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Why Do We Believe That Catastrophes Come in Threes?


July 5, 2009

Michael Jackson's untimely death coupled with the deaths of Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett in the same week revived the belief of many that celebrity deaths, plane crashes and all manner of catastrophes come in threes. The persistence of this belief is difficult to explain since the case for it is so easily demolished.

After all, every recurrent phenomenon must come in threes. All we need to do is wait for the third one to occur. If Michael Jackson hadn't died, we would simply wait for another celebrity to die.

Given how many people we tend to elevate to this status, this shouldn't take long. Billy Mays and Gayle Storm, for example, died as I wrote this.

Or we could go back in time.

If Jackson hadn't died, then believers could point to the deaths of David Carradine, Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett as illustrating their claim. The death-in-threes claim is empty and uselessly flexible in at least two senses. Not only is the time frame unspecified, but so is the definition of celebrity.

The game is meaningless but sometimes addictive. What about U.S. senators and sexual peccadillos? We have Craig, Vitter and Ensign. Or we can play it with governors. Here we have Spitzer, McGreevey, and Sanford.

If there aren't yet three, we can loosen the job constraints or lengthen the time spans; if there are more than three, then we can tighten the job constraints or shorten the time spans.


Triaphilia, Why the Persistence?

The tendency to want to hold on to the three connection is strong in many areas of life.

Why? One reason might be a sort of number mysticism. Three is the first odd prime number, the triangle is a stable shape, in our base 10 system, the fraction 1/3 is .3333333…, et cetera.

A second more compelling reason might be psychological, perhaps deriving from the structure and limited complexity of our brains.

The appeal of the trinity in Christianity and other religions, the philosophical triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and even the setup of many jokes seem to stem in part from a natural resonance with the number three. (A priest, a minister and a rabbi go into a bar and …, or a physicist, an engineer and a mathematician are asked how to … .)

People Naturally Seek Patterns

A related third reason might be the fact that people are naturally pattern-seeking, and searching for and labeling triads, even if pointless, can give people a sense of control as only mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus, and flapdoodle can.

Michael Eck's Web page, The Book of Threes, is replete with countless examples of the ubiquity of threeness.

To get back to Michael Jackson (with due acknowledgement that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the "Big Bopper" all died together in a plane crash in 1959, and that Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison all died with weeks of each other in 1970, et cetera), the fact is that deaths (celebrity or otherwise) are like births, a random Poisson process that regularly gives rise to clumps of people being born together or dying together. It's well-known that in a group of only 23 people, there is a 50 percent probability that two of them will share a birthday (or a deathday), not necessarily in the same year.

If we stipulate the same year, then the probability falls, of course, but if we allow for birthdays in the same week of the year, the probability rises, and if we consider not 23 but thousands of celebrities of one sort or another, it rises much more. The bottom line is that these celebrity deaths in a relatively short time span are not unusual.


Three Puzzles Involving Number Three

Building on this triplebolic mood, I'll end this section by mentioning three puzzles involving the number three. They are among the oddly many such three-puzzles.

One is the Monty Hall 3 door problem, which I discussed in an earlier Who's Counting column.

The second is the 3 hat problem, which I also described in another earlier column.

And the third is the following: Approximately what percent of positive whole numbers contain the digit 3. Some numbers, like 24, 91 and 475, do not contain a 3, but many of them, like 13 and 783, do contain one. The answer is below.

Answer: Almost all whole numbers contain every digit because almost all are more than, say, 1,000 digits long. Any number that long or longer will almost certainly have 3's, 5's, 8's, and every other digit in it.

Numbers and the Iranian Election

A postscript on the Iranian election: In addition to the resonance many people have for the digit 3, there are affinities and aversions to other digits as well.

In fact, when asked to pick digits randomly, people tend to choose 3 and 7 more often than would occur if the digits were randomly generated.

Moreover, when asked to pick a string of random digits, people tend to choose adjacent digits such as 45 or 89 more often than would occur randomly.

Examining the last digits and the last pairs of digits of the vote totals from various electoral districts in Iran, Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco of Columbia University recently concluded that both these tendencies were manifest in the official results.

Since the last digits of the various districts' vote totals would be randomly distributed in a fair election, they inferred that these totals were fabricated by the authorities.

There is some question, however, whether these deviations from randomness are quite as statistically compelling as the authors argue. This, of course, does not mean that the election was not stolen as most threedom-loving people believe.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as (just out in paperback) "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on appears the first weekend of every month.



Everything in the universe operates and exists in threes. Look at the basic building blocks of the cell and the atom. It all is religious and witnesses to the father, word, and holy spirit and these three are one.Even the human body witnesses to this; head cavity, chest cavity, abdominal cavity,yet one body (not three like in the trinity) or a unity. You can live without your arms and legs but if you separate one of these three you are dead.

