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What’s in a Name?: Hurricane Monikers and the Problem of Evil

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.”
Romeo and Juliet, 2.2

Contrary to what Juliet might think, psychologists have recently learned there is much “in a name”—at least when it comes to hurricanes. And failure to recognize the implications of a hurricane’s name on the part of meteorologists, the media, public officials, and policymakers has unwittingly led to tragic outcomes.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University discovered hurricanes with female names are deadlier than those with male names.1 Using fatality data for 94 Atlantic hurricanes from 1952 to 2012, the investigators determined the average death rate for a hurricane with a masculine name was just under 16 individuals. On the other hand, hurricanes with female names yielded a death rate of just over 41 individuals. In other words, naming a hurricane Victoria, rather than Victor, could easily triple the storm’s death toll.

Based on a series of laboratory experiments, researchers showed that test subjects perceived hurricanes with feminine names as much less deadly and were much less likely to take protective action than if the hurricane was given a masculine name. Interestingly, this effect is true regardless of the test subjects’ beliefs about gender traits. It appears most people are unconsciously influenced by deeply held gender stereotypes, with men perceived as strong and aggressive and women viewed as weak and passive.

As the researchers note, “Individuals assess their vulnerability to hurricanes and take actions based not only on objective indicators of hurricane severity but also on the gender of hurricanes.”2

This insight has important implications for how hurricanes are named and how potential threats from natural disasters are communicated to the public. There are also philosophical and theological implications with regard to the problem of evil.

Skeptics often point to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, as a reason to reject God’s existence. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the natural realm? Why is there so much death and destruction? Why are there so many “flawed designs”? Skeptics argue it is logically incompatible for the world to be the work of a Creator when so much widespread pain and suffering exists—agony caused by flawed designs and natural disasters.

Yet in many instances the pain, suffering, and death that results from natural disasters stems from poor decisions and human moral failings, not necessarily the magnitude of the natural event. In other words, God isn’t always to blame; human beings bear much responsibility when it comes to the tragedy surrounding natural disasters.

Over the last few years, I’ve written several articles arguing this point.

Natural Evil or Moral Evil?” 
Why Do People Die in Earthquakes? Blame Corrupt Governments, Not God” 
Are Tsunamis Natural or Moral Evil?

The research findings of the University of Illinois and Arizona State University scientists add to the examples of moral evil masquerading as natural evil. In some instances, the suffering caused by natural disasters is due to how we perceive and respond to the risk of the threat. Is God really at fault if we suffer because we choose to ignore potential dangers?

  1. Kiju Jung et al., “Female Hurricanes Are Deadlier than Male Hurricanes,” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (June 17, 2014): 8782–87.
  2. Ibid.