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Beastly Numbers

Ben Radford

June 6, 2006

It’s that time of year again. Time for summer holidays, barbeques, and high gas prices.

And, oh yes, time for a small but significant number of people to worry about the mystical significance of numbers. Because, you see, June 6 isn’t just any date, it is (or could be) a day of evil and bad luck, a date containing the reputed “Number of the Beast” mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

The concern over (and significance of) 666 is the result of a misunderstanding. Scholars note that the notorious number is actually a reference to the Christian-persecuting Roman emperor Nero, though many continue to believe that 666 is somehow satanic.

Pop culture fuels this fear. Rock and heavy metal bands such as Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Dio have long included satanic imagery and references to 666 in their song lyrics and cover art. This sort of pseudo-satanism has less to do with devil worship than clever marketing. Such gimmicks have long been a staple of commercial fiction and film, including the recent remake of The Omen (being released—of course—on 6/6/06). In the new film, the characters believe that world events are fulfilling Biblical prophecy and that Satan is among us. The best-selling Christian series Left Behind also capitalized on this numerological nonsense.

Of course, 666 is hardly alone in having a bad reputation. To this day some office buildings and airplanes avoid the number 13, despite no evidence that there is anything bad or unlucky about it. (Highways, addresses, and area codes have also been renumbered to avoid 666.) After the September 11, 2001 attacks, many people noted that the twin towers could be symbolized by the 11 in the date, which must meanÂ… something.

Why do people find such significance in arbitrary numbers? We are pattern-seeking animals. The human mind is designed to seek meaning, and it often finds meaning where none exists. Some religious fundamentalists have for decades and centuries claimed that the End Times are nearly upon us, interpreting both manmade and natural disasters as signs of the impending apocalypse.

My first brush with numbers of supposedly special significance came as a child at the beach when I was told that every seventh wave was especially big. This intrigued me, and every once in a while I would take a break from making sandcastles and anatomically generous mermaids to count the waves. I’d pick an area of beach in front of me, wait for the biggest wave I could find to hit the shore, then start counting. After about twenty minutes it became clear to me that the number seven, in this case anyway, held no special significance. Big waves came and went without apparent pattern.

It is often claimed that deaths come in threes. Yet a little critical thinking dispels this myth. Tens of thousands of people die every day from disease, accident, suicide, and murder. Out of all those, which are “counted” (and by whom or what?) toward the string of three? If the deaths are ordered in noticeable groups of three, presumably they would come within a certain timeframe, say a few days or weeks. But if you don’t specify or predefine what time frame you’re looking for—or whose deaths you’re counting—you won’t know if you have it. With any set of events, if you pick and choose which ones you notice, you can make groups of anything. People often see patterns they impose, not necessarily real patterns in the world.

Most of these claims are testable. If a person believes that big waves come in sevens, good things come in fives, deaths come in threes, or the number 666 is evil (however one defines that), these can be tested to see if they are true. So far the belief in special numbers rests on faith instead of evidence.

Of course, even if the number 666 did hold some sort of satanic or sinister significance, it would have nothing to do with the date June 6, 2006. No matter how you write out the numbers in the month, day, and year, there is no connection to 666. Even if you leave off the century marker of 2000, as people often do, we are left not with 6 but instead 06.

Since Arabic (some say Indian) mathematicians had the (now-obvious but then-brilliant) idea to invent the zero as a placeholder thousands of years ago, we can’t simply ignore the correct date. The closest one could come would be 6606, which somehow doesn’t seem as scary as 666 but holds the same potential for evil.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.