Posted by:
yah2me 3:45 AM



Admin Link: 35

It is strange how we say "third time lucky" but also use the expression "third (or three times) is a curse." I am not superstitious as I realise it is just the stuff of myth or folklore relating to one particular event that gets passed on in stories through the centuries. For instance walking under ladders is bad luck – yes because way back there was a plethora of tradesmen up ladders and walking underneath more often than not meant something fell on you. Black cats = bad luck, because they were tied up with the myth/fear of witches. And so the list goes on. Its like everything if you look at it from enough angles you can read anything you want into it. *****Thought for the day – a friend of mine says absolutely I believe in psychics and if there is something I need to know about ; if they are any good they will find me. ******

Posted by:
sibeen Jul-6



Admin Link: 34

I believe in the threes. The deaths always occur with a short period of time and there is always a connection. It will be icons in their own right (McMahon, Fawcett, Jackson), or three movie stars(like all 3 being "B" actors), or any other connection that is obvious. The author of this article misses the point and is wrong. For the poster who talked about Jesus, this has nothing to do with religion. Get real!

Posted by:
adamskr1 Jul-5



Admin Link: 33

does it really matter that people believe in superstitions like this? i mean, what's the harm? are we to live our lives devoid of any whimsy or silliness? what is the harm in throwing salt over your shoulder, avoiding walking under ladders or tidying up because when the broom falls over it means company is coming? some people seem to exist to just suck all the joy out of life. sheesh.

Posted by:
GoHexYourself Jul-5



Admin Link: 32

More than three died. This is such a reach. A Godless wolrd will begin to believe anything and miss the only truth…the only lasting truth of Christ. The media and government are working overtime to supress the truth of the Bible, the Christian basis of America, and the morality of the 10 commandments. Why is that? Simply bring prayer back to schools would improve America's stature overnight. Keeping it out makes everything less thoughtful and more selfish. Let's see….An awesome eternity or a mindless, selfish death? Christianity is simple…Christ died for all and all who desire may come – God's act. All other religions and systems say…what can I do for God. Look around you. Ask Christ into your heart. . You'll never regret it.

Posted by:
AnAmericanInCalifornia Jul-5



Admin Link: 31

I don't know about plane crashes or fires or any hurricanes happening in threes. But celebrities do seem to die in threes. We had Ed McMahon on 6/23, then Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson on 6/25. Then we had Billy Mays on 6/28, Fred Travelena on 7/1 and Karl Malden on 7/2. It doesn't always happen that way, but you can't help but take notice when it does. It's just been a crappy couple of weeks.

Posted by:
SharikaC Jul-5



Admin Link: 28

Holy cow—-they're dropping like flies!!!

Posted by:
Blackspeare Jul-5



Admin Link: 27

Bad news, disasters, catastrophes must certainly come in threes if not even multiples. The author himself dismisses these multiples as mere rediculous but maybe in his whole life things have all the time gone smoothly. When a stock market crumples, even lifetime billionaires can loose their wealth, follow by lost of respect and for a few stints in prisons…just think of EnRons CEOs, Madduff, standford, and well, well, even Madduff's investors. You don't just loose ur investments, u loose ur house, your pensions.. everything! Ever loss your job? It sometimes follows closely with your house reposessed followed by ur car? Ever loss ur spouse in a divorce? You also loose the kids, loose money to lawyers and pay monthly support that may go to keep up ur ex lover…think of the Hulk!Know some one call OJ? After being tried for murder, all his sources of income everporated, any other income earned goes mostly to support family of his late wife's ex(late too)…he himself now in the dock virtually forever.When disaster strikes they do not wait for you to deal with the last one successfully, they prefer to hit you when the previous one weakens you sufficiently. It is almost like if a patient were in the hospital, the bugs attack when your resistance is least. Remember a certain Mike Tyson? First, a small but shocking loss in one of his matches that everybody believed he would overcome and comeback even stronger, but there was a rape conviction almost immediately, followed then by a stint in prison. By the time he thought he would stage his comeback, it was too late by far – for it was one disaster after another, not only in the ring, but to his fortune and personal life leading eventually to the loss of a favorite daughter in horrible circumstances. The one-time potential billionaire boxer has now been reduced to a pauper. Finally, the life of the King of pop, MJ himself attests to to the classical way catastrophes hit you, one disaster after anothe

Posted by:
mobillon Jul-5



Admin Link: 26

Oh get over it. It's an old wives tale thats been around forever. Why do you need to spend time writing an article about it? Do your job and cover Washington, Iran or N. Korea.

Posted by:
millenniumteacher Jul-5



Admin Link: 25

The six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon has proven to be true, but deaths do not come in 3's. Say it ain't so. The very foundation of the universe depends on it..

