“Scientifically Accurate” Spider-man (is not accurate)

spidermanLast year I wrote a post about Spider-man, and how his anatomy may not be…err, as PG as one might wish. In less than 500 words, I tried to write an entertaining post about how actual spider anatomy is not analogous to Spider-Man the superhero’s anatomy.

I did not expect to enrage Fanboys all over the internet quite as much as I did, but over all counted it as a science communication win. (I will confess to occasionally forgetting-on-purpose to hyphenate SpiderMan in this post because it makes them even madder, though.  I am a bad person.)

And THEN: Scientifically Accurate Spiderman: The Video.

This video is marked as ADULT, so you might have to go to YouTube and sign in to view it.  The video takes some elements of what I wrote and puts it in a blender to make a cartoon that is… interesting? Really, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it just for the sheer WTFery of it all.
I transcribed some of the more puzzling lyrics of the song here:

Vaguely Scientifically Accurate:

  • “His web erupts from out his ass”: Closer to the truth than actual Spider-Man, although technically webbing would erupt from spinnerets located near his taint.  Technically. In an imaginary universe where Spider-human hybrids don’t immediately DIE.
  • “Four pairs of eyes”: While this isn’t true of all spiders, it is correct for most.
  • “His dick falls off”: How they got from “spiders don’t have a penis like a human” to “his dick falls off multiple times, and usually ends up in someone’s food item,” I’m really not clear.  As a side note, I’m impressed that the penis in the video apparently has its own, separate Spider-man costume.  I always just assumed Spidey tucked left in the leotard.

Not Even Close to Scientifically Accurate:

  • “It’s a science fact spiders are gay”  WHUT?
  • “There are 250 spiders on your skin”  WHUT WHUT?
  • “Spiders produce milk.”  This could the most hilarious misunderstanding of transgenic goats that produce spider proteins ever. Alternately, they might be thinking of milking spiders for their venom. Which…still makes no sense, because why does ‘Scientifically Accurate Spider-Man’ have nipples?

This is a video made for humor and shock value. I see nothing wrong in this.  But where did the strange “facts” in this video come from?
It turns out there’s a lot of extremely bogus spider facts online. The top result for “Fun Facts About Spiders” is this list. Two (Completely False!) examples from that site:

“A single strand of spider web has more potential energy than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki… Because spiders do not naturally exist in areas of high fusion, there is little danger to the average person.” 

“The average human autopsy procedure in Chicago, IL will reveal roughly 250 small spiders living at points throughout the endocrine and circulatory systems. In New York, NY the average is upwards of 800.”

Those [BG edited: COMPLETELY FALSE FACTOIDS!] are pretty hilarious. Except.
When I posted a couple of these on Twitter (because, again, hilarious!), lots of people did not know they were false. They saw someone that looked vaguely authoritative tweet:

“Did you know that spiders with hair on them are mammals, and thus produce delicious (and unusually cold) milk?”

And they went along with it. They have all been taught that mammals have fur and produce milk, so…“Hey! Spiders are furry, aren’t they? Who knew they also had milk? Damn, I learn so much from Bug Girl! Spiders are involved in the dairy industry!”

Those of us with expertise in an area tend to forget that not everyone has the same background base of knowledge we do.  FAIL on my part for not making it clear enough that those were bogus factoids, and assuming that everyone else would get the joke.

The “facts” in this video turn out to have a similar explanation.  When you look at the “references” listed on the video, the list contains info from the Annual Review of Entomology, Biology Letters,….and the video creators included several of these “Fun Facts About Spiders”.

Oh dear.

Critical Evaluation of Online Information Fail.

But this whole series of miscommunications brings up a lot of really interesting questions about the internet and science communication.

Look, no human-spider hybrid will ever really be viable. If Spidey develops book lungs, for example, he’s going to collapse and die from lack of oxygen. Spiders don’t have capillaries, veins, and arteries like we do, and a large animal–with or without red spandex compression tights–just doesn’t work very well without a circulatory system.

Who cares? It’s science fiction.

I love science fiction!  I’m all about willing suspension of disbelief–IF the magic hand-wavey timey-wimey bits are clearly not real. I don’t really care that Spider-Man is not anatomically correct. I tried to connect spider anatomy with pop culture in order to get readers.  I focused on the web spinning and penile aspects of Spider-Man to get readers.   Sadly, very few people are going to post a technical story about spider spinnerets on Facebook. “OMG check out the cribellum on this Araneomorph spider!! Wicked Cool!”

