegraph maintains a gallery of famous people who have died, and updates it throughout the year. Up to this time in 2014, the number of those in the gallery was 38. By this time last year, the number of people in the gallery was 30. This year, the number is already 75

Again, the number is roughly double that of recent previous years.

Guardian

(The Guardian is a broadsheet and a partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

The Guardian offered some measurable figures in terms of the number of deaths which they ran as the main headline of their print edition: 7 so far (one of which, being a sportsman, was printed in the sports section but as the main back-page headline).

I can't find a direct comparison to equivalent periods in other years, am still looking, but it's discussed as being remarkable:

The tally of deaths is significant, and 2016 is not yet four months old.

They offer one more observation:

The Guardian’s obituaries page, according to its editor, is no longer able to fit in all the public figures who would have historically figured on the page because of the rise in high-profile deaths

In the Guardian's case, like the BBC, this therefore suggests that the number of obituaries they want to publish in 2016 is driven by events, not an editorial decision: events are causing them to exceed their physical limit.

With this, they offer a partial explanation for the upward trend:

The nature of fame and celebrity has changed radically in the past decade... As well as actors, musicians, royalty, sporting figures, politicians and the like, there are now hundreds of reality TV stars, comedians, game show hosts, mavericks and people famous simply for being famous. That means there are far more celebrities whom more people will have heard of when their number is up.


Deaths among the general (non-celebrity) UK population

Or - chillingly - is everyone dying off faster, and we're just hearing about the famous ones?

Since there's no celebrity death spike outside the UK, we only need to look at UK mortality statistics here. The UK Office for National Statistics publish weekly death statistics, and offer a comparison to the last 5 years week-by-week. They haven't yet published an analysis comparing 2016 to other years, or age-standardised rates, but a simple look at the raw numbers of deaths shows that the increase between 2016 and the previous 5 years appears smaller than the increase between 2015 and the previous 5 years (around 3% compared to around 7% from 2015).

There's therefore no reason to think there's any particular UK trend at work here, and no reason to think that the so-called "curse" widely discussed in the British media is anything more than the kind of random spike that can happen with any small variable data set.

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    Thanks - this is a good answer which addresses my actual question; not sure why it got downvoted. – Simon Apr 23 '16 at 7:26
  • Perhaps it was the labelling of the measure of obituary counts as "objective" when that is clearly based on subjective decisions that vary over time? – Oddthinking Apr 23 '16 at 17:01
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    @Oddthinking The number of obituaries published in a time period is objective. An obituary is either published, or it isn't. Obviously each one is based on a subjective decision, but so are many things. Someone buying a t-shirt is based on a subjective decision, but that doesn't make sales figures subjective. I'll change it to "objectively measurable" to keep uncharitable readers happy... – user568458 Apr 23 '16 at 18:41
  • Using the word 'objective' gives this a false sense of 'scientificness'. By the same argument, a count of the number of times I have cried each year from hearing about the death of a celebrity is 'objective'. – Oddthinking Apr 24 '16 at 8:09
  • @Oddthinking that's debatable, but I've replaced every use of the word "objective" with "measurable" or similar. – user568458 Apr 24 '16 at 8:35
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No, there is no evidence of a supernatural curse affecting celebrities. In fact, there isn't even any evidence that 2016, to date, is a particularly bad year for celebrity deaths.

The article Prince dead: Is the celebrity death curse of 2016 really a thing? looks at this issue.

If the current rate of one dead famous person every 2.5 days 2016 will clock in with 146 dead famous people.

So if the famousdeadpeople database is to be relied upon, 2016 isn't an especially dangerous time to be a celebrity.

enter image description here

This isn't a particularly rigorous analysis, but it exposes that the question is difficult to answer because it is difficult to define.

This is not an easy question to answer quantitatively. For one thing 'celebrity' or 'famous person' is a subjective term. One person's celebrity is another person's nobody.

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    "One person's celebrity is another person's nobody." Exactly. I haven't the slightest idea who the Victoria Wood in the quote is, and only know of that "Prince" because of the strange name. (And don't recognize most of the names in the linked article, either.) The only well-known person I can recall having died this year is US Supreme Court Justice Scalia. – jamesqf Apr 22 '16 at 17:48
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    @jamesqf Victoria Wood was a British comedian; you might have noticed that the question began "Here in the UK", is tagged "United Kingdom" and quoted a British newspaper. If you're not British, it wouldn't be surprising (or relevant) that you've not heard of the mostly British celebrities being discussed. – user568458 Apr 22 '16 at 19:08
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    Oddthinking: your article is from New Zealand quoting a US website, but the question is about people considered celebrities in Britain. A better source might be this BBC article, which looks at the (objective) number of obituaries written over a three month period, and discusses other sources. It finds an upward trend and a 2016 spike – user568458 Apr 22 '16 at 19:12
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    "The only well-known person I can recall having died this year is US Supreme Court Justice Scalia." — he was well known only in one country, so I wouldn't count that. – vartec Apr 22 '16 at 19:25
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    There are a LOT more celebrities these days than before the current push by the media. Does anyone think that the Kardashians would have been celebrities 20 years ago? – hdhondt Apr 23 '16 at 4:04

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