Debunking the debunking of gender bias in maritime disaster survival rates

Some clever folks have attempted to debunk the case for gynosympathy made by analyses of gendered survival rates from the Titanic sinking (like the one we did here). Specifically, Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson published a study titled “Gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

What they find, after sifting through data from 18 maritime disasters over three centuries, is that in most cases an “everyone for themselves” attitude leaves women at a distinct disadvantage to survive. Considering the greater physical strength of men, it is of course no surprise that women would not fare well when some sort of ethic isn’t imposed on a panicked group of people struggling for their lives.

The researchers also point out that cases like the Titanic, where the crew enforce a “women and children first” attitude, are relatively rare. Case closed, eh?

Actually, no. As is so often the case when biases corrupt science, the proof lies in what remains invisible to the researchers.

Cases like the Titanic—where a “women first” ethic is imposed, leaving men to die in greater numbers—might be rare, but no imposed “men first” ethic is recorded anywhere in Elinder and Erixson’s carefully compiled data. Women are at a disadvantage in most cases not from some imposed, male-centric bias, but from the simple fact that men and women fighting for their lives in a physically demanding situation are on unequal terms. This is unfortunate for women, but it is not a bias.

The only actual bias recorded (however rarely executed) in the study’s data is the explicitly gynosympathetic bias favoring women enforced by crews like those of the Titanic.

Okay, now: case closed.

-Jody and Sam

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