Monstrous Verminous Bug – 7 reasons why we hate bugs

Part I: 7 reasons why we hate bugs

Kafka metamorphosis James Legros
Metamorphosis. Art by James Legros

 

I was in the shower (…) when, out of nowhere, a three inch water bug dropped from the bathroom ceiling and landed at my feet. I admit it: I screamed. Wouldn’t you? (…) And then there we were, the water bug and I, trapped and defenseless and covered in soapsuds (…) One of us was very calm. One of us… began to carefully groom her antennae.” Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia

Even before that day when Gregor Samsa woke up as a monstrous, verminous bug, people have disliked bugs.

The bug hatred can be deleterious for science and for the way the public perceives science. Studies have quantified how people (adults and children) are repulsed by arthropods and do not grasp the invertebrate’s impact in agriculture and our economy. In Part I of our series we’ll try to get to the bottom of the issue before we move on to a plan (on Part II) for how to encourage the public to appreciate bugs. So let’s consider “bugs” arthropods and break down the hatred in a Buzzfeed-type list:

1. Disgust. People are disgusted by bugs, and some argue that this behavior evolved to help us stay away from toxic, poisonous substances. One study mentions that “ugly, slimy, erratic moving animals, including many invertebrates, provoked withdrawal responses among vertebrate neonates, despite no overt or obvious threat.” Arguably, that behavior could help humans stay away from bugs that carry…

Cronenberg's "The Fly" shows the repulsive nature of the human-fly. (Poster by 20th Century Fox)
Cronenberg’s “The Fly” shows the repulsive nature of the human-fly. (Poster by 20th Century Fox)

2. …disease. Many bugs are vector for infectious, potentially fatal diseases. Mosquitoes transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, lice cause typhus, and fleas were responsible for the plague.

3. Dirt. Many bugs are associated with dirt, when it turns out they found the perfect niche to feed from leftovers or remains. Cockroaches evolved eating crumbs in human houses, and maggots act in decomposition.

4. Bite or sting. Some bugs cause harm to humans in the form of toxic or allergic reaction. Spiders specifically get a bad rep for biting and stinging humans, when in fact that is not true. Arachnologist Chris Buddle has written extensively on this topic, going so far to say “If you want to reduce risk, it’s far more dangerous to get in a car than be bitten by a spider.” Rick Vetter debunks spider bites: “every month in California more people are diagnosed as having brown recluse bites than the total number of brown recluse spiders EVER collected in the state.”

5. Culture. However, people might have never been exposed to harmful bugs and yet are still afraid or dislike them. They are trained to do so. This reaction is almost Jungian, already part of collective unconsciousness, even though kids are not innately afraid and even act curious towards bugs. Different cultures even view different bugs differently, such as delicacies or even pets. Still on the topic of spiders, Rick Vetter reiterates reasons of bug hatred on our list:

 “unfortunately, humans have a low tolerance for spiders in their homes, either because spiders are symbols of danger, unkemptness or arachnophobia. Folks want spiders out of their homes because of fear and/or repulsion. The assumed risk of spiders in one’s home is much greater than the actual risk they pose and home owners probably do more harm to themselves by using large amounts of pesticides inside a home to kill spiders than any harm the spiders could actually do to them. (…) phobia is based on people’s willingness to believe the worst about a situation and the sensationalistic news media (…)”

6. Multiplicity. The high number of bugs (50,000 bees or 500,000 ants in one colony, or the fact that there are more than one million species of beetle) intimidates human imagination. According to psychologist James Hillman, it “threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence… Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being.. [and] indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

District 9
Aliens in the film “District 9” are depicted as very bug-like, to keep humans from identifying with them. By Sony Pictures, via.

 7. The Unknown. I saved for last the most abstract of the items in this list. We don’t identify with bugs. Hillman mentions that “for most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien”. Kellert suggests most people associates many bugs with metaphors of madness (perhaps Kafka started it and Cronenberg perpetuated it). Finally, Insectopedia author Hugh Raffles describes:

 “We simply cannot find ourselves in these creatures. The more we look, the less we know. They are not like us.  They do not respond to acts of love, mercy or remorse.  It is worse than indifference. It is a deep, dead space without reciprocity, recognition or redemption.”

