More data on survival during maritime disasters

From Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson (pdf, final PNAS gated version here):

It’s a widespread notion that women and children are saved first in maritime disasters. The systematic evidence of this comes primarily from the sinking of RMS Titanic. By analyzing individual level data from MS Estonia – one of the largest maritime disaster in the Northern hemisphere since World War II – a different picture emerges. Estonia sunk in the Baltic Sea with 137 survivors and 852 casualties. Despite equal gender rates on Estonia, 111 men, but only 26 women survived. This striking observation, as well as econometric analyses of survival probabilities, shows that the behavior among passengers and crew was clearly inconsistent with the norm that women should be saved before men. We show that the survival patterns from several maritime disasters, including Titanic, can be explained by the behavior of the captain. Women have a survival advantage only when the captain orders that women should be given priority and threatens disobedience with violence. Otherwise women will have lower survival chances.


"Despite equal gender rates on Estonia..."

As best I can tell, that is supposed to mean: "Despite equal numbers of men and women on Estonia...."

When did academics lose the capacity to write in simple, clear English? When did "gender" lose its distinct meaning and come instead to be a substitute for "sex"? And what leads someone to confuse "rate" (referring to a speed or frequency) with a simple headcount?

Well, your preferred alternative would replace two words with five. So it loses on concision. And I don't think it's really any clearer. Are people really likely to be confused about the meaning of "gender rates" in this context?

Sex and gender aren't substitutes. The data came from a passenger log, which would track how people convey their gender identity, not their sex. Unless the ship doctor is examining everyone's privates and marking the results down for posterity...

I concede to Major that the author's wording is more concise. That's a fair point.

GIT, on the other hand, needs to come out of his or her bubble. The idea that "sex" means "actual genitalia" whereas "gender" means "which sex the person claims regardless of genitalia" may be recognizable to a tiny band of humanities and social science PhDs, but it is not at all common usage. It certainly is not reflected in the dictionary definitions of the terms.

Sex 1.A (OED)

a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group

(Male: I.A: That belongs to the sex which can produce offspring only by fertilization of the opposite sex (contrasted with female); characteristic of or relating to this sex.)

Gender 3.B (OED)

b. Psychol. and Sociol. (orig. U.S.). The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one's sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way.


Well look at that reflection, sitting right there in the dictionary definition of the terms.

The majority of the population doesn't know the difference between lots of sets of words that have relatively narrow differences in meaning. One should let their ignorance govern one's speech... why?

You left out the definition right above it, where gender = sex, and the recent innovations of the words are described.

a. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; = sex n.1 1. Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.
Originally extended from the grammatical use at sense 1 (sometimes humorously), as also in Anglo-Norman and Old French. In the 20th cent., as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse (see sex n.1 4b), gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females. It is now often merged with or coloured by sense 3b.

Yes, and?

Sex and gender become substitutes over a hundred years ago, and those substitutes became distinct in a new way over 50 years ago.

It is a modern invention of humanities and social science PhDs, which is everyone's right to disregard. More aptly, it comes from feminists and activists.

Well, you can continue to be a reactionary fool and disregard it. Meanwhile, the salience of the distinction will continue to increase as popular society becomes more aware of its internal diversity. (Just recently we have Canadian beauty queens, children of pop stars, popular musicians, and olympic athletes all living the distinction, and quite topically, two days ago there's this: Heck, you even have a relatively prominent libertarian economist.)

The distinction between sex and gender isn't going away. But continue to whine about "feminists and activists", I'm sure it will do a lot of good.

Reality check: The number of people for whom "sex" and "gender" point in different directions, and who are known to have perished in shipwrecks, is approximately zero. There are circumstances where the distinction is worth making, but this isn't one of them.


The claim was that it is somehow inappropriate to use "gender" instead of sex, that using gender in place of sex is some sort of degradation of the language, that no one outside of academic feminists uses the distinction, that the distinction is not supported by the dictionary, &etc.

The fact of the matter is that using gender is completely appropriate. In fact, there's warrant to think that it's *more* appropriate. Since knowledge of the gender/sex distinction has spread far beyond liberal arts PhDs for years now, it will only continue to be more appropriate.

What, exactly, is the reason for being so upset about the emergence of a distinction between sex and gender? It must be concern for 'good written English,' or whatever. I mean, sex rhymes with rex and gender rhymes with bender and sex only has 1 syllable. Gender has, like, double the letters. Case closed, right?

The Estonia sank in a very quick manner. Only the quick and lucky survived. There would have been no room for a captain to make such an order and for it to be effectively carried out.

Not only did it sink quickly, but it listed to starboard very badly before it sank. To survive, many people climbed up to the life rafts on the port side. Those who lacked the upper body strength to do this mostly died. Men have more upper body strength and were, therefore, much more able to reach the life rafts.

Moroever, there was not a shortage of life rafts, so the women and children first argument is utterly irrelevant. The problem was that the ship was listing badly making it hard for people to reach and successfully launch the life rafts. Only the strong survived. Women are not as strong. Simple as that.

Exactly, an important point I left out. As it turned out, which stairwells one went to in the attempt to escape could determine your fate because of the list (port-starboard oriented stairs versus bow-stern).

Also, Amanda Ripley has a good book called The Unthinkable, where she argues our three phases of response to disaster are denial, deliberation, then action. In her discussion of the Estonia, she said the boat sank so quickly that not many people moved out of the denial phase, and that only those who moved quickly into the action phase had a chance at escape.

btw, I can't recommend enough "The Outlaw Sea" by William Langewiesche, which has a gripping account of the sinking of the Estonia.

I concur. The rest of the book is also excellent.

