Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution: An Empirical Test

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution: An Empirical Test

Article excerpt

Divine intervention provided the earliest attempt to explain natural phenomena, particularly weather events. (1,2) Although religious explanations for such phenomena waned with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, divine explanations for weather persist. (3-6)

Catastrophic weather events are often explained as divine wrath--punishment for social or political beliefs or decisions. (7,8) The divine retribution archetype is perhaps best illustrated by the biblical flood in Genesis of the Hebrew Bible (with variations in the Quran and Epic of Gilgamesh that portray deities that are more capricious than vindictive). The Hebrew god is said to have punished humanity for its evil deeds by creating a massive, apocalyptic flood that killed all but the righteous. Whereas popular documentaries purport evidence-based investigations into the existence of such floods (see, for example, the 1976 documentary film In Search of Noah's Ark and the 2007 Noah's Ark: Thinking Outside the Box), the ability to consider a divine mechanism for single historical events remains outside the scope of science. Religious dogma suggesting a divine mechanism for natural, measurable events is falsifiable. (9) Indeed, many prominent thinkers--from Albert Einstein to Stephen Jay Gould--have described religion and science as discrete entities, compatible only in that they address different aspects of the human experience, (10,11) although others, such as Richard Dawkins, disagree. (12) When a divine explanation is proffered from measurable events, with measureable outcomes, however, scientific techniques can be employed to test mystical claims. For example, faith healers claim the ability to alter human health, a testable prediction that can be (and has been) falsified. (13) Similarly, claims by political and religious leaders who invoke divine retribution to explain the patterning of catastrophic weather events are falsifiable. (14,15)

We examined hurricane strike records by state on the U.S. East Coast (1960-2012) for patterning attributable to divine retribution. Given that claims of divine retribution often are made by conservative religious leaders, (7,14,16) particularly evangelical Christians who are most closely aligned with the Republican Party and conservative issues, (17) we tested the hypothesis that hurricanes strike states more often after they voted Democrat rather than Republican. We also investigated a repeated claim that God directs hurricanes to punish those who support gay rights or gay marriage, (18) by testing the hypothesis that hurricanes strike states more often after they legalized gay marriage compared to those who banned it. We also investigated an alternate hypothesis that correlation between hurricane strikes and sociopolitical events reflects spatial autocorrelation by latitude that corresponds with a cultural gradient. That is, we asked if hurricanes and conservatism both just happen to follow a latitudinal gradient in the eastern U.S.


We compiled annual data on hurricane occurrence and intensity (Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale) from 1960-2012 for 18 states that lie along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the eastern U.S. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Intensity Scale consists of 5 hurricane categories with 1 the weakest and 5 the strongest. When multiple hurricanes hit the same state in the same year we summed the hurricane intensities. The data were downloaded from the Hurricane Research Division, Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (http://

State presidential election results (1960-2012) were culled from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration archives ( /1OooCUq). The votes were predominately Republican or Democrat, except for a few southern states that voted Independent in 1960 and 1968 to protest desegregation. Data on the status of gay marriage (legalized, banned) and year of action for each state were downloaded from ProCon. …

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