‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’s’  Macabre Mistake

December 8, 2012

On December 2, 2012, Ripley's Believe It or Not published a factoid in national newspapers that read, "You are more likely to die on your birthday then any other day of the year."

There are few things wrong with this (not counting that they misspelled "than"). The statement is technically true, but completely misleading. It suggests that a given person is more likely to die on their birthday (that is, the day that is the anniversary of his or her birth) than any other of the 364 days in the year. (This interpretation is clear from the illustration, showing a skull with dozens of birthday candles on it.)

That is not true; instead, it should read, "You are more likely to be killed on the day of your birth than at any other time." According to a 2002 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person's first day on Earth is also the day he or she is most likely to be killed: the risk of homicide for newborns is ten times greater than at any other time in life. Each year, hundreds of newborns and children are killed by one of their parents, and over all age groups, mothers kill more often than fathers.

My guess is that Ripley's (which is often good about fact-checking their claims) simply misread or misunderstood this "weird" statistic that someone submitted. If they had correctly understood that fact (and its implications), it's unlikely they would have used it.

After all, the idea that you're likely to drop dead on your birthday is more entertaining than the idea that babies only a few minutes (or hours) old are being murdered, and a skull with candles on it is more entertaining than a dead baby drowned in a toilet or left in a Dumpster.

Comments:

#1 Tom Meacham (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 11:49am

I’m not at all sure that Ripley’s isn’t exactly correct, and not for the reason that Radford goes into.  If you die on a random date in the year, you will absolutely have lived one more birthday than dates of the calendar that fall after your birthday and there in NEVER a date on the calendar that you have had more of than your birthday.  You have a 1/365 chance of dying on your birthday which gives you one more day of life on that date than any other date.  There is no other day that has that property.  Ripley’s- 1;  Radford- 0.

#2 Leo (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 6:25pm

Perhaps Ripley’s was referring to this study in the Annals of Epidemiology from August of this year?

Here’s a [url=“

#3 Leo (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 6:26pm

Hmm. Let’s try this again. Link to study:

#4 Leo (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 6:27pm

OK, apparently links aren’t allowed. I give up. You can google it.

#5 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 6:47pm

Per Leo, Ben is WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYy wrong, if indeed Ben was referring to what Leo mentioned. The Annals of Epistemology and Telegraph story say nothing about “killed.”

Here’s the Telegraph link ... you fill in the DOTs since I’m posting as a guest:

#6 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 6:48pm

OK, I must have missed one DOT on the Telegraph originally:

www DOT telegraph DOT co DOT uk/health/healthnews/9323562/We-are-more-likely-to-die-on-our-birthday-than-any-other-day DOT html

And, the Annuals of Epidemiology:
www DOT annalsofepidemiology DOT org/article/S1047-2797(12)00110-X/abstract

And, speaking of links, Ben doesn’t give us a link to the Ripley’s comic, let alone to whatever research is behind it.

And, doubly let alone, does he not give links to anything supporting his claim of “killed” rather than “die.”

Per the links I posted, I believe there is a correlation between birthday and date of death, and at least halfway plausible psychological explanation. But, that’s for “dying,” not “being killed.”

Ben, if you’re going to make a claim this serious, cough up some links.

#7 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Saturday December 08, 2012 at 7:02pm

Anyway, the Ripley’s study is referring to something completely different than what Ben was talking about. And, per the Telegraph and Annals links, Ben is wrong to dismiss the Ripley’s claim.

Yes, what Ben said is true, apparently (oh, and here’s the CDC link he was too lazy to put in his post, followed by another govt story that links to it).

But, that still doesn’t exculpate his own sloppiness in not providing links in the first place, let alone dissing a story that seems valid.

CDC:  www DOT ncbi DOT nlm DOT nihgov/pubmed/11900353

Referring story: www DOT ncbi DOT nlm DOT nih DOT gov/pmc/articles/PMC2065955/

#8 Gary (Guest) on Sunday December 09, 2012 at 3:58pm

Ben says: There are few things wrong with this (not counting that they misspelled “than”).

