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MIT Researchers: 2016 Didn’t Have More Famous Deaths Than Usual

This is Back of the Envelope, FiveThirtyEight’s home for shorter, quicker posts.

For lots of folks, 2016 was a tough year, with icons from politics, sports and entertainment passing away. Talking about this sort of death in the aggregate can get a bit morbid, but still many are wondering if there truly were more famous deaths in 2016 than would be expected.

Was 2016 cursed? Was this string of deaths an inevitable consequence of baby boomers’ love of making people famous? Were people overreacting to the demise of a set of icons?

Given how touchy this topic is — one of the points of an obituary, after all, is to prevent a beloved individual from becoming a mere statistic — we were hesitant to try to answer why it felt like our hearts were pretty much stomped into the ground without doing a truly sturdy analysis of the trend. But it looks as if an MIT team, made up of C. Candia-Castro-Vallejos, Cristian Jara-Figueroa and César A. Hidalgo, has done one of its own.

The researchers looked at 2016 deaths among people with a Wikipedia presence in 20 languages. By looking at impact across languages, their methodology was able to avoid some of the cherry-picking that comes when people try to measure if 2016 was worse than usual. The researchers found that the number of famous people dying has been increasing pretty much linearly since 2000; however, the number of deaths in 2016 came in below expectations. But when they looked at the mega-famous — the group that made it into an article in 70 languages of Wikipedia — there were 16 deaths, substantially higher than in recent years.

So that answers that. Nobody is allowed to die in 2017. Let’s all work our hardest on that one.

Check out the whole analysis here.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.