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.


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