Your very first statement criticizing the article, and it’s spelling, is grammatically incorrect. You need an “a” between are & few. Otherwise you’re saying there’s very little wrong with the article before you start picking at it. It doesn’t pay to be snide about other’s mistakes when you still make them yourself. A little humility never hurt anyone.

#9 Ben Radford on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 9:01am

Sorry I didn’t get a chance to respond to these comments earlier, I was busy finishing my grad school semester and then off for a week as a speaker on the JREF cruise, just got back yesterday.

1) I didn’t follow Tom Meacham’s math or logic: “If you die on a random date in the year, you will absolutely have lived one more birthday than dates of the calendar that fall after your birthday.” This is of course obvious, and not really relevant to the question, which is not how many birthdays you live, but on what day you are most likely to die.

2) “And, speaking of links, Ben doesn’t give us a link to the Ripley’s comic, let alone to whatever research is behind it.” This is a very strange complaint; there was no reason to link to the Ripley’s comic because it is included in its entirety in the main image at the top of the blog, just below the title and to the right of the first paragraph.

3) “Yes, what Ben said is true…” I appreciate the acknowledgment that I was correct;  I tried to post the link to the study but it would not embed (the blog software sucks), and so I gave up. I intended to get back to it later but wasn’t able to, and I appreciate you posting the link information.

4) As for Gary’s comment about grammar: “Your very first statement criticizing the article, and it’s spelling, is grammatically incorrect. You need an “a” between are & few.”  Actually, the sentence is correct with or without the “a”; both meanings are accurate: there are indeed few things wrong with the piece (it’s one sentence long; how many things could there possibly be?).

Also, in your comment correcting my spelling, you misspelled “its”: the word you used, “it’s” is either a possessive (“it” owns something) or a contraction of “it is.” Neither is correct in this case. It doesn’t pay to be snide about other’s mistakes when you still make them yourself. A little humility never hurt anyone.

#10 2nd Grader (Guest) on Thursday December 27, 2012 at 4:54pm

Gee whiz! *Its* is ALWAYS possessive. *It’s* is ALWAYS either a contraction of “it is” or “it has”. And that’s how it is. (And Ripley’s *then* for *than* is more likely word misuse than word misspelling.)

re: “Also, in your comment correcting my spelling, you misspelled “its”: the word you used, “it’s” is either a possessive (“it” owns something) or a contraction of “it is.” Neither is correct in this case. It doesn’t pay to be snide about other’s mistakes when you still make them yourself. A little humility never hurt anyone.”

And oh yeah… it’s “about others’ mistakes” not “about other’s mistakes” unless it’s “about an other’s mistakes”. Try proofreading for clarity; it works like magic, even for skeptics!

#11 Ben Radford on Thursday December 27, 2012 at 5:13pm

Hi Second Grader!

I think you misunderstood what I wrote; I was giving Gary a choice of versions of “its” or “it’s” and pointing out that the word he used was incorrect.

As for the second comment, maybe you didn’t notice, but I was quoting the last two sentences of Gary’s comment back to him; I didn’t write it!

Also, did you mean to write “another’s mistakes” instead of “an other’s mistakes?” Try proofreading for clarity; it works like magic, even for skeptics!

#12 2nd Grader (Guest) on Thursday December 27, 2012 at 8:45pm

Hi Ben!

These issues are similar. And yes I know you were quoting Gary, perhaps not recognizing his post’s error.

To summarize and recap:

Ripley’s writes (for mass publication/distribution no less): *You are more likely to die on your birthday then any other day of the year.*

In your blog you write: *There are few things wrong with this (not counting that they misspelled “than”).*

[To which I later contend: *Ripley’s *then* for *than* is more likely word misuse than word misspelling.*]

Gary writes to you: *Your very first statement criticizing the article, and it’s spelling, is grammatically incorrect. You need an “a” between are & few.*

[Twist all you want Ben, yet Gary seems correct there, that you meant “a few” and didn’t catch it proofreading. C’mon… admit it! Please note: the issue goes away with a punchier intro like this: *Here’s what’s wrong with this factoid (not counting that they misspelled “than”):* ...etc.]