The problem for those of us trying to communicate science online is that we forget not everyone is in on the joke. The Onion is a well known news parody site–to nerds like me on the internet. But The Onion doesn’t make it obvious to people seeing it for the first time that it’s a parody. It’s not real.  But people mistake it for real news on a fairly regular basis.  How do we make sure that everyone knows a joke is a joke? Without completely killing said joke because we explained it?

pedipalpPart of the challenge I give myself with this blog is to try to make insects and their spineless relatives fun and interesting, and not be dry, technical and pedantic. That also means I cut some corners.

At the same time I was trying to be relevant and bring in new readers, I also was getting pushback from spider experts for oversimplifying spider pedipalps.  Male spider pedipalps really are amazing sexual organs–and they really do break off during sex.  Is a copulatory palp the same as a penis? Depends on who you ask.

Male spider pedipalps are modified, paired mouthparts involved in reproduction. Frankly, I’m rather sad that I didn’t think to suggest that Spider-Man’s penis would migrate up his abdomen to his chin and duplicate itself.

I don’t know how to walk that line between fun and technical accuracy perfectly–this whole blog is a performance piece. Done on the internet, with everyone watching and commenting. No pressure!

I think that the overall goal of getting more people to know something about spiders–even if it’s freaky genital factoids–balances out some of my not 100% accuracy in terms of specialized terminology.

And here is where I ask you to write the rest of the post.
How best should we deal with misinformation on the internet like fake spider “facts”?
Is not being detailed about technical science items the same/different than the fake factoids? Does it matter?

DISCUSS.

Additional Resources:

Some tips from that publication about trying to correct misconceptions:

  • Provide an explicit warning before mentioning misinformation, to ensure people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by it.
  • Consider what gaps are created by your debunking and fill them with an alternative explanation.
  • There’s a risk of a backfire effect when original misinformation is repeated and made more familiar.
  • To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation (i.e, risking backfire effect), emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth.

7 thoughts on ““Scientifically Accurate” Spider-man (is not accurate)

  1. Hi, could you please provide more information regarding the claim, that “~250 spiders live in our endocrine system”?
    I could imagine that some microscopic arachnids(?) could live among/inside us, just like a myriad of other organisms, but then again I’m but a layman, a skeptical one though, which is the reason I doubted that claim.

  2. How to deal with the general self-imposed ignorance of the lay public… it’s like asking how to deal with hordes of lemming charging into the ocean. Wait. That lie was propagated by mass media and while it’s never been repeated, it persists. It persists into video games even! Who doesn’t miss “Lemmings”, especially the suicidal types? The point it, Walt Disney is dead but suicidal lemmings live on. Cute, little mammals. The chances of changing a single lay person’s mind with education is directly correlated with the Disney or Pixar budget to make a film loosely based on facts. Real ones, back with real animation. Short of that… Lemmings.

  3. Mr. Sorry–spider *relatives* live on our skin–mites are common. But that is completely different than having them inside our circulatory and endocrine system. That doesn’t happen.

    Face Mites

  4. My boss (whom I adore), says that if you’re making everyone happy all of the time, you’re not making any decisions. As you are well aware, biology is full of hilarious versions of sex and death, with all manner of entertaining details in between. Much of this would be lost on the general public without folks like you making the decision to sacrifice a little detail in order to bring the bigger picture to a wider audience. Obviously this happens in the media all the time. The same science folks and fan-boys will complain about the details every time, but they aren’t the ones who are able to bring the fun and excitement to an audience outside of their LARP circle. Just take it with a grain of salt and roll with it. There are plenty of big entertainment examples to point to where people learned things about the world that they would otherwise not have known, but where the details were a little overlooked. Just look at “Finding Nemo”. ;-)

    In the end, you’re in control of the comments on your blog. If you want to make your would-be critics wary, you can always post a few choice comments with your witty retorts to ward them off.

  5. It is an insult to the intellect of humans to think that we must attach a vagina or penis to every living organism to make it understandable.

  6. Except, as a way to engage non-scientists in a science discussion, talking about sex is pretty effective. It doesn’t have to be penis/vag sex, but still, people do tend to be interested in sex.

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