Last 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”.
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?
Part 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?
- Common Myths about Spiders
- No Follow: how to keep bogus sites from getting Google juice when you link to them
- Possibly the best evolution video ever. With not quite science facts
- Details of spider copulatory organs with no snark and just science
- Actual Research about misinformation and public perceptions of science (alas, behind a paywall)
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.
Heather is a hapless grad student that is also a bit of a klutz… and ends up infused with spider DNA. The results are far more pleasing to an entomologist than Spider-Man’s neutered and white-washed anatomy.
This? This is EXACTLY what would happen if I was bitten by a radioactive spider:
I was on a panel a few weeks ago discussing mutations, and what they can and cannot do. Spider-man was one of the topics, because the sad truth is that the Comics industry has conspired in a G-rated cover-up to hide his terrible, terrible affliction.
Spider-man’s spider webbing talent isn’t what you think it is. Sure, male spiders do have special appendages on the front of their bodies–they are really noticeable ”boxing gloves.” They actually can be up to 20% of a male spider’s body weight.
Those are not, however, what spiders shoot silk or webbing out of. These pedipalps have one function. SEX.
That white, sticky stuff Peter Parker is shooting out of his wrist? Um. Yeah.
There is a reason that people freak out when he shoots a big blop of splooge at them.
See, spiders have a very odd reproductive system. Male spiders don’t have a penis. (I don’t know if a side effect of Mr. Parker’s radioactive spider bite was his penis falling off, but that might explain his perpetual whiny attitude. Even if if he did manage to initially retain his penis, it probably broke off later during mating with Mary Jane.)
Pedipalps are modified appendages at the front of a male spider. They use these to insert sperm into a female’s body. To get the sperm out of his gonads in the rear, a male spider creates something called a “sperm web” that he limbos underneath and deposits sperm onto.
He then turns around and “loads” the sperm into his pedipalps, and sets off to find a female and hook up. Pedipalps are the spider equivalent of a turkey baster.
Don’t see the parallel? Let’s review how Mr. Parker’s “slingers” work. His arms are modified appendages at the front of his body. He has to “load them” with “fresh wet-fluid.”
NOW YOU KNOW THE TRUTH.
“But, Bug Girl!” You say. “You don’t understand the story!” Ok, let’s suppose, for your collective mental sanity, that Mr. Parker is actually shooting spider silk, not nocturnal emissions, at villains.
Is that….an improvement? I can certainly see why Spider-man would prefer to gather up the silk and dispense it from a gizmo on his arm, rather than have a little flap in the back of his leotard.
If you would like to look at male spider pedipalps in action, check out this video. The naughty part begins at 2:35 — note that it really is very much like a turkey baster in function!
MORE HORRIBLE TRUTH:
Ant-Man first appeared in 1962, and is described in a comic Wiki with this wonderful sentence:
“With the help of his hexapoda allies Hank was able to stem the tide of most minor crimes. “
The basic Ant-Man plot line is, like most comics, convoluted and involves many different story arcs and reincarnations. Hank Pym discovered a group of subatomic particles and produced two serums from them, one to reduce someone in size and another to restore them. This allowed him to shrink to the size of an ant and return to normal shape.
He went on to develop a helmet that let him communicate and control ants, and became a crime fighter and one of the founding members of the Avengers. (Sadly, he has been edited out of the Avengers movie to be released in 2012. Speciesism!!)
He turned his girlfriend into an insecty sidekick (Wasp) and also had several nervous breakdowns and developed alter egos. I suppose as a physicist forced to constantly violate physical principles (conservation of matter, for one), that is to be expected. About the only constant for Ant-Man over the years is that he seems to have been a bit of a perv, inclined to hide out in inconspicuous spots on women. Like… brassieres.
Do a Google search for images of “Ant-Man” or browse through the back issues of some of the comics online for much hilarious insecty action.
Anyway, back to the movie. The director is Edgar Wright, and initial reports suggested Simon Pegg as the lead, which is just all sorts of flavors of awesome.
Mr Wright and Mr. Pegg:
I hereby offer my services as entomological consultant.
Spare your self the ignominy of The Bee Movie’s horrible fate (i.e., being mocked here and elsewhere for their utterly crap insect science.)
Accept professional help. Hire an entomologist!
Other Insect Superheros:
W00t! MightyGodKing brought another insect super-villain to my attention: The Bug-Eyed Bandit.
A dude with the catchy name of Bertram Larvan, he is listed as having two superpowers: Entomology and Robotics.
Now, leaving aside for the moment the validation of what I’ve always known–entomological knowledge confirms superpowers–how did this make him a villain?
“Bertram Larvan was an inventor who designed a mechanical insect to control insect pests. Unfortunately, he had no financial backing to support his invention. He resolved to steal money he needed for his invention. He later used his invention to steal more. Soon, he had an army of mechanical insects and took the name of the Bug-Eyed Bandit.”
Ok, maybe not.
Mr. Larvan was an opponent of the Atom, which seems fitting, given the Atom was bug-sized. Larvan sported a rather dashing Goatee, and had the unusual fashion sense we have come to expect from insect related villains. Personally, purple and green are two of my favorite colors; however, it’s a bit overdone in his outfit.
For some reason, the Bug-eyed Bandit kept losing his memory and recovering it, and moving in and out of crime. Making him, I suppose, the ultimate absentminded entomologist.