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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why you should check the source

At some point in your life, someone no doubt told you that the average person swallows eight spiders in their sleep throughout their lifetime.  If you’re like most people, you simply assumed that it was true and might well have passed along the information.  Perhaps you heard the even more disturbing statistic that the average person swallows eight spiders a year and have slept with a roach motel and a Doctor Octopus action figure near your mouth ever since.

This is what Google gives you when you
type in "Spider Defense"

The fact remains, of course, that this “factoid” is patently false.  It doesn’t take much critical thinking to disprove it.  Think about it.  How successful a species would spiders really be if they were in the habit of being nocturnally swallowed?  Why would an animal that lives off of bugs expect to find any in your mouth?  And how successful a species would human beings be if it was our instinct to swallow things that crawled into our mouths rather than spit them out?

To further debunk this absurd notion, consider what your mouth is doing while you’re sleeping.  Generally speaking, it is breathing.  Virtually every species of spider instinctively recoils when wind blows over it.  On movie sets this is one of the few ways spiders can be manipulated by ‘spider wranglers’ (one of the nine coolest things to have on your business card).  Even if our unsuspecting spider mistook your mouth for a bug filled buffet, the rush of air in and out of your mouth would certainly serve as a deterrent.

Something tells me you'd notice.

But even if you knew nothing about spiders and their aversion to drafts you should have raised an eyebrow to this dubious claim.  How on earth would anyone know this?  Think about the enormous difficulty that would go into discovering this statistic.  The study would have to watch people sleeping under a state of the art camera capable of seeing the smallest arachnid in the dark and would have to do so for upwards of a year to rule out any seasonal fluctuation in accidental spider swallowing.  To approximate an average the sample size would have to be substantial which would mean that a massive amount of money, manpower and technical resources would be devoted to this research.  And for what?  To find out if the itsy-bitsy spider really crawled up the spout again?

So if the notion is so easily falsifiable, why do so many people believe it?  Why do so many people hear it, accept it and pass it along without bothering to fire a few neurons first? 

Maybe we're just stupid.

One explanation is the sheer disgust with which we receive such assertions.  We hear facts all the time about eyebrow mites or the number of creepy-crawlies living in our intestines so on a gut level our revulsion acts as a barometer for believability.  It’s too gross not to be true.  Our gut didn’t want it to be true so it assumed it was.  After all, if you questioned it, would that simply be taken as a sign that you lack the intestinal fortitude to deal with the truth about your spider consumption?

But the truth is probably much simpler than that.  Most of us just don’t bother to check the sources.  We hear things from people who have no reason to lie so we expect them to be true.  After all, when your aunt told you that you would inadvertently swallow eight spiders in your life she certainly didn’t want it to be true any more than you did.  She doubtless heard it from some sort of arachnologist or whatever they call those people.  Surely the digestive remains of enough people have been checked for spider DNA to confirm this gruesome conjecture.

In fact, studies have shown that people are so bad at questioning what they are told that when you present someone with a myth and tell them it is a myth, within a few weeks they are more likely to believe the known myth than they are to remember that it was fictitious.  Think about this for a second.  If you tell a hundred people, “There’s a myth going around that the Vikings invented the Snuggie, but it isn’t true”, within a few weeks time, more than fifty will believe that Vikings invented the Snuggie (they didn’t).
It was actually the Jedi who
invented the Snuggie...

Any number of myths could have been used to make this point.  I could have talked about the notion that people only use ten per cent of their brains (false), the idea that births and/or arrests go up on a full moon (false) or the idea that Will Ferrell is funny (false).  But I chose the spider for an interesting reason:  The whole spider nonsense was actually started by somebody trying to prove this point.

The consensus seems to be that this rumor was started on the Internet (an unlikely place for a false rumor to begin, I know) in 1997 along with a long list of equally ridiculous falsities.  They likely began with the caveat that they were not true, but thanks to our silly habit of remembering lies as truths, the spider rumor caught on.

The brutal irony of it all is that in order to point this out, I have to throw the spider eating myth on whoever happens upon this blog and has not heard it before.  Statistically speaking, by pointing out that this is false, I might be adding to the number of people who think it’s true.

By the way, if you get up right now and tell somebody “Hey, have you ever heard that you swallow eight spiders in your sleep every year?  Turns out that isn’t true”, you’ve missed the point of this column altogether.  All I did was make the assertion in an authoritative way, which is no doubt how the rumor started.

Don’t forget to check your sources.

Aaron Davies

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