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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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