This image shows ocean surface winds for Hurricane Sandy observed at 9:00 p.m. PDT Oct. 28 (12:00 a.m. EDT Oct. 29) by the OSCAT radar scatterometer on the Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) OceanSat-2 satellite. Image: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech
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No fury like a woman storm: are hurricanes with female names deadlier?

A study has found that hurricanes with female names are three times as deadly as those with male names - and suggests that this is because societal sexism makes people take women less seriously.

Sexism means that female-named hurricanes are more deadly than male-named ones.

Wait, what?

That’s the headline finding from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analysed 94 hurricanes which made landfall on the contiguous US between 1950 and 2012. The results are striking. Of the most severe hurricanes, those with female names on average killed 45 people, compared to 23 deaths in those with male names.

“[The] model suggests that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll,” the study concludes.

(Before we go any further, if you’re reading this with fingers a-twitch because you want to shout-comment “correlation does not imply causation” - please, wait. We know. We all know. It’s going to be dealt with.)

The study - by academics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Arizona - is primarily one about science communication. Meteorologists give hurricanes human names because it makes them more memorable, and it makes it easier to communicate their dangers to the public. If there’s a situation with a Hurricane Tom already making landfall while Hurricanes Dick and Harry are simultaneously forming out over the ocean, it makes it easier to communicate the danger to the public than by pointing at unnamed pressure regions on a map.

There’s an element of tradition, too. At first the names were all taken from the standard Anglo-American Second World War phonetic alphabet (Tango, Delta, etc.), but in 1953 the US National Hurricane Center switched to all-female name lists to avoid confusion with aircraft identification radio communications. Since 1979, the current system of alternating male-female names taken from English, French and Spanish dictionaries was put into place.

One of the study’s strengths is that the authors were insightful enough not to merely rely on “female” and “male” as binary categories, instead recognising that there are degrees of implied femininity and masculinity in all names. Nine people were asked to rank the names of past hurricanes from 1 (very masculine) to 11 (very feminine), and the researchers found that there was a correlation between a name being seen as being more feminine and both a higher cost of the damage caused and larger number of people being killed.

Curious to see if this pattern repeated itself in other ways, they gathered six distinct volunteer groups - three of volunteer students from Urbana-Champaign, three sourced via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk - and asked them a series of questions. When given a list of names and nothing else, male hurricanes were rated as seeming more dangerous; when given information about an incoming hurricane, it still was seen as more dangerous if it was called Alexander than Alexandra. The more masculine a name, the more likely a volunteer would say they’d either evacuate their home voluntarily or comply with a government evacuation order.

Yet asking them directly if they found male or female hurricanes more dangerous gave no preference. There are “gender-based expectations about severity” that the average person on the street has without even realising it, and that, the researchers write, means “important implications for policymakers, media practitioners, and the general public concerning hurricane communication and preparedness”.

It’s a finding that confirms what many people know to be true - that even if an individual believes themselves to be unbiased, or unprejudiced, they’re always affected by social conditioning and make implicit judgements that can be sexist. Intent isn't necessary for prejudice. Americans are, it seems, sexist about hurricanes.

But! We’ve got to be careful - and get ready, correlation-is-not-causation folks, because this is the bit you’ve been waiting for - not to extrapolate too hastily from this.

The best article on this study I’ve read comes from Ed Yong, who quotes a sceptical Jeff Lazo from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. I recommend you go read it for the full detail (and then read some more of Ed’s stuff, because he’s one of the best science writers out there and his blog is consistently fantastic), but, in short, Lazo has four main objections:

  • Hurricanes have been getting, on average, less deadly over time (thanks largely to improved preparedness), and, since all hurricanes from 1953 to 1979 had female names, it makes sense that hurricanes with female names killed, on average, more people.
  • The fatality counts include “indirect deaths”, such as someone “ killed by fallen electrical lines in the clean-up after a storm”. What do such deaths have to do with gender, or disaster preparedness?
  • It’s unclear if the participants of the six sample groups are representative of communities living in hurricane-threatened areas.
  • Gender isn’t a big enough factor to influence disaster preparedness, or at least relative to “social situation, vulnerability, culture, prior experience, sources of information, when the hurricane makes land, and so on”.

It just so happens that Sharon Shavitt, co-author of the study, has already issued a response to some of the media coverage of her work, and it includes three of Lazo’s points. It can be read here.

In response to the first point, she emphasises that the study looked at feminine/masculine rather than female/male names, and that it helps control for the change in naming practice in 1979.

She writes: “Even during the female-only years, the names differed in degree of femininity (compare two female names: Fern, which is less feminine to Camille, a rather feminine name). Although it is true that if we model the data using only hurricanes since 1979 (n=54) this is too small a sample to obtain a significant interaction, when we model the fatalities of all hurricanes since 1950 using their degree of femininity, the interaction between name-femininity and damage is statistically significant. That is a key result. Specifically, for storms that did a lot of damage, the femininity of their names significantly predicted their death toll.”

Also, indirect and direct deaths due to a storm are often conflated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which provides the figures used in the study), and Shavitt believes that indirect deaths are “appropriately included in the dataset” as they “may reflect preparedness”.

She’s also keen to stress that “we cannot claim (nor did we claim) that gendered naming is more important than the other factors that Lazo mentions”. Think to the study last week which found that “global warming” is a more effective phrase for getting across the dangers of climate change than actually calling it “climate change” - hurricane naming is a similar issue. Shavitt’s probably correct to say that, since the issue of communicating the dangers of weather is so important, it’s worth bearing in mind that “implicit biases represent an understudied factor that makes a difference”.

Unfortunately, this still leaves some rather problematic holes. Since we’re accepting that gender isn’t the only factor at play, it’s difficult to believe that the six groups of volunteers are representative of the kinds of people who live in coastal communities at threat from hurricanes - there are simply too many other social factors at play to be sure we can trust these people as only being biased with regards to gender. It’s not as if university students have a reputation for debating gender issues, after all.

That, too, is without considering cultural changes over time. Who’s to say that a destructive hurricane doesn’t influence perception of how masculine or feminine its name is? Is someone called Katrina considered to be a stronger or more dangerous person in the decade since their namesake made landfall in New Orleans? In 1979 the top US names for babies were Michael and Jennifer; in 2012, Jacob and Sophia. We're not given any way to judge the change in perception of masculinity or femininity in names over the time period of the study.

Furthermore, as at least two people have pointed out - Eric Holthaus at Slate and Harold Brooks of the NOAA in a comment under Yong's piece - the study leaves out hurricanes Katrina (death toll: 1,833) and Audrey (death toll: 416) since they were both so much deadlier than other hurricanes in the NOAA records, and thus could be considered outliers. Yet Hurricane Sandy (death toll: 286) is, arguably, just as much of an outlier. Remove it from the dataset and not only does the pattern of feminine-named storms being more destructive disappear, it reverses.

That's not good. The margins involved mean that any further Sandy-sized hurricane could skew things just as much - this study may have come to a very different conclusion if it was written five years ago, or five years from now. Maybe, instead of a theory that Americans underestimate hurricanes with female names, causing greater damage and higher fatalities, we'd be hearing that Americans are actually sent into a counter-productive panic by aggressive, male-named hurricanes, and end up undermining their own disaster preparedness. The dataset is too small for what the study purports to be. It's flimsy.

However, that doesn't mean that communicating the dangers of weather isn't an important issue, and maybe the National Hurricane Center would be open to giving us some data to really test the name theory out. Let's petition them to alternate storms every year between cute and terrifying: Hurricane Cuddly, Hurricane Polio, Hurricane Hugs'n'Kisses, Hurricane Beastiality, Hurricane Finding A Fiver In The Pocket Of A Jacket You Haven't Worn In Ages, Hurricane Cancer. That's real science, right there.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.