Female Hurricanes: Why it’s OK when Research Messes Up.



I like the social side of Emergency Management-ology. We already know a lot about the mechanics of Earthquakes and Tornadoes and building failures from Earth Sciences and Engineering. But we know a lot less about the interface between society and disasters. So I got all curious about a recent news story this last week.

I heard on NPR–which was confirmed by USA Today, National Geographic, and the Washington Post that this study out of Illinois University claims that female-named hurricanes kill more people than male-named ones. Ostensibly because Americans subconsciously believe that “female” hurricanes will be less forceful than “male” hurricanes. The 6 part study found (among other things) that students asked to imagine Hurricane Alexandra was bearing down on them were less likely to say they would evacuate voluntarily than those who were asked to imagine a Hurricane Alexander. That sounds like important news for an Emergency Manager who spends a large chunk of her time thinking about how to get people to listen to warnings.

So… I looked further into it (Oh, how I love National Geographic). Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with the study.

1. The study focused on Hurricanes which hit the US between 1950 and 2012 (excluding Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because it is widely considered to be such an outlier) but before 1979, ALL hurricanes had female names which skews the statistics.

2. Additionally, hurricanes have been doing LESS damage over the years as society has developed better building materials and warning systems. (Again… Hurricane Katrina is an outlier here…) So all the heavy-hitters in the past were more likely to have female names.

3. The people studied were landlocked Illinois students who are probably not representative of people accustomed to making decisions about Hurricanes.

4. The factors that influence whether or not you will decide to evacuate are incredibly complex including such considerations as culture, vulnerability, information source, previous experience, etc.

So, according to one critic “what the team has basically done is to show ‘that individuals respond to gender’…” which isn’t really news at all.

But that’s ok; it’s not a waste. For one simple reason: Critics. This study has attracted a lot of media attention. In it’s own small way, it has caused a conversation. (Probably short lived, but it’s something, no?) It has sparked a chorus from the peanut gallery–the nit-picking, nay-saying, obnoxious arm-chair critics who have torn apart a lot of hard work to say: you did it wrong, but hey… next time we’ll know how to ask the question better.

You see, most of science isn’t about finding answers, it’s about finding the right question. And finding the right question is harder than you might think because sometimes you think you’re asking a particular question until you hear the answer. (That makes no sense, of course, because you are a very practical person who only has to think about words but science has to translate words into numbers and then back again which is tricky.) The trouble with the Illinois study was that it asked “Do people respond to gender in this particular scenario?” (receiving a resounding yes) when what it meant to ask was: “Does how you name a hurricane affect the decision making process enough to matter?”  That’s a question that 1. we didn’t know about until Illinois tried for it and 2. will take a dozen or more different studies to parse (because translating a concept into words, then into action, then into numbers, then back to words again is really hard).

That’s why science never goes to waste. Because even when you fail, you raise better questions.


Wrestling with Slacktivsm

I started this blog post intending to publish a pithy New Year’s “let’s all promise to not do this anymore” post. But it seems to have outgrown my assumptions. Don’t you just love-hate that?

Without further preamble, let me introduce you to an ex-petpeeve of mine: Slacktivism also known as hashtag activism, armchair activism, or clicktivism. Slacktivism is when you support a cause by promoting awareness via the internet–especially social media. It’s meant to have a negative connotation invoking images of self-involved, ill-informed, quickly bored social butterflies flitting from cause to cause for the joy of attention. (Yuck). Slacktivism is Mo’vember, Pink Hair October, #bringbackourgirls, Ice Bucket Challenge. (Or is it? Back to that in a second.)


Here’s what a variety experts say about slacktivism.

  1. The Washington Post reports on a new study which states that public “token displays of support” seem to make more of a difference when the supporter has previously made a private commitment. If the supporter’s first act of support is public, it turns out, the support is shallow and short-lived. The researchers suggest that it has to do with your perception of your own identity. When you support something privately, it is internally motivated–you begin to see yourself as someone who supports Campaign A and will take further actions (possibly public) to be consistent with that belief. When you support something publicly first, you haven’t internalized the motivation to the same degree and it’s easier to abandon the support when Campaign B comes along.
  2. Rabbi Mitelman at The Huffington Post found something similar in internal consistency vs. moral balancing. Internal Consistency says that when you do good things you begin to think of yourself as a good person and will continue to do more good things. Moral Balancing, on the other hand, says that when you do a good thing, you feel like you’ve done your good deed for the day and will give yourself permission to NOT do something else. Here, we can begin to see why some people like Slacktivism and others don’t.
  3. Huffington Post goes on to note some pros and cons to Slacktivism
    1. Pro: low cost. Con: low benefit. Since Slacktivistic activities are by nature really easy to do, it doesn’t cost the supporter much (if anything) to do it. Change my profile picture? Done. Upload a picture with a hashtag? Check. BUT, since there’s very little cost (i.e. sacrifice), there’s very little emotional investment and it’s easy for supporters to get poached by a newer campaign.
    2. Pro: raises awareness. Con: doesn’t raise money or volunteers (unless you’re smart or lucky or both… We’re looking at YOU, Ice Bucket Challenge). Many critics dismiss awareness as pretty much useless because it so often doesn’t translate into anything tangible. This HuffPost article states that it can take up to 7-8 exposures to an issue before an individual takes action. Which is a lot of exposures, but not unattainable if you have a motivated, vocal support base. As Rabbi Mitelman states, “Slacktivism does help…a little. Sometimes.” Seems like a balance is the best policy here.
    3. Pro: Campaigns are easy to understand. Con: Campaigns might be oversimplified.
    4. Pro: pictures and hashtags can be uniting and powerful. Con: hashtags can be co-opted. 

