After my initial research for Unit One, I thought that the hobo spider controversy should be coming to an end. However, I learned that it has not yet been formally settled, especially in the medical community. According to Vetter, “It has not been settled because the data is not there yet. I’m not aware of any confirmed hobo spider bites that have been published that caused necrotic skin lesions.” One reason that controversy may still exist is because of the long time it takes new information to become ingrained in the medical community: “[...] I was told it takes like ten years for information to filter its way through which is just horrendous. It takes them ten years to learn what’s going on” (Vetter).
Among other entomologists and arachnologists, there is still no consensus: “Right now the jury is out. There still has not been a consensus. If you talk to entomologists, they will probably cite my papers, and either consider hobo spiders not dangerous or say the jury is out” (Vetter).
Spider bites are really not all that common. Vetter just completed a study on spider bites (collaborating with Oregon Poison Control centers), “In three years, we only got like thirty-three bites … We got one hobo spider bite, the guy was bitten in the calf I think; it caused tingling and numbness and lasted for about twelve hours then it was done.”
Spider bites are often generally misdiagnosed (Gaver-Wainwright et al. 386), i.e. some type of wound can be mistaken for a spider bite, when it is actually something else (like MRSA or even skin cancer). According to Vetter:
It’s an easy diagnosis. I’ve talked to doctors about this. They say that the human body is a wonderful thing; ninety percent of everything heals by itself. If they say it’s “Hong Kong hang nails” and it goes away, they’re miracle workers, but the ten percent of the time [the patient] comes back and they say ok, it’s not “Hong kong hang nails”, and [investigate further]. One of the doctors I talked to said that spider bites are a very safe diagnosis. They can’t be proven wrong. And so we say spider bite that heals by itself, and so the doctor is thus a miracle worker.
However, his work has had some impact: “ [...] I have had some doctors tell me that I have changed the way that spider bites are diagnosed now in the medical profession” (Vetter). This refers to many of his editorials where he suggested implementing stricter guidelines for diagnosing a spider bite. He recommended doctors investigate other causes for the symptoms the patient is presenting before attributing a lesion to a presumed spider bite. A spider bite should only be diagnosed if the patient saw the spider biting them and preferably brought the spider for identification by an expert arachnologist (Vetter & Isbister 606). Once a spider bite is verified, the symptoms that manifest as a result of its bite can be correctly documented by the physician.
I did learn some new things that I had not previously heard about in scientific literature; Vetter believes that hobo spiders have become notorious mainly because of the “primitive” psychological effects that spiders have on people:
Spiders have a very interesting psychological grip on people. It started years ago back in 1987, before that they used to scream about brown recluses in the Northwest, even though those spiders don’t even live there. Darwin Vest did some experiments and even though he got some reactions in rabbits (he shaved their flesh and pushed hobo spiders onto them), the title of his paper still included “probable cause” or possible cause; he did not have truth. But that doesn’t stop people. There’s a lot of psychology going on with this where if you believe something is bad, and you have a story about it being bad, you will believe that story. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on there. People don’t like spiders; if they hear that spiders can kill you, they’ll yell “yeah yeah they can kill you!” Instead of questioning that, they run with it. Now, why are hobo spiders so notorious? It just got to that window or treadmill, and when people initially talked about hobo spiders, it was only a probable or possible cause, but then when people reiterated the stories, it got rid of the qualifiers. They’ll say that if its possible that these things cause these problems, it moves to it is probable that these things cause these problems, then it moves to the “golden truth” standard that these things are well established to cause problems.
Iteration of stories often leads to acceptance, even if said stories are generally unreasonable or not backed by scientific evidence. Scientific studies can also be taken out of context or catastrophisized:
But the general public still is very concerned about it, I talked to pest control and it’s still an issue. If you have ten articles, nine of them say that hobo spiders aren’t dangerous, and the last one says hobo spiders are dangerous, people are going to catastrophize and say, “Look hobo spiders are dangerous!”. One incorrect paper will cancel out the other nine (Vetter).
Arachnophobia may be innate in many humans, arisen from some genetic component: “[Arachnophobia] could go back to sort of a caveman kind of approach: some of these are dangerous, therefore you should fear all of them because you cannot discriminate which ones are good and which ones are bad” (Vetter).
I also thought many people who were arachnophobic were just afraid that the spiders were extremely toxic. Vetter had some interesting input: “People who are arachnophobic are not really afraid that they are dangerous or toxic, but other things like ‘they are hairy, they run fast, they appear suddenly.’ It has to do more with the spider’s behavior than its actual toxicity.”
My discovery of the hobo spider controversy and interview with Vetter lead to further questions about relationships between humans and spiders and arachnophobia. Why are people so inherently afraid of spiders; what is it about our biology that makes us prone to these innate fears? Are our spider fears fully biological (innate phobia) or are they culturally adapted (learned from others)? Different cultures have different traditional views of spiders; are cases of arachnophobia in those cultures or is it unique to Western culture?
Is our unease with spiders a result of how the civilized nations have “forgotten” what it is like to be around spiders or nature in general? Spiders are still considered mysterious, exotic creatures, and because they are mysterious, they are scary. We as humans are scared of the unknown. We strive to understand everything, even if that means creating myths and proliferating possibly inaccurate information to help us feel comfortable with that unknown (Sun 7).