So fear and disgust are definitely there. How do we get kids are more exposed to bugs so they don’t hate them, and become more accepting adults? Stay tuned for Part II of this bug series, when we’ll show several clever initiatives to encourage the public to appreciate bugs.

District 9 sign
“District 9” by Sony Pictures, via.

References

  1. Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness?PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579
  2. KELLERT, S. R. (1993), Values and Perceptions of Invertebrates. Conservation Biology, 7: 845–855. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1993.740845.x

Star Wars: Identities, or “Learn psychology, you will. Hrmmmm.”

The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker's Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia
The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker’s Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia

Anyone who has been following my posts knows that I have a huge weakness for sci-fi and science, and if someone was to marry the two of those together, I’d be there immediately. Especially if it involved Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or Middle Earth.

Well, it happened.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is currently hosting Star Wars: Identities. Star Wars: Identities is a travelling exhibit that highlights human development using the mythos of the Star Wars universe. I had been keeping an eye on this exhibit as a few years ago I had been to the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit in Montreal, which was excellent, and the same organization (X3 Productions) was responsible for this one. And when I found out they were using Star Wars to teach people about psychology, I knew I had to go.

You see, we all have questions about how and why people turn out the way they do. Even people raised under the same roof can have wildly disparate personalities, and can view the world through very different lenses. The exhibit highlights the difference between Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and how, despite coming from the same planet and having (similar) genetic makeup, their lives take two very different trajectories based on their experiences and the environments they are exposed to.

So, I headed down to Ottawa Aviation and Space Museum with my parents in tow to check it out. Upon entry, you’re given a earpiece and a wristband that you can use to trigger the various displays. The exhibit is structured around 3 main themes, each of which has several stations: Origins, which looks at your species, your genes, your parents and culture, your Influences, which investigates the role of mentors, friends and marking events, and finally, your Choices, which include your occupation, personality and values.

Perhaps my favourite part was how, at each of these 10 stations, you make decisions and choices that help form your Star Wars character (mine is below). Are you good? Evil? A Wookie? A merchant? What do people from your planet do to celebrate? All of these choices are substantiated by psychological theories – for example, the station around personality asks you to fill out a short questionnaire based on the Five Factor Model of personality traits. Another station looks at how your culture can affect you, and how moving from one culture to another impacts your development using a theory called Acculturation (which, incidentally, is the focus of my PhD dissertation). Each of these is illustrated by contrasting Anakin and Luke (and occasionally other characters), and highlighted using clips from the movies.

Following my visit to the museum, I had a chance to chat with Sophie Desbiens, the Communications Manager for X3 Productions (the organization behind the exhibit).

Q: I understand that you consulted with psychologists at the Universite de Montreal to help with the design of exhibit. Can you tell me more about that?

The exhibition’s scientific content was created with the collaboration of a few scientists directed by the scientific content team of the Montreal science center. When we set out to explore that scientific notion of identity we wanted to make sure we were up-to-date and on point with contemporary ideas and theories for that type of subject.

Q: How did you ensure that the science wasn’t lost amidst the lightsabers and props?

That was easy in a way since the props are there to illustrate our point. As mentioned before, we take the Star Wars characters to explain identity. More precisely, we follow the evolution of Luke and Anakin Skywalker who were born on the same planet with very similar genetic background and see how they turned out to be completely opposite personalities. Also, the SW universe is very well known, people are familiar with the story and the characters so it is easy to take this as a jumping off point to go into more abstract subjects like genetics, mentorship, etc.

Q: Why Star Wars?

Why not? 😉 And as I said before, the characters and the story have been around for over 35 years now and still going strong. Why? Because it is the story of all humans in a way. George Lucas has always said he was influenced by Joseph Campbell when he wrote Star Wars and it shows as we have all the archetypes of every mythology here: it is the journey of the hero. The hero’s journey is most often than not a coming of age story, and in this we find the perfect connection to explore how someone grows up, acquires a certain identity throughout trials and tribulations.

