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Are Some Years More Important Than Others?

2 minute read

The year 2016 might be over, but debates rage on about whether it was one of the most important–or worst–years ever. Yet amid talk of surprising election results and shocking celebrity deaths, these conversations often miss a key point: this question is impossible to answer.

One problem is that humans have a recency bias. Modern events are easy to remember and–thanks to the Internet–easy to communicate, so it can feel like more important stuff happens now than before. This is why you hear people talking about the 2016 election being the nastiest in history, even though the 1876 election featured rumors that Rutherford B. Hayes had shot his own mother.

The second problem is the idea of the year itself. At its core, it’s a somewhat arbitrary construct–a 12-month frame for events that are essentially continuous. Take the moon landing, for example. Even if we all agree it was a uniquely important event, the story of the space race is not confined to 1969. Years from now, as our perspective evolves, we may see that the real giant leap for mankind took place long before or after.

Of course, it’s only human to look for patterns that offer more immediate satisfaction; it’s what helps us make sense of a world that is fundamentally chaotic. But as we begin another year that may or may not be the most important one in history, it’s worth remembering what mathematician John Allen Paulos has said, in reference to the idea that celebrity deaths come in threes: everything comes in threes if you just “wait for the third one to occur.”


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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com