Oh what to do with a journal article carrying the claim that female-named hurricanes kill more people than male-named ones? It sounds like something that could easily crop up by chance, but the researchers claim the difference is due to the fact that people don’t take even female hurricanes seriously and therefore fail to take the same precautions they might have if facing a male-named storm.
You could: a)Take the study at face value, since it’s in a peer reviewed journal, in this case PNAS. b) Take it seriously but include one or two quotes from “skeptics”. c) Ignore it. d) Make fun of it. Or e) Take it apart and analyze how researchers could have obtained such a result.
A quick survey of the coverage showed that reporters tried most of the above, except for d.) Jokes filled up comments sections, but perhaps reporters thought it was in poor taste to poke fun at any story that involves death. And at least one of the study’s authors gave numerous quotes suggesting she thinks lives are at stake. Here’s a typical example, from the USA Today story:
"People may be dying as a result of the femininity of a hurricane (name)," says Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a co-author of the study, which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There were a couple of parts to the study, some more plausible than others. It included a couple of surveys in which people were asked how they felt about various hypothetical male and female named hurricanes. They rated the names on a scale of masculinity and femininity – as some names, such as Dolly, and Fay, are apparently super girly. According to the study, when given little other information, people rated the most girlish sounding hurricanes as the least fearsome.
Then there was the more extraordinary claim – that people reacted differently to real storms with male and female names and these reactions accounted for a difference in real death tolls.
Let’s see how various reporters dealt with this news.
At Reuters, Sharon Begley went with option a) for her story, What’s in a (hurricane) name? More deaths: Study.
Also going for a) was the Chicago Tribune’s Joan Carey with Hurricanes with Women’s Names Significantly More Deadly: Study
For the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang feature, Jason Samenow went with b) in Female named hurricanes kill more than male hurricanes because people don’t respect them, study finds.
But his lede leans more toward the serious side. He even calls the study “groundbreaking”.
People don’t take hurricanes as seriously if they have a feminine name and the consequences are deadly, finds a new groundbreaking study.
At USA Today, Doyle Rice went for option b), including a couple of skeptics in Ladykillers: Hurricanes with Female Names Deadlier
His more prominent skeptic, Jeff Lazo, makes a couple of observations:
One researcher not involved in the study, Hugh Gladwin of Florida International University, found the report "very problematic and misleading." Jeff Lazo, director of the societal impacts program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., says, "Any finding with respect to naming and fatalities could be a statistical fluke."
"A lot of factors influence decisions [about hurricanes], including socio-demographics, vulnerability, personal and family ability to respond, cultural aspects, prior experience (actual and perceived), quality and sources of information, time of day of landfall, etc.," he says.
AP’s Seth Borenstein also went with option b.) but leaned toward e). He included several skeptics in Study: People Fear Male Named Hurricanes More. The story includes an interesting observation about Sandy, which, though feminine sounding, was also not clearly defined as a hurricane, but was at times classified as a mere tropical storm.
For Mashable, Andrew Freedman took a more analytical approach, e) in his story : Hurricanes with Female Names Kill More People, Study Finds
The skeptics do more than offer sound bites, but instead break down what they find reasonable and dubious. Here’s a quote from Robert J. Meyer, co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania:
"But to take this, very small, effect observed in a web study and use it to conclude that there would have been fewer deaths in Katrina had it been named 'Ken' is simply ridiculous."
The story also mentioned one of the challenges in finding the right outside experts to comment on such cross-disciplinary research:
None of the study's authors were meteorologists or emergency managers, although meteorologists Mashable contacted for comment said such research is outside their area of expertise.
Also going for the analytical approach, e) was Ed Yong in his National Geographic Blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. His skepticism is implicit in his headline: Why have female hurricanes killed more people than male ones?
The story uses one of the same widely quoted experts, Jeff Lazo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, but Lazo does seem to be the most skeptical of the skeptics, and Yong draws him out at some length.
Lazo points to one problem stemming from the fact that all hurricanes were given female names until 1979. The researchers could only confirm their hypothesis if they went back to 1950. And he gave other reasons for doubt:
Other aspects of the team’s analysis didn’t make sense to Lazo. For example, they 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. “How would gender name influence that sort of fatality?” he asks. 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.
By the way, this year’s hurricanes will be named Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.
It would be interesting if someone did a study to see if there’s any kind of inverse effect – that is, if hurricanes can influence the power of names. Do people change their attitudes toward women with names that had been assigned to memorably destructive storms? Perhaps the world now takes women named Sandy and Katrina more seriously. Who would mess with a Sandy or Katrina now? And this year, there’s hope for some power to be injected into Nana, Dolly and, yes, Fay.