I chose to be a Wookie fighter pilot, who goes around doing vigilante missions and saves the world multiple times.
I chose to be a Wookie fighter pilot, who goes around doing vigilante missions and saves the world multiple times.

Q: How is the exhibit set up?

Again, the Star Wars universe is perfect to illustrate the 10 components of identity we chose to explore. There is the notion of your Origins: Species, genes, parents, culture, your Influences: mentors, friends, marking events, and Choices: occupation, personality and values. All of these are part of your identity, they are the forces that shape you.

When you look and compare Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywlaker, all these 10 aspects have shaped them:

Luke was born on Tattoine, he is the son of Anakin who has a high-level of midichlorians in his blood, he is human. Luke’s mentors are Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, they (and his friends) will influence him towards the light side. Meanwhile, Anakin ended up being mentored by Palpatine who influenced him towards the dark side.

Q: What is your favourite part of the exhibit?
My favorite part of the exhibition is that I can create my own SW character with an RFID bracelet throughout the visit by answering questions related to those 10 aspects of identity. Also, we learn how characters are created in fiction as well as in real life.

Finally, I think it is really interesting to see the difference in how visitors create their avatar. Adults will tend to go along with reality, or something close to who they are, however the kids will naturally go for the complete opposite and be totally creative in their avatar.

Q: How has the exhibit been received?

Fantastic, not only from SW fans but also from teachers and especially parents who are glad that they end up having discussions with their teens because of this exhibition.

Q: How long are you in Ottawa for, and where are you heading next?

We are in Ottawa until September 2 and then we are setting up to move the exhibit for the European leg of the tour.

====

If you’re in the Ottawa area, I thoroughly recommend checking out the Exhibit. It is a travelling though, so if you can’t make it to Ottawa, keep your eyes open and hopefully it will come to a town near you soon. Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors and teens, and $13.25 for kids and include admission to the Aviation and Space Museum as well. They only let in a certain number of people at a time though, so I recommend buying your tickets online in advance (they have allocated time slots and let in ~50 people every half hour).

Disclaimer: I did not receive financial remuneration or any other incentive to attend the exhibit. I’m just a giant nerd.

Battlestar Pedagogica: Using Science Fiction to teach Science!

Science fiction is educational - SO SAY WE ALL! Picture courtesy BattlestarWiki
Science fiction is educational – SO SAY WE ALL! | Picture courtesy Battlestar Galactica Wiki

I’m a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. There are few feelings quite as impressive as when an author crafts a world that draws you in (See: Arrakis, Middle Earth, Westeros, LV-246, Hogwarts etc). Perhaps what I find most fascinating though, is how quickly science fiction can turn into real life. For example, the tricorder from Star Trek was a fictional device that could scan different aspects of the environment depending on the requirement, ranging from geological, such as mineral content of rocks, to metereological, such as air pressure and temperature, to biological, such as heart rate and blood pressure. While this sounded like a great dream in the 1960s (when The Original Series aired), we’re now, within a single generation (pun *totally* intended), able to turn this into reality. The new Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, is slated to be released with a suite of health apps (dubbed S Health), including apps to measure heart rate, blood pressure as well as track caloric expenditure. Even things as simple as being able to communicate without needing a bulky cellphone have now become a reality.

As teachers and educators, we suffer from a very real limitation when it comes to teaching. Either due to time, lack of equipment or other constraints we cannot teach some issues the way we would like. But even in the most well-equipped lab, sometimes we can’t teach a concept because the technology doesn’t exist. In those situations, we can use outlandish examples to discuss a concept, and then work backwards from there to discuss the limitations we currently face, a concept called a Thought Experiment. By imagining a scenario, we can push the boundaries of our understanding, discussing the issue from a “what about if X happened,” or “Would Y still occur if A and B happened.” There are many types of thought experiments, and it means different things to different disciplines. I’m going to be using it to refer the use of a metaphor to explain a concept, which corresponds to the “prefactual” type of thought experiment, ie. what outcome would we expect if we had conditions A, B and C.

