Great Moments in Pedantry: Fact-checking "Don't Fear the Reaper"

Valentine is done

Here, but now they're gone

Romeo and Juliet

Are together in eternity (Romeo and Juliet)

Forty-thousand men and women every day (Like Romeo and Juliet)

Forty-thousand men and women every day (Redefine happiness)

Another forty-thousand coming every day (We can be like they are)

Come on, baby (Don't fear the reaper)

Yesterday, on the way to the airport, I heard this on the radio and thought, "Huh. I wonder if Blue Oyster Cult actually looked up the daily global death rate when they were writing this?"

I can now pretty confidently report that, no, they did not. I suppose this is what comes from writing songs before the birth of the Internet. And, also, from not being anal retentive.

How many people die every day? Obviously, this differs widely from day to day and year to year. Most of the time, when people talk about "how many people die every day" they're talking about taking rough estimate of how many people die every year and dividing that by 365. I'd be perfectly happy to let Blue Oyster Cult do this, because it would be a little ridiculous to sing, "x number of men and women on July 15th, 1976", or whatever. Averaging it out would have been fine, so let's assume that's what we're doing.

According to the World Health Organization, around 54.5 million people die annually. Which makes the "daily death rate" roughly 149,000. Of course, those are the current numbers. To be fair to Blue Oyster Cult, I found the death rate from 1976 (with the help of my friend Stephen McNeil). At the time "Don't Fear the Reaper" was released, the world population 4.1 billion, with a death rate 12.5/1000, which comes out to 140,000 per day. So the bad news is that Blue Oyster Cult is way off in their estimation of the death rate. But the good news is that you could quite easily change the lyrics to say "140,000 coming every day" and not screw with the meter too much.

Now, in talking about this on the Internet, I came across a couple of interesting attempts to exonerate BOC. The first, from the aforementioned Mr. McNeil, points out that the lyrics say "men and women". So Stephen's argument is that, to get an accurate estimate in line with what BOC intended, you have to subtract infant and child mortality from the total death rate. As he put it:

… knock out 6k/day infant mortality (birth rate 31/1000, inf mort 16.5/1000 births), same again for child mortality maybe? So about 128k/day. Only off by half an order of magnitude, correct within Fermi estimation.

Another possibility, Twitter user Erwin suggests that the BOC was only referring to the daily deaths of lovers. That's an interesting theory, but, as far as I can tell, there's no effective way to fact check it because nobody tracks that particular statistic — other than, perhaps, the Blue Oyster Cult, themselves. That said, if it were just a measurement of the deaths of lovers, I might wonder whether 40,000 a day was too high. How many pairs of lovers could actually be dying together every day?

Finally, my friend Ross Pfund offered another theory: The 40,000 men and women every day is actually a measurement of the number of marriages. He is just wrong. Wrong, like Blue Oyster Cult is wrong.

Image: "Grim Reaper From Guitar Hero – Halloween (2006)" by Rob Boudon via Flikr