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Bugs and Bogus Science

December 12, 2014
Hedge apple insect control is just a myth.

As an insect scientist I have heard quite a number of unproven theories about the six-legged creatures I study. Some such theories originated long ago and are now considered folklore. That is the case of the earwig that is so named because of the ancient belief that the insect would enter human ears and chew through the eardrum. There is no truth to that assumption.

Some unsubstantiated beliefs today are associated with human efforts to control insects that are considered pests. For instance, I am sometimes told that placing hedge apples - the green, ball-shaped fruits of Osage orange trees - in closets will keep moths out of clothes. There is no scientific support for such a control approach, short of dropping the hedge apple on the offending moth. Also, some people believe that eating garlic will prevent mosquito bites. Again, scientific evidence does not support this contention.

So how do ideas like these originate? They probably get started when people associate two events and assume a cause-and-effect relationship. But it is easy to be misled by such observations. The relationship might only be coincidence and have nothing to do with one causing the other. The only way to know for sure is to test the idea in a scientific experiment.

Scientists would classify an idea such as eating garlic to keep mosquitoes from biting as a hypothesis. A rigorous experiment could be set up to test the hypothesis. The data collected during this scientific test would be analyzed to determine if the hypothesis were true or false. Either way, the results would be published so that the whole world would know whether or not eating garlic could be a way to avoid mosquito bites. That process is called the scientific method.

All of this sounds good, but sometimes conclusions resulting from scientific studies on the same hypothesis differ. It is for this reason the scientific community often repeats experiments. And it's also why scientists might debate the validity of conclusions from a scientific experiment.

But most scientists have a sense of humor about their disciplines and that is the reason for events such as BAHFest. The BAH part of BAHFest is the acronym for Bad Ad Hoc Hypothesis and was the brainchild of online comic Zach Weinersmith. Weinersmith includes some scientific ideas in his cartoon, and he just happens to be married to scientist!

This year, six contestants at BAHFest East each had 10 minutes to present their fake evolutionary biology paper to a panel of four scientist-judges. The judges ranked the contestants in several categories, but the final score for each included points for audience applause.

Two contestants had an insect component to their evolutionary biology paper. Both incorporated an aspect of entomophagy - eating insects - into their papers.

Justin Werfel is a Harvard University researcher who has studied termites in Africa, but his paper focused on the topic of why humans think insects are disgusting. He developed the concept that throughout the course of human evolution, the competition for food drove humans to eat insects. While eating insects was good for humans, it was not good for insects. So Werfel developed the hypothesis that insects have evolved to look more disgusting as human populations grew in order to avoid becoming a meal. To prove his point he enlisted some of his colleagues and showed them pictures and drawings of insects that were rated on a scale of how disgusting the insects looked. Sure enough, the older pictures and drawings were ranked less disgusting than the more recent insect pictures. Of course, the oldest pictures only went back to the early 1700s!

Another contestant was Emma Kowal, also of Harvard. Notice a trend here? Kowal addressed the issue of why humans yawn. Her hypothesis was that yawning evolved as a way to catch insects to eat. She proposed that yawning is more prevalent at dusk and dawn, and that is when flying swarms of insects are most prominent. She further pointed out that when humans yawn really wide that their eyes are closed. This is obviously an evolutionary adaptation to reduce the probably of getting insects in eyes rather than in the mouth.

There you have it - the latest on presentations involving insects at BAHFest. I don't know about you, but I think my mother might have had this figured out a long time ago. She always admonished us, "Cover your mouth when you yawn!"

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