Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Human Behavior, Not Hurricane Names, Dictates Danger

Hurricane Amanda in Eastern Pacific 
The first named storm of the 2014 eastern Pacific hurricane season, Amanda, is seen as a Category 4 hurricane on May 25, 2014. 

The recent study examining the difference in fatality rates among female- versus male-named hurricanes is a fascinating one. 

As a behavioral scientist and chief science officer of a population-based organization, I was immediately drawn to both the creativity and the implications of the study. It is not commonplace to see the use of large archival databases combined with small yet highly controlled experimental studies designed to tease out gaps in the large data. This is a great example of how big data and "little data" can work together.

The study by Kiju Jung and colleagues at the University of Illinois should be valued for its scientific creativity. It should not, however, be valued for its immediate real-world implications. The concept of a name having so much impact as to affect fatality rates is fascinating and concerning. It is so easy to immediately jump from the findings to the implications — and that can be a deadly flaw. 

Science and the concept of scientific study are critical for humanity's understanding and development of knowledge. However, we have to take science for what it is. It is observations and quantification of those observations.

Every year thousands of people die in natural disasters. The field of disaster preparedness constantly struggles with getting individuals to engage in appropriate health behaviors that will keep them safe. From emergency plans and preparedness kits, to complying with evacuation instructions, we sadly see that a lack of preparation and behavioral action often results in fatalities. 

The true, real-world implication of this study is that people place different meanings on names. The archival data are interesting and a starting point, but like other big-data analytics, they have significant limitations. The fact that there are any differences in fatality rates, and the fact that there are any differences in the way people perceive names, tell us that there are psychological factors associated with natural disasters. Did we already know that? Common sense would say, "Of course."

For the rest of the story:

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