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

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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.

Mercury in Birds and Bats

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photo of reportI want to highlight this research report for a couple of reasons.   First, it’s a summary of a lot of research on birds and bats–and it is alarming.  Major findings include:

  • Current environmental mercury loads have the ability to significantly reduce reproductive success in several songbird species of conservation concern in the northeastern U.S. including the saltmarsh sparrow and rusty blackbird.
  • Bats also build up significant body burdens of mercury;  individuals from multiple species from all 10 areas sampled exceeded the subclinical threshold for changes to neurochemistry.
  • Mercury loading in songbirds is not only restricted during the breeding season; some species, such as the northern waterthrush, build up high levels of mercury during migration and in tropical wintering areas

Basically, this expands what we know about the dangers of biomagnification out into song birds and bats.  I’ve written about some of the research this report is based on before.

From an interview with an author:

“It is a game-changing paradigm shift,’’ Evers said. “For years, we’ve understood the notion that birds like an eagle can obtain toxins by eating a bass, which has eaten a perch, and the perch has eaten a fly. Now we understand the same kind of analogy can be applied to a water thrush, which eats a spider, which has eaten a smaller spider, which has eaten a fly.’’

Chart The other reason I want to point you at this is because it’s a great example of how to produce a report on complex research and make it really accessible.  They don’t just have data; they have information on how to interpret the graphs.

The PDF report itself is beautiful to look at, and focuses on specific actions/conclusions that can be drawn from the data.  It’s a report that I could hand to any of my non-scientist coworkers and be confident they could read it and understand it.  The PDF is presented within the context of a page with lots of supplemental info, including jpgs of some of the figures.  This makes it easy for journalists to build a story.

A thermometer is used to indicate risk to certain species–which cleverly uses something commonly associated with Mercury, but also something a lay-person knows how to interpret without a lot of special background knowledge.

mercury and bird lifecycleLastly, they cited their research through the report in ways that let you look up the original research, but that doesn’t detract from your reading.  It makes a powerful case that we need to really start paying attention to the mercury in our environment–because it’s not just the birds that are exposed.

Additional Reading: