why the hurricane study is not a referendum on whether “sexism kills”

The hurricane study caught people’s imagination precisely because we had never thought about it before and, once we hear it, the basic idea sounds at least plausible. Unfortunately, the “hurricane name study” is a doomed research design for credibly testing what is actually a clever and even potentially useful public health hypothesis. I suggested why it was doomed from the start in my earlier post, and may elaborate more on that later.

What I want to take up here, however, is the pervasive hindsight bias that comes along with surprising findings like this. We’d never thought about the consequences of giving men’s and women’s names to hurricanes before, but, now that somebody has offered a finding that claims naming hurricanes after women actually kills people, it’s easy to get into our head this is always and naturally the direction we would have anticipated it to go.

Various stories about the hurricane study used variations on the phrase “sexism kills.” What I think is important to recognize is that a “sexism kills” storyline could presumably be devised regardless of the direction of the relationship. So there is zero genuine stake in any of this for the fight against sexism, beliefs about the importance of gender bias, or anything else.

My colleague Art Stinchcombe once wrote that any good sociologist should be able to come up with three explanations for a given correlation. It’s a sociological imagination limbering exercise that I regularly do myself, and I call it the Stinchcombe Test.

Say the finding instead was that more people die in hurricanes named after men than hurricanes named after women. Could we explain that as an example that “sexism kills”? Let’s try the Stinchcombe Test!

1. Some deaths in and around hurricanes are no doubt ambiguous as to whether the fatality was actually caused by the hurricane or would have happened anyway. In other words, an interpretive act is involved in deciding that any death counts as a “hurricane fatality.” The people who make those judgments may have gender biases that lead them to think about male-named hurricanes as more potent than female-named hurricanes. Accordingly, in marginal cases, deaths may be attributed to hurricanes named after men that would not been attributed to other causes had it been named after a woman.

2. Atlantic Hurricanes kill more Americans in the South. There’s a social psych literature–the overall probity of which I have no opinion–about how the South has a Culture of Honor, and that part of this (roughly speaking) involves men reacting particularly aggressively, even irrationally, in the face of perceived threats from other men. Meanwhile, the same men are often downright courtly toward women. So, hurricanes named after men could provoke a defiance in men that is not activated when hurricanes are named after women. Some men might think: I’m not going to back down and run away from no Hurricane Ivan. If Ivan thinks he’s so tough, he can come get me. I’ll be out on the porch with my gun.

3. Gender-naming hurricanes may prime unconscious notions we have about the dominance of men and submissiveness of women. This may affect the sense of personal efficacy (or locus of control) that we have when responding to news of an impending hurricane. In other words, people may unconsciously be inclined to think they have more agency about what they can do to keep themselves safe when a hurricane is named after a woman. Naming a hurricane after a man, on the other hand, might provoke a sense of fatalism, or a greater sense in some people that they are powerless to prevent the consequences of a hurricane. So some people may feel more efficacy and, in turn, actually do more to protect themselves when hurricanes are named after women (and, in contrast, feel more paralyzed and do less in the face of hurricanes named after men).

Not saying any of these are true, and certainly not that any might be important causes, but I don’t feel any are completely implausible in terms of something that could happen sometimes. So maybe there are some cases in which one or all of the above mechanisms actually have led to some additional deaths (or attributed deaths) in hurricanes named after men. If gender biases may sometimes work in each direction, then without being able to articulate more specific tests of the theory, any pattern in deaths–including no differences at all–is consistent with the hypothesis that at least some deaths are due to the names of hurricanes and gender biases.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

5 thoughts on “why the hurricane study is not a referendum on whether “sexism kills””

  1. I was curious about the Stinchcombe quote. Some googling revealed the context and citation for those who are interested.

    “‘I usually assign students in a theory class the following task: Choose any relation between two or more variables which you are interested in; invent at least three theories, not known to be false, which might explain these relations; choosing appropriate indicators, derive at least three empirical consequences from each theory, such that the factual consequences distinguish among the theories. This I take to be the model of social theorizing as a practical scientific activity. A student who has difficulty thinking of at least three sensible explanations for any correlation that he is interested in should probably choose another profession.’” Stinchcombe (Constructing Social Theories 1968: 13)

    Seems like a great teaching exercise. Thanks to University of Leeds sociologist Ray Pawson who put the whole quote on a publicly-available powerpoint.

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  2. Colbert just led with the girly hurricane story. “If Charlie Manson had changed his name to Eloise Manson he would have been three times as homicidal. Because everybody trusts the nice lady with the forehead swastika.”

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  3. I love the Stinchcombe Test! Back in high school when I did debate I learned that it’s usually more fun to argue against your preferred opinion rather than for it. You have to be more creative, and you almost always learn something. I am going to borrow this test for my methods class next semester!

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