Posted by:
firewx2007 Jul-5



Admin Link: 24

Because three 'top' stories in a single venue is all that most news organizations can optimally spin and milk on a sustained basis…until the public has had its absolute fill.

Posted by:
wwaldok Jul-5



Admin Link: 23

PLUS: About 250,000 – 300,000 people die per day. So some celebrities are bound to be in the mix sometimes.

Posted by:
Ohhiknow67 Jul-5



Admin Link: 22

What about Billy Mays? He died too, either the same day as Farrah and Mike or the day after.

Posted by:
Ohhiknow67 Jul-5



Admin Link: 21

We have so many celebrities…give it a break…

Posted by:
phantomniter Jul-5



Admin Link: 20

Humans are weird. Maybe we can only handle thinking about three deaths at a time. Frankly, I was thinking more about Billy Mays' untimely death. Ed McMahon was suffering from long time bone cancer and his death might have been a relief. Well anyway, for all people who died this past week, to their families, their one death was enough.

Posted by:
1persis1159 Jul-5



Admin Link: 19

My Grandma always said 'deaths come in 3's', usually it would start with somebody my Mom worked with lost a parent or other relative; then Grandma would read the obituary in the paper of somebody Grandma and Grandpa knew in 1920; then an old movie star would die and she would say "That's the third one". I never really notice it, except in a week like this. I do notice more than plane incidents and crashes often come in three's, but there is no real time frame, Grandma could never answer that one, how long between deaths made it count.

Posted by:
rustl28 Jul-5



Admin Link: 18

what about Bea Arthur, Dom Deluise , Billy May and David Carradine? Thay all passed away this year too ..Not to mention Travoltas son

Posted by:
10past8 Jul-5



Admin Link: 17

It is well known that a lot of uneducated and evangelical types like to simplify events into bites that they can make some sense of. They reject the randomness of life and death, hence they gravitate to religion and 'simple' explanations for most events. They reject evolution for this reason. (Too much randomness and not enough order). They tend to believe in things like the Bermuda Triangle. The three's theory is a simple one and helps bring some sense of order into a chaotic universe. The mind can rationalize almost everything if you don't have a curious and open mind.

Posted by:
endrepubs Jul-5



Admin Link: 16

The third was Karl Maulden

Posted by:
Sherri Green Jul-5



Admin Link: 15

"Media will publish, give air time and magnify absolute dribble." — No offense, but the word you wanted is "drivel."

Posted by:
WorkingClass Jul-5



Admin Link: 14

Dr. Paulos, good article; well-written, light-hearted, clear, and concise. Of course, for folks who truly believe in this stuff, it's also a complete waste of time; you're successfully preaching to the choir, and we're already here! <smile> Some people just don't get it (and sometimes they're not *interested* in getting it, preferring to rest comfortably in the certainty of "My mind's made up! Don't confuse me with the facts!" Better say something to soundedfury before I get flamed: I'm not saying that to judge believers; no one's gotten around to appointing me God. Nor am I questioning their intellect; I've known highly intelligent, well-educated, travelled people who believe in at least one or two such phenomena (including my Mother). I didn't get the same impression from Dr. Paulos' article you did, but even if I did misread it — and I may have — were I to come to a realization of that, I wouldn't get all twisted about it. Maybe consider my reaction to the piece to see if you can see any possibility that maybe I got it. <smile again!> Also, just go to where I grew up in rural Texas and poke around; you'll see a great many people who genuinely, right down to the marrow of their bones, believe in the significance of the number three — the Trinity, in part. Back to you, Dr. Paulos; correct me if I'm wrong, since you're the mathmatician — I teach university English, not math. (Heck, I have trouble balancing my CHECKbook!). I imagine this is related to many people's belief that if they buy a lottery ticket every week for long enough, their lucky number *must* come up, sooner or later, since the intuitive reaction is that by increasing the number of times one plays a lottery, the more the odds shift in e gambler's favor to win. Such a gambler doesn't understand the board's erased and every gambler is right back at the starting line with each new week. Where I live now (SE Asia), such belief is by far the rule, not the exception.

Posted by:
MekhongKurt Jul-5



Admin Link: 11

Thank you Sally, that is exactly what I was going to say too:)

Posted by:
refuge51 Jul-5



Admin Link: 10

The third is Steve McNair.

Posted by:
Sally in Chicago Jul-5



Admin Link: 9

What one chooses to believe,folklore,superstition,lucky actions and items, is who and what they are personally made of. The day children[and adults] stop looking for four leaf clovers,or throwing salt over their left shoulders when spilled,will be a sad day indeed. What, is everyone supposed to walk around with no wonderment?

Posted by:
loveamerica66 Jul-5



Admin Link: 8

You misspelled Gale Storm's name – it's Gale, not Gayle…how quickly we forget…..

Posted by:
daligirl255 Jul-5












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