The Heat Wave from Space, On the Tracks, and By the Numbers

NOAA takes the long view of the heat wave; the CTA buckles under the heat, causing Red Line delays; and a brief discourse on heat wave denialism with regards to sabermetrics.

NOAA visualizes the heat wave as it spreads across the country:

Meanwhile, back on the ground, WBEZ’s Sarah Jindra reports that the heat wave is causing delays on the Red Line…

…as riders swelter….

Also today, Steve Rhodes brings up an important passage from Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave:

In 1995 there were no uniform standards for determining a ‘heat-related death,’ so officials had to develop them. Edmund Donoghue, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, used state-of-the-art criteria to report 465 heat-related deaths for the heat wave week and 521 heat deaths for the month of July.

But Mayor Richard M. Daley challenged these findings. ‘It’s hot,’ the mayor told the media. ‘But let’s not blow it out of proportion . . . Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.’

Many local journalists shared Daley’s skepticism, and before long the city was mired in a callous debate over whether the so-called heat deaths were - to use the term that recurred at the time - ‘really real.’

Part of the “callous debate” was a column by Mike Royko entitled “Killer Heat Wave Or a Media Event?” It’s a fascinating example of how we frame things, and what that means regarding public policy:

During past heat waves, people died, just as they did last week. Probably in even greater number, especially before air conditioning became common.

There have surely been other sweltering periods when the Cook County Morgue had an unusually high number of bodies brought in.

The difference, I suspect, is that we now have instant communications and instant statistics, which combine to bring us the modern instant crisis on TV, radio and in the press.

[snip]

And old people died. That’s because old people inevitably die of one thing or another. For some of them, the weather just speeds up the process.

On one hand, he’s not wrong. 780 Torontonians died in the heat wave of 1936, about the same number as died in Chicago during the heat wave of 1995. 297 died that year in Chicago from the heat.

And he’s not exactly wrong about how “the weather just speeds up the process.” It’s pretty well established that the first significant heat wave of the summer causes spikes in mortality, which suggests that there’s a population of the particularly vulnerable that dies. But there’s a difference between “about to die” and being at a certain threshold at which a heat wave can push one over; Klinenberg writes that the Illinois Department of Health, after the 1995 heat wave,

found that, contrary to some officials’ conjectures, there was no compelling evidence that the mortality levels during the crisis represented a displacement of deaths that would have occurred soon thereafter even without the extreme weather. The heat wave, in other words, did not kill people whose deaths were imminent, but hastened the demise of vulnerable residents who were likely to have survived if the crisis had not occurred.

I thought about all this while listening to Rush Limbaugh dismiss this summer’s heat wave as a media event, just as Royko did in 1995. Yes: it’s a media event. That’s sort of the point, one of the things the media does: communicating where there are systemic problems that can be addressed by the public, by the government, or by both. Sometimes that requires defining a problem that didn’t exist before, or reframing an inevitability as the result of concrete decisions, or the lack thereof.

Klinenberg sees politics behind this dismissal of heat wave mortality. I’m not sure that it’s all political. Reading about this reminds me of the (sometimes quite vicious) fights over baseball statistics in the sabermetric era. Some of these newfangled stats aren’t really anything new; more often than not, it’s a matter of one person taking a number that gets ignored and saying this is important, you should look at this stat more closely.

For example, the Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez was a controversial Cy Young winner in 2010 because he finished with a mediocre record of 13-12 due to astoundingly bad run support. All of his other stats were great, he just didn’t win the number of games some people thought he should to be the best pitcher in baseball. And people got really upset about this, even though, as statistics go, it’s not rocket science: he lost ten games in which his team scored one or zero runs. That’s the argument in total: wins are not as important with regards to pitcher performance as we believe. His proponents weren’t trying to snow anyone with new math. But it was like The Origin of the Species dropped for some baseball writers.

It’s hard to find a less political subject than sabermetrics. But just the simple act of reframing and reinterpreting baseball statistics can really set people off. And I think that had a lot to do with the unwillingness to accept the gravity of the 1995 heat wave as a social disaster: not so much ideology or power, but the mere persistence of received ideas.

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