The authors have issued a statement that argues against some criticisms of their study that others have offered. These are irrelevant to the above observations, as I [Freese] am taking everything about the measurement and model specification at their word–my starting point is the model that fully replicates the analyses that they themselves published.
A qualification is that one of their comments is that they deny they are making any claims about the importance of other factors that kill people in hurricanes. But they are. If you claim that 27 out of the 42 deaths in Hurricane Eloise would have been prevented if it was named Hurricane Charley, that is indeed a claim that diminishes the potential importance of other causes of deaths in that hurricane.
Freese also raises an important general issue in science communication:
The authors’ university issued a press release with a dramatic presentation of results. The release includes quotes from authors and a photo, as well as a quote from a prominent social psychologist calling the study “proof positive.” So this isn’t something that the media just stumbled across and made viral. My view is that when researchers actively seek media attention for dramatic claims about real deaths, they make their work available for especial scrutiny by others.
As a coda that may or may not be relevant to the case at hand, I will confess that I [Freese] have become especially impatient by the two-step in which a breathless set of claims about findings is provided in a press release, but then the authors backtrack when talking to other scientists about how of course this is just one study and of course more work needs to be done. In particular, I have lost patience with the idea the media are to blame for extreme presentations of scientists’ work, when extreme presentations of the scientists’ work are distributed to the media by the scientists’ employers [emphasis in the original].
As the saying goes, +1. The news media are what gets us hearing about these studies (and indeed I’m contributing to it now), but the tabloid science journals such as PNAS provide incentives for researchers to engage in hype so as to get their papers published, and of course once a paper is published, with whatever errors it happens to contain, researchers have an understandable tendency to hang tough and not acknowledge problems with their claims. The underlying statistical issues are tricky, so when researchers don’t see a problem with their work, part of it can be simple misunderstanding of some subtle statistical principles which have only recently been studied carefully in some ways.
I pointed Freese to my post and he replied:
Alas, if only your namesake hurricane had stayed farther south, all this could have been avoided.
Which made me think: Hurricane Andrew was pretty bad, and Hurricane Drew might been similar, but if it had been named Andy it could’ve been a real killer. And if they’d called it Andi . . . well, don’t even think about it.