2016 is not the Year of the Reaper

I know everyone is shaking their fists at 2016. And I know it’s normal colloquial language to anthropomorphize things. Biologists do it with genes all the time, for example, talking about how information coded in molecular chains “wants” things. Only the pedants among us — those who start with the assumption that everyone is less intelligent than them, when in fact the reverse is true — don’t understand what we mean.

But just to be clear, there’s nothing magical or even unexpected about 2016. For example, you all are responding to an absolute number of deaths, where what really matters is the rate. A rate can be “constant” (more on that in a minute) but the absolute number of cases can go still up or down based on changes to the base population. 0.0003% of 4.9 billion (world population in 1985) is almost double that of 0.0003% of 2.5 billion (world population in 1950).

A larger population can support larger industries, including the entertainment industry. The 80s generation had more “famous” people (in absolute terms) than the 50s generation, just as there are more “famous” people now than in the 80s — YouTubers, reality TV stars, and the Kim Kardashians of the world, who are famous simply for being famous — all of whom will start dying off in another 20-30 years. What’s more, I bet a larger proportion of the 80s folks led unhealthy lifestyles relative to their 50s counterparts. Not that no one from the 50s did drugs, but remember, cocaine didn’t show up until the 70s. Look how many of this year’s “early” deaths can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the long-term influence of hard drugs on the body.

Also, random does not mean even. Even is orderly. Random is clumpy. While it’s meaningful to talk about there being a static rate of death at any moment in time, like any complex social measure, it will fluctuate from year-to-year. The number of unemployed persons bounces up and down from moment to moment despite that we talk about there being one static unemployment rate (which is defined by convention). It’s entirely natural that some years will see more per-capita deaths in a population, such as the group of all “famous” people, than other years. No one notices when the normal fluctuation is on the low side. It’s not like we notice when someone hasn’t died — except maybe Trump. And Keith Richards.

Meanwhile… Stan Lee just turned 94.

Really, I’m not suggesting that no one should lament this year. I’m not. Especially if you’ve experienced genuine loss. Nor do I think people are stupid for mourning celebrities, or other folks they’ve never met. I got teary when Nelson Mandela died in 2013. Same when Leonard Nimoy passed last year. On the flip side, you’re no less a Star Wars fan if you didn’t cry at Carrie Fisher’s death. Not everyone has to affect us equally.

I just wanted to point out, since I hadn’t seen it yet, that there are perfectly rational, fact-based explanations for your perceptions, and that 2016 is not the Year of the Reaper. It is, if anything, one long anti-drug ad.

Just don’t do it, people. Really. You’re killing yourselves.

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