April 27, 2016

Not just an illusion

There’s a headline in the IndependentIf you think more celebrities are dying young this year, you’re wrong – it’s just a trick of the mind“. And, in a sense, Ben Chu is right. In a much more important sense, he’s wrong.

He argues that there are more celebrities at risk now, which there are. He says a lot of these celebrities are older than we realise, which they are. He says that the number of celebrity deaths this year is within the scope of random variation looking at recent times, which may well be the case. But I don’t think that’s the question.

Usually, I’m taking the other side of this point. When there’s an especially good or especially bad weekend for road crashes, I say that it’s likely just random variation, and not evidence for speeding tolerances or unsafe tourists or breath alcohol levels. That’s because usually the question is whether the underlying process is changing: are the roads getting safer or more dangerous.

This time there isn’t really a serious question of whether karma, global warming, or spiders from Mars are killing off celebrities.  We know it must be a combination of understandable trends and bad luck that’s responsible.  But there really have been more celebrities dying this year.   Prince is really dead. Bowie is really dead. Victoria Wood, Patty Duke, Ronnie Corbett, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee — 2016 has actually happened this way,  it hasn’t been (to steal a line from Daniel Davies) just a particularly inaccurate observation of the underlying population and mortality patterns.

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Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

Comments

  • avatar
    steve curtis

    Its not the celebrities who are dying that worries me, its the ones who are alive and filling every possible communication medium. Every year there are yet more possibilities, such as the Manhattan Mussolini, who combines business, celebrity, prophecy and politics, but of course hes 69. I cant begin to imagine the results if he is taken too soon.

    1 year ago