Gary then CONTINUES, reproachful: “It doesn’t pay to be snide about other’s mistakes when you still make them yourself.”

You respond with a defensive twist, then this tit for tat: *Also, in your comment correcting my spelling, you misspelled “its”: the word you used, “it’s” is either a possessive (“it” owns something) or a contraction of “it is.” Neither is correct in this case.*

This language still seemed jumbled to me, so…

I post: *Gee whiz! *Its* is ALWAYS possessive. *It’s* is ALWAYS either a contraction of “it is” or “it has”.*

As for Gary’s original criticism of you: *It doesn’t pay to be snide about other’s mistakes when you still make them yourself*... well, INDEED!

If one is going to be reproachful whilst being nitpicky about the use of Indefinite Articles (a, an) and such… don’t likewise transgress within your own taking-to-task statement! Gee whiz.

As I wrote: *And oh yeah… it’s “about others’ mistakes” not “about other’s mistakes” unless it’s “about an other’s mistakes”.*

If “other” is meant to be plural possessive then it is *others’*... if “other” is meant to be singular possessive then you need the indefinite article “an” there so it becomes *an other’s*.

Of course Ben, all of the above are longtime common grammar and usage errors, perhaps increasingly so in the gr8 era of txt. Grammar and usage help us frame our thoughts outward and aid organized inward thought even when not writing.

One lingering question, from you to me: *Also, did you mean to write “another’s mistakes” instead of “an other’s mistakes?”*

Absolutely not.

l8tr!

#13 Kizzy (Guest) on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 12:54pm

May I ask why all of you people are more interested in sentence structure and grammar rather than the topic. This is why I cannot stand blogs, as they become juvenile every single time. So let me play along. First, how would a second grader know so much about grammar. You are correct by saying, “others’ “, because others is plural.  However, I have to ask why you care. Also, if these comments are supposed to be so grammatically perfect, no one would be using contractions in the first place.  They are not permitted in essay writing. Alas, these are not essays but blog responses, so again, who cares?  Now that I feel good and juvenile, feel free to pick apart my grammar/sentence structure.  I will return to searching the Internet for what I was originally doing.  By the way, you should post the name of your elementary school so that anyone reading this can move and have such smart 7 and 8 year old children.  Oops!  I just realized that I did not end my first sentence with a question mark. Guess I will throw out my doctorate degree and go back to school.  Boy, being this annoying and sarcastic was so much fun.  Now I see why you all do it!

#14 Ben Radford on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 1:08pm

Good question, Kizzy!

It does seem very strange. Instead of discussing the topic, people have chosen to get involved in a grammar debate, apparently based on my (correct) observation that Ripley’s made an error (either a typo or a misspelling) in the original piece.

It was my mistake for helping feed the trolls, and I promise not to do it anymore!

#15 Kizzy (Guest) on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 8:01pm

Thanks for that Ben.  Also, just to keep the dumb stuff going one more time, genius second grader made some errors. You are correct about “its” and about ‘another’s” mistake. To say “an other’s mistake would sound like a being not human. If it was an alien’s mistake, it would work.  However, I think second graders are into aliens. I think we both know, though, that a second grader did not write the post without at least some assistance.  Since when do they say ‘whilst’ ?  Now I am annoying myself with this mess, so I will say goodbye before I wind up bantering about this over and over as some have done.

I did want to add that I believe dying does encompass being killed. I know I would feel dead if I were killed.  I do not think the article says exactly how one dies on their birthday, but then again, I did not read it.  I do think that it is great the way you brought up the many deaths of newborns.  It is extremely sad, but is in the news often.  Think of all the teenage mothers that dump their newborns rather than explain to their parents about the pregnancy.  I also believe you are absolutely correct in that Ripley’s wrote a very misleading statement.  Are they not known for the slogan, ‘believe it or not’.  It is intended to get people to read it.

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