A new study making the rounds today claims that hurricanes with female names kill more people than storms with male names because people are less inclined to believe that something with a feminine name can kill them and therefore less likely to take seriously the storm's threat. While "Proven By Science: Sexism Can Literally Kill You" is a tempting headline to write, the reality, as reality tends to be, is probably more complicated.
The research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University analyzed data from 1950 to 2012 and compared the death rates between storms with male names and storms with female names (they left out Katrina and Audrey, which produced such high death tolls that they would skew the data). Researchers found that female-named storms, on average, killed 45 people while male storms killed only 23. Way to lean in, ladies!
The difference between male and female hurricanes is an interesting cocktail reception data point, but hardly one that proves that sexism is why more people died from female storms. Here's the Washington Post with more on how researchers linked the death toll discrepancy with sexism.
To test the hypothesis the gender of the storm names impacts people's perceptions, the researchers set up 6 experiments presenting a series of questions to between 100 to 346 people. The sexism showed up again.
Respondents predicted male hurricanes to be more intense the female hurricanes in one exercise. In another exercise, the hurricane sex affected how respondents said they prepare for a hurricane.
"People imagining a 'female' hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter," Shavitt said. "The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women – they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men."
Whelp, goodbye. Goodbye everyone. I'm going to move to the wilderness and interact only with bears. Sure, I might get killed, but I might get killed anyway, by sexism. At least if bears kill me I know they're doing it because they're hungry and I'm made of meat.
While we don't need another hashtag to establish the fact that most of the world has a serious sexism problem, this study doesn't necessarily express a manifestation of that problem, says Ed Yong at National Geographic. Yong, in his takedown of the U of I/ASU study, extensively quotes Jeff Lazo from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. According to Lazo, the study has a few major problems with it, most notably that because before 1979, hurricanes only had female names (again, because sexism) and that hurricanes before 1979 were deadlier than hurricanes after 1979 as a general rule, due to the fact that in olden-times, people weren't working with the same technology or sophisticated severe weather alert systems we have in place now. Lazo claims the comparison between people's expectation of how strong a storm will be in 2014 has little to do with how people actually behaved in a storm that occurred years ago. Here's more from Yong,
[Researchers] included indirect deaths in their fatality counts, which includes people who, say, are killed by fallen electrical lines in the clean-up after a storm. [...] He also notes that the damage a hurricane inflicts depends on things like how buildings are constructed, and other actions that we take long before a hurricane is named, or even before it forms.
Then, there are the six experiments. As is common in psychology, the volunteers in the first three were all college students. "There is no reason to think that University of Illinois undergraduate students in hypothetical scenarios would have any relation to real-world decision making to populations in hurricane vulnerable areas," says Lazo. [...]
Finally, Lazo says that there's a lot of evidence on how people respond to hurricane threats, and how their decisions are influenced by their social situation, vulnerability, culture, prior experience, sources of information, when the hurricane makes land, and so on.
In other words, the study shows that sexism exists regarding storm names, but absolutely didn't establish that sexism is what led to an uptick in storm deaths in the past and definitely doesn't prove that changing a storm's name could have halved the number of ensuing fatalities.
Even though imagining a hurricane in the 1960's as an underestimated Peggy Olson type is kind of fun.