"Women and children first" has a completely different meaning now, at last in Syria:

U.S. has killed more children with drone strikes in Pakistan alone.

Comparing maritime disasters in the Mediterranean, your chances of rescue and survival are increased dramatically by being WHITE:

You think passengers from a wrecked cruise ship were treated differently than permanent refugees from a war-torn country, because of skin color?

In a perfectly competitive market, it makes sense that the least productive--those with ZMP--should perish with the sinking of the ship. Too bad, women and children.

I learned it here.

I feel sorry for you, Bill. Today, you missed being the first commenter by almost an hour. What happened? Exceptionally not sitting on the RSS feed waiting to immediately comment on anything Tyler writes?

Traveling abroad.

Bill, you apparently haven't learned it here.

In a competitive market men, who also look out for their own women and children, would likely be happy to have a ship create its own rules for its own ship to help the weaker sex and innocent children.

What's important is that there is a social justification for this social contract, not just that everyone must be slowed down to the speed of the slowest person just to make things fair.


OK,, then, servants overboard.

The Titanic sank in 1912 at the peak of the European ethic of honor and self-sacrifice. More recent shipwrecks tend toward the tragi-farcical, such as the cruise ship off South Africa a couple of decades ago where the captain and other officers immediately helicoptered to shore, leaving the rescue of the hundreds of passengers to be organized by the ship's magician.

I always though that European ethic of honor and self-sacrifice peaked in 1916, somewhere in northern France.

There was a tidbit on CBC on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. A woman whose father survived tells of the death threats he got through his life afterwards. He was a crew member told to man one of the lifeboats.

The Titanic sank slowly allowing an orderly(more or less) evacuation to be carried out. when ships sink rapidly (for example the torpedoed Lusitania just a few years after the Titanic) it's every man for himself.

You'd need to count the number of people who made it out of the ship, not the number of people who survived. I recall seeing many scantily clad women frozen to death on those rafts.

Another inference from the data is that men can negotiate a listing or tilting deck and survive impact with debris better, tread water longer, and swim to floatsam more strongly, than (heavily clad) women and children. It's not an exciting inference that will get you published, but there you go.

How terrible that there appears to be no path to a "fair" outcome, where a few simple rules or policies could create balance.

Either men overpower women and get off better, or you threaten violence, in which case women outsurvive men. Brutal.

. . . Hobbes was right

No! That would be better. Hobbes thought that a strong central power could administer justice in a world that has a brutal natural state. It's worse than that. The central power fails too.

Utterly depressing. Thankfully shipwrecks are relatively rare.....

It's not uncommon for passengers to have to evacuate airliners via the emergency chutes, and unless I'm mistaken nearly all such evacuations have been as orderly as can be expected under the circumstances. No pushing and shoving, no one being overpowered, nothing of that sort.

How terrible that there appears to be no path to a “fair” outcome, where a few simple rules or policies could create balance.
Either men overpower women and get off better, or you threaten violence, in which case women outsurvive men. Brutal.

Consider, however, the evacuation of the World Trade Center. In terms of sheer numbers it dwarfed any ship evacuation. Except for a few company fire wardens, no people in positions of authority supervised or controlled the evacuation. Building occupants got out of their own accord. It was only at lobby levels that any police or firefighters gave direction.

And yet, it was an amazingly orderly, chaos-free evacuation. One thing that thousands of survivor accounts agree upon is that there was no pushing and shoving. People walked down the stairwells as calmly as could be expected, in some cases assisting injured or disabled people get down the stairs. There is absolutely no evidence that any people were overpowered or trampled underfoot.

This is an interesting article about the myth of "Women and Children First" and why the myth came about...
Burg, B. R. (1997), “Women and Children First”: Popular Mythology and Disaster at Sea, 1840–1860. Journal of American Culture, 20: 1–9. doi: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.1997.t01-2-00001.x

The comparisons should be confined to sinkings where there was enough time to load enough lifeboats. Otherwise, by crude natural advantage, men are likelier to survive than women and children, no matter how chivalrous the men might have wanted to be.

What was most strange about the sinking of the MS Estonia is that Estonian passengers had a significantly higher survival rate (IIRC 20% vs. 5%) than did Swedish passengers.

It was a booze cruise, you would not believe Swedish alcohol taxes? The Swedes were heading home after a booze run and were drunk. The Estonians were heading to Sweden to work.

This is obvious to anyone who has ever been on a Baltic Ferry. I am sure somebody has noted in in publication, though since it could be seen as blaming the victim I could understand why not. But this is the usual Swedish explanation.

Even more important, Swedish and Finnish passengers on those cruises are about 70-80% retirees - also quite obvious to anyone who has ever been on any Baltic Ferry.
To sum up both, the scandalous conclusion is that during a maritime disaster, weak drunk retirees have a lower chance of survival than strong sober men in their best years. Who could have ever thought of that?

I have found it useful to force myself to be skeptical of interesting and counter intuitive results.

Looks like a victory for gender equality.

HMS Birkenhead was where the "women and children first " began . " There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers' chivalry gave rise to the "women and children first" protocol when abandoning ship, while the "Birkenhead drill" of Rudyard Kipling's poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances."

I was under the impression that only the Brits and Americans followed the Burkenhead drill in maritime disasters.

To a major extent survival in the Estonia sinking was a matter of pure dumb luck. Where in the ship one happened to be was the biggest factor. The World Trade Center was an even more extreme example of luck-based survival: if you were below the impact zones you almost certainly lived; if you were at or above the zones you almost certainly died (no "almost" in the North Tower).

I think everyone should have a fair chance, if women and children alone are prioritized surely a large amout would perish without the support of the men.

Comments for this post are closed