Menus Subscribe Search

What Do Osama bin Laden and Paul McCartney Have in Common?

• May 04, 2011 • 11:49 AM

Conspiracy theorists have already emerged from the woodwork asking if bin Laden is really dead, or if he was dead already. Don’t be fooled.

To quote Mark Twain, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Is anyone expecting Osama bin Laden to send a tape with this message? Will Donald Trump demand a long-form original copy of the death certificate? Comedians aside, will people around the world really believe Osama is gone?

Conspiracy theorists quickly voiced concerns about the terror leader’s burial at sea, suggesting that the U.S. faked the raid for political purposes and that bin Laden might have already died years ago or might still be alive. Today, President Barack Obama announced he wouldn’t release postmortem photos of bin Laden’s body. This news will surely fan conspiracy theory flames.

We’ve certainly heard many rumors about famous people’s deaths over the years. In the fall of 1969, fans were scrupulously reviewing Beatles album covers searching for hidden and interpretable clues that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident. He was, after all, the only Beatle crossing Abbey Road barefoot on the iconic cover of the album of the same name. The band’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” song supposedly had the phrase “I buried Paul” hidden in the background. Clear and unquestionable proof Paul was dead!

Attempting to debunk rumors often only reinforces the story. When McCartney appeared on the Nov. 7, 1969, Life magazine cover to verify his alive status, clue-hunters responded that if you held the cover up to the light, you could see a photo of a car superimposed on McCartney’s face, thanks to a car ad on the reverse side. What could be clearer affirmation of his fate?

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

[/class] Of course, the Paul-is-dead rumor was a playful game, but in this era of immediate social networking, death rumors can spread even more rapidly. By definition, a rumor is a piece of information that has yet to be proved true or false. Rumors tend to proliferate in times of ambiguity when information about an issue is lacking. People often speculate about possible explanations to fill in the blanks and thus contribute to the spread of unsubstantiated information. Fueled by anxiety, these rumors take on a life of their own.

Many rumors float about celebrities like George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks and Jeff Goldblum, who each supposedly died in some horrible accident, or like the one about Jerry “The Beaver” Mathers, getting killed in the Vietnam War. None of these, of course, were true. On the flip side, rabid fans of certain dead celebrities continue to believe their hero is still here and in hiding. An Elvis-is-alive website offers “proof” of his continuing existence; some believe comedian Andy Kaufman’s death is one of his biggest performance-art hoaxes; and — it goes without saying — Michael Jackson faked his own death to avoid the financial and personal pressures he was facing.

And when it comes to problematic political leaders, demand for solid proof of their deaths becomes a much more serious issue with ramifications for the stability of governments and international peace. Consider the capture and death of Saddam Hussein: Video proof of his hanging circulated on the Internet to end rumors he was still alive. Calls for proof that his sons Uday and Qusay were killed also circulated after their reported deaths.

Did Hitler really commit suicide in his bunker? What did happen to his body? Does it really take a photo like Mussolini hanging upside down to prevent people from believing a dictator’s death has not been faked?

Just be warned: Already scammers have created phony photos and videos of bin Laden’s death circulating on Facebook and Google. Please don’t click on these links — they’ll likely put you at risk for computer viruses, and you may be shunted to websites requesting personal information.

But like the photo of Paul McCartney in Life magazine, will these visual and verbal “proofs” of well-known people become new sources of ambiguity, leading anxious people already prone to conspiracies to spread rumors that their deaths have indeed been greatly exaggerated?

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

More From Peter M. Nardi

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.