Hurricanes with feminine names are probably NOT more destructive

Chances are you have already seen a story claiming that research has shown that hurricanes with female names are more dangerous because people see them as less threatening and take fewer precautions.

I would suggest that at an instinctive level this always looked rather unlikely. Now National Geographic suggests that Jeff Lazo a social scientist and economist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research has found some pretty big flaws in the original research’s methodology:

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. 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.

HT: Mark Pack

One thought on “Hurricanes with feminine names are probably NOT more destructive

  1. I spent a bit of time reading around these findings. While the study has received quite a lot of flack in its analysis of historical fatality data, there was also a second, experimental part which hasn’t been mentioned quite so much. In this part, they gave people questionnaires asking about what steps they would take to prepare for a hurricane – they found that people reported that they would take less thorough steps to prepare for a hypothetical hurricane with a feminine name. While this obviously doesn’t replicate the actual scenario of being in the path of a hurricane and hearing warnings about it and other factors will have a greater impact than the name of the hurricane, combining these results with the historical fatality analysis is extremely suggestive.

    The paper’s authors have also released responses to some of the criticisms – I can’t find them right now but will link you to them later if I remember.

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