Monday, June 9, 2014

Hurricanes - What's in a Name?

The headlines read:  Ladykillers: Hurricanes with female names deadlier” (CBS) and “Female-named hurricanes cause more deaths in the U.S.  (USA Today).  These are real attention-getters, but are they accurate?

A group of researchers from the University of Illinois found that the number of people killed in hurricanes with female names was greater, on average, than the number killed by hurricanes with male names.  This was based on death tolls from the 94 hurricanes in the US from 1950 to 2012.  “The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but a hurricane of the same strength with a female name would kill about 42.”

They reasoned that people’s attitudes caused them not to take those with female names as seriously leading to less urgency in seeking shelter.  To test this hypothesis they presented hurricane names to people asking them to determine from the name alone whether it was more dangerous or sounded gentler.  “They found that people (such as undergraduate students at Illinois) who were asked to imagine being in the path of ‘Hurricane Alexandra’ (or ‘Christina’ or ‘Victoria’) rated the storm as less risky and intense compared with those asked to imagine being in the path of ‘Hurricane Alexander’ (or ‘Christopher’ or ‘Victor’).

Others are skeptical.  One scientist called the conclusion "very problematic and misleading."  Another suspected that it could be “a statistical fluke" due to the sample size and the large number of other factors that could affect fatality of the hurricanes.  When researchers make no attempt to control for these outside factors, erroneous conclusions are likely.  Furthermore, a survey of undergraduate students is a sample of convenience, not necessarily representative of the US population and a common short cut taken by college professors that should know better.  (It is interesting that CBS did not even report the possible problems with the conclusions or with the sampling practices.  They reported as if correlation equals causation!)

An interesting sidelight is that until the late-1970s all hurricanes were given female names.  The practice was changed “because of society's increased awareness of sexism.”  (If one silly reason can lead to a change in the naming convention, what is to stop this “very problematic” study from doing the same?)  But the researchers shun the idea of going to all male names so as not “to scare people all the time.”  They just want us to be less “sexist” in our reactions and resulting preparations.

A more interesting study might compare the annual May hurricane forecasts with actual storms at the end of the season.  Those forecasts are always loudly reported as a warning or relief, but forgotten by the end of the year.  Do they ever admit to being wrong?  No, the new forecasts are just reported the following year with the same breathless anxiety and assumed to be an accurate and (usually) dire warning.  A little critical thinking is not as dangerous as knee jerk assumptions about storm names or about the relevance of the news.

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