Researchers have claimed that people are more likely to prepare for a hurricane with a male name than a female name due to implicit sexism, in a study published in PNAS which is, more than likely, incorrect.
The study, "Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes," attempts to figure out why (slightly) more people die in storms with female names than in storms with male ones. In order to test the theory that this is because people are pretty fundamentally sexist ("warm fuzzy, Tabitha won't hurt us as much as mean old Harry, so we won't take precautions") the researchers asked six groups of volunteers a number of hypothetical, storm-related questions that hinged on each storm's names. For example, volunteers who saw lists of hurricane names without descriptions assumed those with male names would be stronger. Equipped with more detailed information on the storms, they still thought "Alexander" would be more dangerous than "Alexandra," and so on.
But a few methodological flaws hamper the theory. National Geographic's Ed Yong spoke to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Jeff Lazo about what went wrong. Lazo explains that the data set used by the researchers is skewed because male hurricane names weren't used at all until 1979 — by which time storm deaths had decreased significantly. The researchers write that they split the data set in two, pre-1979 deaths and post-1979 deaths and got comparable results, but those new sample sizes are too small to judge by.
So there was no real way to account for the discrepancy, writes Yong:
[The team claims] 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.
And Lazo tells Yong that some of the deaths included in the data have no business being counted, like those caused by a storm "indirectly." Yong brings the example of someone killed by a falling electrical line during cleanup. "How would gender name influence that sort of fatality?" asks Lazo. Furthermore, those answering the questions aren't necessarily those who would be in a situation to prepare for hurricanes. They might be uninitiated as to the on-the-ground preparation needed before a major storm.
But before we throw away the theory completely, there's still something to be said for examining the subtle ways in which sexism affects our lives:
I'm willing to believe that the American public is stupid in many ways when discussing gender, but that hurricane-name study is a mess.— Dave Hogg (@davehogg) June 2, 2014
Well said, sir.