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Deadlier than the male

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgIt’s official.  Tropical cyclones of the North Atlantic – hurricanes, to you and me – are more deadly if they are more ‘Victoria’ than ‘Victor’.  A study by scientists at the Illinois and Arizona State universities, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed in June that - even excluding outliers like Katrina and Audrey - of the 47 most damaging hurricanes since 1950, those with feminine names killed on average 45 people, compared to 23 deaths in ‘masculine’ storms.

For the mathematically challenged, that’s almost double - a statistically significant result.  Indeed, the authors state that “changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charlie … to Eloise … could nearly treble its death toll”.  Why?  Because people don’t take storms with female names seriously, and so are less likely to take precautions. 

As PR people are fond of reminding scientists, perception is reality.  “When under the radar, that’s when [sexism] has the potential to influence our judgments”, Sharon Shavitt (University of Illinois) told reporters.  Everyday sexism can, and does, kill.

Ironically this phenomenon has come about thanks to 1970s anti-sexism.  The report states: “Although using human names … has been thought by meteorologists to enhance the clarity and recall of storm information, this practice also taps into well-developed and widely held gender stereotypes, with unanticipated and potentially deadly consequences”.

True: but only since 1979.  Storms have been ‘named’ since 1947, first using the phonetic alphabet.  This was confusing, so in 1953 a new phonetic alphabet using female names was introduced.  Naming storms in this way evoked wild, tempestuous, termagant females, emerging from the (feminine) ocean, to be eventually soothed into quiescence by contact with the (masculine) land.  Women’s libbers, as they were known, hated it, and rightly so.  In 1979 the World Meteorological Organization introduced new lists with male names included.  It was hailed as a triumph for equal rights. 

It is easy to make fun, but the exclusive use of one gender’s names was invidious and patronizing and had to stop.  Unfortunately, gender stereotyping is too deeply rooted in the subconscious for this to be the end of the matter.  We are all victims of it, no matter how right-thinking or politically correct we consider ourselves.  Things done for the right reasons can, in this chaotic world, have unintended consequences.

And if irrationality can control survival behaviour, how much more likely is it to affect our political, or for that matter, scientific judgement?



@TedNield @geoscientistmag