I have a lot to say on #3, 4, but first we have to talk about networks, adaptability, and meaningful data.


A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity.
A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity. Courtesy of Jonathan A. Reese

There’s a set of theories called Complex Adaptive Systems which really deserves its own blog post (stay tuned) because its vast and complex (heh) and talks about a lot of things. Nutshell: Complex Adaptive Systems is a way of describing interactions between networks. Networks can be between delivery systems (mail, hospitals, stock markets), between people (family, corporations, countries, internet friends), and between people and systems (bureaucracy, business investments, wars). Networks are nested like a fractal–You can zoom in to any level and find a series of relationships/connections. These theories work better to describe globalism than our previous ones.

There are two really cool things about networks. A. They generate a LOT of information. B. They can respond to changes really fast making them flexible and adaptable (pretty much the exact opposite of government which is based on a bureaucratic model. I’m serious: government has it’s own literal theories, you guys. I learned it in school.) The two really UNcool things about networks is that they generate a LOT of information–so much so that it’s hard to sift through all of it. B. The network is SO flexible that it can be really hard to get everyone working in the same direction (really bad for armies which is why bureaucracy still exists). So, like your brain, the network is sensing out the environment, receiving and generating lots of information most of which is what theorists call noise or meaningless data. Like the fact that your butt is touching a chair. Your brain knows it, but it mostly doesn’t care. Until your chair tips, suddenly the fact that your butt is touching a chair and moving is salient data or important to your brain. So…the thing that makes a network powerful is meaning. When all the nodes (participants or things) in a network care about the same thing, they work together in a synergistic fashion that is more powerful than if they worked alone. They do this by sharing information about changes in the environment (stuff outside the network that often affects the network. If a network is figure, the environment is ground–to use an art metaphor.) By repeating the meaning to the rest of the network which both recruits new participants and encourages those already participating.

We saw this work at Arab Spring. We saw this work at the Ice Bucket Challenge. Social media creating real, tangible change. Why didn’t we see it work so much with #bringbackourgirls? or Kony 2012?

Slacktivism + Networks = ?

Ok…now we can talk about #3, 4 from above.

Critics of Slacktivism–especially the hashtag variant–claim that hashtags harm campaigns more than they benefit them with awareness in two ways. First, they oversimplify a complex problem into an easy good-against-evil paradigm (once participants understood more about the situation on the ground, support for Kony 2012 dwindled). Oversimplification is damaging, they say because the actions that the eager, ill informed support base promote might not be the best solution. Or the only solution. Or their simply might not be a solution. Or it might be a long time in coming. (And the social media crowd is not known for their patience.) Secondly, hashtags can be co-opted. Usually in a bad way. This is what damaged the credibility (and usefulness?) of #bringbackourgirls as supporters began to bicker on the best way to show support with the tag. And this is what caused Dr. OZ to duck and cover when his critics took control of his tag.

But what if…

If a picture is worth a thousand words than a hashtag is worth a thousand pictures. No other means of conveying information has the ability of nesting data the way hashtags do (except for maybe poetry). Yes, hashtags can oversimplify a narrative. BUT they can also become iconic–shorthand for a complex story. Hashtags could be the modern equivelant of this:

"Tank Man" 1989, Tienanmen Square. Thanks to ABC.
“Tank Man” 1989, Tienanmen Square. Courtesy of ABC.


And yes, hashtags can be co-opted. We might never have a solution for that. BUT their co-optability also means that they’re inherently flexible. Which makes them a good tool for networks. In a world which changes so quickly, an adaptable tool could give the campaign much-needed longevity.

Let me end with a quote which I think sums up our responsibility as good citizens of the world and of the internet. Taken from Lina Srivastava at HuffPost:

“Is hashtag activism effective or not? To have comprehensive understanding of this kind of activism, a range of questions needs to be explored: What is the value of imagery in today’s social media networks where a glut of images exists? What is the role of social media in addressing injustice on a global scale? Whose participation is important, or determinative? What standards can we use to gauge the success of a social media hashtag campaign?”

Slacktivism or Social Activism? Tell us where you stand below.