Those Tricksy Lady Hurricanes

I'm sure you've seen the articles flying around the internet talking about how hurricanes with feminine names are more dangerous than those with masculine names because science. I hadn't given it much thought, but Jude groaned about it yesterday, and so I pulled the data – conveniently available as an Excel spreadsheet if you have a PNAS subscription or a university to mooch from – and read the actual paper, and discovered that, unsurprisingly, their claims aren't nearly as strong as they're being made out to be:

But Lazo thinks that neither the archival analysis nor the psychological experiments support the team’s conclusions. For a start, they analysed hurricane data from 1950, but hurricanes all had female names at first. They only started getting male names on alternate years in 1979. This matters because hurricanes have also, on average, been getting less deadly over time. “It could be that more people die in female-named hurricanes, simply because more people died in hurricanes on average before they started getting male names,” says Lazo.

Jung’s team tried to address this problem by separately analysing the data for hurricanes before and after 1979. They claim that the findings “directionally replicated those in the full dataset” but that’s a bit of a fudge. The fact is they couldn’t find a significant link between the femininity of a hurricane’s name and the damage it caused for either the pre-1979 set or the post-1979 one (and a “marginally significant interaction” of p=0.073 doesn’t really count). The team argues that splitting the data meant there weren’t enough hurricanes in each subset to provide enough statistical power. But that only means we can’t rule out a connection between gender and damage; we can’t soundly confirm one either.

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.

To their credit, the authors responded directly to that article reminding readers that their "substantial" (note: not significant, and these words do matter) effect of gender on fatality levels occurs only for "severe" hurricanes. But there's no statistical power behind the interaction of gender and any factor they considered except how long ago the hurricane happened (PDF).

(The bulk of the actual study involved a large number of participants, likely undergraduates in intro-level courses at the researchers' university, rating hypothetical situations involving hurricanes with female- or male-designated names. So really what the study found is that 18- to 24-year-olds in Illinois are likely to subconsciously judge a hurricane by its perceived gender in the absence of a lot of other factors. Aaaaaaand there's really nothing to that, aside from an interesting bit of click bait for PNAS, but the internet is losing its damn mind.)

Maybe those lady hurricanes should just lean in.

Don't let issues at home distract you: If El Niño calls while you are in a meeting, have your assistant tell him that Mommy's busy, and you'll call him back just as soon as you make landfall.

4 thoughts on “Those Tricksy Lady Hurricanes

  1. Thanks, I was wondering who the participants were! Most people in the hurricane zone take any major hurricane seriously, whatever it’s named!

  2. So I guess we should start calling hurricanes gender neutral but scary names, so people take them seriously. So when people hear that Hurricane Starscream is on its way, they’ll clear out. But how embarrassing for Hurricane Thunderdeath when it peters out at sea.

  3. Dr A – To be clear, the paper doesn’t actually state who the participants are, but if my time earning free pizza at a major research university has taught me anything, the “participants” in any study conducted at a major research university are undergrads at said university until explicitly specified otherwise.

  4. Thanks. I don’t have a university subscription anymore but was already wondering how far they went back and if a lot of the “effect” could have been that all hurricanes used to be named after women.
    From your subscription, think I’d be on firmer ground (as male/female alternate) to claim that even numbered are worse than odd numbered!

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