Are People Really Less Afraid of Female Hurricanes?

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Photo: Tim Boyles/Getty Images

An eye-catching new study shows that hurricanes with more feminine names tend to cause more damage, suggesting that people take “female” hurricanes less seriously when it comes to evacuating and taking other precautions. 

But there’s actually no need to start naming all our hurricanes “Rocky” or “Jawbone” just yet, because the paper has some serious flaws — at least according to one Columbia University statistician.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and published online this afternoon in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes some interesting observations based on lab experiments with gendered hurricane names. For example, people tend to perceive hurricanes with feminine names to be less threatening than those with masculine names, and people were less likely to say they’d follow evacuation orders for a hurricane named Kate compared to a hurricane named Denny, for example.

But it’s a step too far to apply those lab findings to the real world, where a variety of social and media influences can make a person decide what sort of precautions to take in the face of an impending storm. And that’s what the researchers do in analyzing past storm-death totals and positing a link between storm-name femininity (as judged by reviewers who rated the names without knowing the purpose of the study) and deadliness.

The numbers here just aren’t sturdy enough. The researchers analyzed death rates from hurricanes over the last six decades — but until 1979, hurricanes were only given feminine names. So it’s a bit of a stretch to use three decades of female-only names to reach the conclusion that storms with ladylike names caused more death and destruction. Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University, expressed skepticism in an email:

If you look at their archival study, you’ll see that their coefficient was not statistically significant!  That doesn’t mean the effect isn’t there, but it does mean that their sample sizes are low, and when you’re talking about hurricane deaths, you don’t have the data to say much more conclusive than that.

Moreover, as Gelman noted, there could be other reasons people react differently to the names — one of the names used in the experiments was “Big Bertha,” for example, which likely brings to mind the nickname “Big Bertha.” (Sure enough, “Bertha” was rated scarier than Arthur, Cristobal, Kyle, and Marco.) 

None of this is to say gender certainly isn’t a factor, of course — we have evidence that sexism influences countless other parts of day-to-day life — just that the researchers didn’t really show what they were setting out to do. (For more hole-poking into this research, be sure to check out Ed Yong’s writeup for National Geographic.)