Several news articles have recently been written about a study (Jung et al, 2014) that found "Female-Named" hurricanes lead to more deaths than "Male-Named" hurricanes because "people don't take female-named storms seriously". Essentially, gender bias towards feminine sounding names (indicating weakness, etc.) lead individuals to not take female named hurricanes seriously. These news articles are currently taking up around 75% of my newsfeed right now so I think it's time to say something. It has also been in the top 5 Washington Post articles shared over the past 24 hours (so it's not just all my fabulous gender- aware, disaster- aware friends).
There are four issues I would like to discuss.
Part One: Review and Critique of Jung, et al (2014)
Several of the experiments were clearly a sample of convenience as students at the University of Illinois were given class credit to participate. Most obviously a sample of convenience is likely not representative of the general population. And representative of the general population I suspect this sample is not. THE SAMPLE IS OF PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN ILLINOIS. Let's discuss some basic geography.
|All recorded hurricane tracks in the US (blue lines are TS)|
Is Illinois a state that is directly impacted by hurricanes? Let me put it this way, if Illinois ever does experience a hurricane than we have a serious problem on our hands because either there is a severely rogue hurricane ignoring all constraints of atmospheric pressure (or whatever) or the entirety of the southern United States has fallen into the Gulf of Mexico (which as bad as erosion and sea level rise is, and will continue to be I don’t anticipate it will be so bad as to make Illinois beach front property.
Do people in the upper Midwest have the awareness, or the extent of awareness as someone living in the Gulf Coast or other part of the country where hurricanes are a yearly event, or at least threat?
Additionally it does not appear that this study took into account the warnings from the government, etc. (mandatory, voluntary, or no evacuation (and other) recommendations) to the public. Were people ever told to evacuate? Is it that residents didn't take the storms seriously because of the name or because of the other factors that contribute to preparatory actions, etc. being taken? How much emphasis was placed on the intensity, etc. of the storm by the local news media? Was it towards the end of the month when individuals that live pay check to pay check could not afford to take protective actions? Did the hurricane hit on a weekend when people were able to take off of work or was it the middle of the week when employers would not release employees for a voluntary (if even) evacuation? Did this include indirect deaths from the hurricane? Perhaps protective actions were taken but in coming back to damaged homes deaths resulted from debris/ damage/ illness, etc. I could go on…
As a bonus critique the article says, "Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to a lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness". My personal definition of individual and household preparedness that I came up with given reading across preparedness literature and with significant input from colleagues during a graduate class on preparedness is as follows (warning: academic definition… I know, annoying):
Individual and household preparedness can be thought of as a dynamic state realized through a continual process of creating, maintaining, and positioning active and passive features of the household to allow individuals to effectively take immediate actions to save lives and property as well as to restore, reshape, and/or rebuild the parts of one’s life impacted within the household’s internal and external situational context.
Protective actions are not preparedness, end of discussion.
Protective actions are part of the phase of response.
Response includes immediate actions taken to protect lives and property. Everyone responds, either by taking an action or by not taking action. There are three categories of adaptive action (again, taken from reading across the literature and from notes from my graduate class on response at NDSU)
- Prepatory actions – packing a bag, locating pets, picking up children, filling gas tanks, shutting off utilities – activities in immediate anticipation of a hazard’s impact
- Protective actions – putting shutters on windows, putting in a fire line – things designed to protect people/ property/ environment around the people or property
- Withdrawal behavior – various kinds of sheltering and or evacuation
Jung et al do not define preparedness (a common theme of the preparedness literature) nor do they define protective actions.
Most obviously this study did not measure whether the individuals that died took protective action or not. Yet claims, "The substantial change in predicted counts of deaths for hurricanes high in normalized damage, coupled with the marginal change for less damaging hurricanes, supports our line of reasoning about the effect of gendered names on protective action." (pg 2)
I do appreciate one approach Jung et al employed, their willingness to identify limitations, and within the six experiments, address those limitations (e.g., "experiment 5 addressed possible differences in name familiarity by using a male name that was less popular than the female one" pg. 2). However, even these best intentions are quite fruitless when considering the misunderstanding Jung et al hold regarding preparedness, response, evacuation, protective action, social behavior, etc. Additionally, Jung et al. well cover their methods at the end of the article which is much appreciated and appropriate but does not always happen.
Part Two: Media’s Reporting of Journal Articles
This brings me to the second issue related to this situation. How the media wrote about this article and how they in turn presented this information to the public.
