Hurricane names don't prove sexism

Published on Friday, 6 June 2014 22:20 - Written by

Every so often, a wonderful object lesson comes along to show how hard people will work to stuff the world into their conception of it.

The latest example is a new and very flawed study that shows just how deep our (supposed) sexism goes.

A journal called the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “found” that more people die from hurricanes that have feminine names. The reason is misogyny, the study’s authors claim, because people don’t take the female names as seriously.

“Do people judge hurricane risks in the context of gender-based expectations?” the authors ask. “We use more than six decades of death rates from U.S. hurricanes to show that feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes. Laboratory experiments indicate that this is because hurricane names lead to gender-based expectations about severity and this, in turn, guides respondents’ preparedness to take protective action.”

Just in case anyone wonders why the government is spending money studying such a thing, the authors report on their own “significance”: “Meteorologists and geoscientists have called for greater consideration of social science factors that predict responses to natural hazards. We answer this call by highlighting the influence of an unexplored social factor, gender-based expectations, on the human toll of hurricanes that are assigned gendered names.”

Stop right there. Aside from the question of whether “social sciences” are really sciences — with measurable, testable and falsifiable facts — just who are these meteorologists who are calling for this?

It’s much more likely that this is simply another attempt by the softer sciences — say political science and gender studies — to marshal the hard sciences to their progressive cause, such as when it was claimed that Republican brains don’t work as well as liberal brains (disproved).

The Washington Post quotes one of the authors — who is clearly not a scientist of any sort.

“Sharon Shavitt, study co-author and professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, says the results imply an ‘implicit sexism’; that is, we make decisions about storms based on the gender of their name without even knowing it,” the Post explained.

But a closer look at the study shows the obvious flaws.

First, hurricanes were only given female names prior to 1978. The study compares hurricanes from 1950 through the present, so there’s a much larger sample for female-named hurricanes.

Second, the study doesn’t factor in the simple truth that we’ve gotten better at hurricane preparedness and response — therefore we have fewer deaths in the present era (with male and female names) than in the past (when it was all or mostly female names).

Even the left-leaning website The Daily Kos calls out the study’s authors. The website’s Terry Pinder takes the example of Katrina.

“Katrina was especially deadly because so much failure happened at the local government level in Louisiana,” he said. “I don’t see how these failures would have been any different had Katrina been named Kenneth.”

The study falls apart and so does the claim. Hurricane deaths don’t prove we’re sexist. No matter what they’re named.