Zombies: Not just for entertainment anymore | Picture courtesy AMC, available online here
Zombies: Not just for entertainment anymore | Picture courtesy AMC

With some ingenuity and creativity, we can incorporate this into our (science) teaching. Aetiology is the nom de plume of Tara Smith, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, and a member of the Zombie Research Society. If you aren’t already reading her blog, I highly recommend it. She wrote a great blog post last year about using zombies to teach virus outbreaks. Building on the face of such commercial successes as The Walking Dead, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and the upcoming movie World War Z, originally a novel by the very talented Max Brooks (who also wrote the Zombie Survival Guide), this is something that youth, as well as adults, can easily relate to. While viruses are difficult to understand and visualize, everyone can understand zombies, and how they transmit “zombie-ism.” When you’re the last survivors of the human race, there are some very pertinent questions you must ask:

“How would you protect yourself if infection was spread through the air versus only spread by biting?”

“How well would isolation of infected people work if the incubation period is very long versus very short?”

“Why might you want to thoroughly wash your zombie-killing arrows before using them to kill squirrels, which you will then eat?” (via Aetiology)

In infectious disease terms, these are referring to the 1) vector of transmission (how does the virus travel), 2) length of incubation (how long does it take before you start passing on the disease and 3) cross-contamination (disease moving from one object to another). But this is much more interesting than talking about “why should you wash your hands before eating dinner,” especially when talking to kids. But these can be expanded even further – what if zombies can’t pass on “zombie-ism”? What if zombies only live for 3 days? What if zombies are affected by extreme hot or cold temperatures? There are endless possibilities for how this experiment could be modified, adapted and how boundaries could be pushed. It’s something the CDC used for Zombie Preparedness Guide – using zombies they managed to engage people and use social marketing to their benefit, something I discussed over on the PLOS Public Health Perspectives blog. I’m a fan of this sort of work, and have also talked about using World of Warcraft to model disease outbreaks.

But this isn’t just limited to Star Trek and fictional monsters. Comic books are also a great resource when it comes to teaching and learning, especially when it comes to physics. An interview with Jim Kakalios, author of “The Uncanny Physics of Superhero Comic Books” talks about how much force Superman would need to “fly,” or whether Gwen Stacey would have died when the Green Goblin threw her off the George Washington Bridge. One example was taken from the movie Batman Begins. In that movie, there’s a scene where Batman glides around Gotham City using his cape. Some physicists took issue with this scene, and tried to determine what would have happened in real life in the aptly titled paper: Trajectory of a Falling Batman. The authors concluded that, based on the information provided, Batman would be gliding at a speed of 80kph (~ 50mph). Landing at this speed would cause grievous injuries, and thus, they conclude:

Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used such as a parachute. (Marshall et al., 2011)

Data is a sentient being, with thoughts and, following his meeting with Lore, emotions. So should he be treated as a human, with all the rights and responsibilities of such? And if not, what does it mean to be "human"? | Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Data is a sentient being, with thoughts and, following his meeting with Lore, emotions. So should he be treated as a person? | Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Of course this isn’t just limited to STEM (although I’ll limit it given the scope of this piece). Science Fiction is also a great backdrop of the discussion of other important issues. You can also use Star Trek to discuss philosophy, such as whether or not Data, a fully functional, sentient android is a “person,” and whether he should be afforded the rights and responsibilities as such. PopBioEthics has an excellent discussion of science fiction philosophy titled “Why Mass Effect is the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” It’s a long read, discussing racism, speciesism and sexism in the context of a science fiction universe where humans aren’t the dominant life form, and totally worth the time investment. Courses in this area are offered for credit at some universities – the course PHIL 180 at Georgetown aims to cover these issues and more as part of its syllabus. This is an ongoing theme in science fiction – those who have watched Blade Runner or read any of Isaac Asimov or Phillip K. Dick’s work (Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, I, Robot) are intimately familiar with this the issue of sentience and what is a life.

So what do you think readers? Have any of you used methods like this to teach students?

 

Special thanks to Brian R. for the title of this post, and all my Facebook friends who suggested equally awesome titles. Thanks guys!