A Storm Called Hercules
Winter storms now have names like Hercules and Maximus, thanks to the Weather Channel. By naming storms, the channel says, it is trying to raise awareness about dangerous weather and make communication easier. The National Weather Service, rival private weather forecaster Accuweather, and The New York Times, criticizing the scheme as a marketing stunt, have declined to use the names. Yet there may be more at stake in naming storms than simply branding, according to social scientists. Naming is not just about awareness-raising or marketing—it’s also about asserting control over the unknown.
According to psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues writing in Psychological Review in 2007, people are more likely to ascribe human characteristics to nonhuman agents when they don’t understand them well, or when they highly value maintaining control and avoiding uncertainty.
By naming things, and people, we try to shape them. When parents name their babies, they often attempt to influence their children’s futures, rather than merely identify them, according to a 2011 Cultural Sociology article by sociologists Mark Elchardus and Jessy Siongers. But they are wrong: one’s class background plays a more important role in shaping their lives. Similarly, while naming a storm might be a way of asserting power over it, we can’t actually control the storm through this naming. We can indicate that we understand the storm—but this is largely a symbolic gesture. Professional meteorologists might genuinely possess this understanding, but the rest of us can only dream of being like Hercules.