It is very concerning to me how writers for The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, and other "reputable" news sources pick up on certain journal articles that are pretty far off base. The news articles that were written were sensationalized, designed not to initiate a dialogue about our perceptions of strength and gender, nor to initiate a dialogue about the dangerous nature of hurricanes and the need to follow and take evacuations, and other actions seriously. Clearly this denotes an issue with the presentation and representation of academic research in the mainstream media that is in no way unique to this article in particular. It is a broader issue and in my opinion, one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Part Three: Values of and Approach to Critiquing Aspects of Social Movements
I do also want to take a moment to critique one post in particular, from NPR. First of all this article adds ZERO value to any dialogue about gender. It mocks the "lean in" movement in a demeaning and counterproductive way. Structured critique of aspects of movements are always an important part of any social movement. Yet, needless mocking of different aspects or waves within a social movement add no value and do nothing to progress the social movement forward. It is petty and it is lazy. Formulate a critique, offer solutions, and help move the dialogue forward. That is valuable.
Part Four: Respecting Victims of Disaster
My final point related to the NPR blog post, and perhaps most important, is a note on "disaster humor". Disasters and the like are traumatic events. Humor, especially post-disaster, can be a real coping method for those that have survived or been involved with the event. Often this humor can be seen as controversial. Those from outside the impacted community may not understand the humor or think that because the survivors have been able to find humor in the event that it is okay to mock. However, this specific NPR blog cross the line. Actually, it leaps over the line and then keeps running. In article with a title and a starting point of death it is not appropriate to devolve into mocking the source of those deaths. Again, it adds no value and is insensitive, to say the least, to those that have survived and live with the annual threat of hurricanes.
Part Five: Solutions
I don't like to critique without offering a solution. It occurs to me that including the idea of gender bias towards storm names could be included in studies of individuals and households decisions to take or not take protective action while weighing it against the other variables that have long been supported as influencing individuals and household decisions on protective actions.
The biggest issue here is that there are factors that contribute significantly more to wether or not an individual decides or is able to take protective action during not only a hurricane, but any possible disaster. This line of research is what should be written about in mainstream media stories, not journal articles that completely ignore 50 years of research and have such flawed methods.
The majority of the news articles as well as the academic article have suggested not naming hurricanes or "making members of the general public aware of the impact of gender biases on subjective risk perceptions may improve preparedness in the face of the next Hurricane Fay or Laura." (pg. 4) I so wish it was this easy.
I started the article off with a glimmer of hope when I saw, "Although natural hazards such as hurricanes represent both physical and social phenomena, meteorologists and geoscientists point out that too little attention has been paid to findings from the social sciences about subjective risk perceptions. Those findings highlight the importance of understanding how assessments of risk from threats in the environment are often influenced not only by environmental and social cues, but also by irrelevant psychological factors. Unfortunately, but expectedly there was no attempt to discuss or consider any of the existing literature on the topic. One of my professors is known for handing out folders upon folders full of articles to people when they don't know the literature on an area they're trying to talk about. 1. I find this incredibly helpful and have my own rather extensive database of articles going that I'm more than happy to share with anyone at any time and 2. It occurs to me that I may need to find Jung's mailing address and send a USB drive full of the response literature… Without considering the expansive body of literature on this topic, acknowledging only Lindell & Perry's (2012) Protective action decision model - which is a story for another day,
This is the perfect example of why we need to integrate and synthesize literature, and build off of it. This may be valuable information but because no other variable, known variable mind you! Were included or considered in any way I don’t see there being much value to this article other than getting everyone up in arms.
Although I have offered a critique of the original article by Jung and I do think it is inappropriate and lazy to disseminate findings in such a public manner without first understanding the methods or at least acknowledging the methodological issues UP FRONT (including using non sensationalized titles). As I happen to be somewhat well read on gender and perceptions of gender I would not necessarily be surprised to hear that there are certain perceptions regarding "female/ feminine/ woman-sounding" names. In fact one of the reasons my parents named me Samantha was that they thought I could go by Sam if I ended up in a male-dominate field (I of course am now rebelling against this, on principle, and while everyone calls me Sam I only ever sign my full name). My point is that it is not an outrageous claim that We hold certain perceptions of gender. What is outrageous are the methods, particularly the sample, the lack of any kind of meaningful framework surrounding the findings, and the unleashing of the findings in a sensationalized headline.
*discussion of some of these critiques, along with a few others can be found here.
**also if your interested in reading the article I was able to access it through NDSU. If you don't have the benefit of an institution to support your research interests let me know and I'll e-mail it to you.
Jung, S., Viswanarthana, & Hilbed, (2014). Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. PNAS.
Lindell MK, Perry RW (2012) The protective action decision model: Theoretical modifications and additional evidence. Risk Analysis 32(4):616–632.