1:20 PM

A Frightening Hook: Bedbugs

I'm something of an NPR junkie.  I have to do a fair amount of driving because my kids go to two different schools, and I'm one of those annoying parents who thinks her kids probably need to know what's going on in the world, so we listen to public radio quite a bit.

On the ride into work this morning, I heard this story on Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio's local news show.  The story is about how Denver has one of the largest and most persistent bed bug problems in the country.

I'd heard stories of bed bugs--another one of my favorite radio shows This American Life did a story on them a while back--and I'm interested in them because I'm pretty grossed out by bugs, and am maybe a little OCD, and if we ended up having a bed bug infestation in our house I'd probably consider burning the thing down.

Bed bugs, if you're not familiar, are a little harder to kill than the proverbial post-apocalyptic cockroach.  They can live anywhere in your home, are nearly impossible to get rid of, and they suck your blood while you sleep, then poop that blood on your sheets and wherever else.  They're my idea of horrific.

What does all this have to do with Science Communication?  Well, it occurred to me that the Colorado Matters story on bed bugs was actually a brilliant form of SC.  The show begins with the host Ryan Warner speaking with one of his friends, who had a bed bug infestation (and still has it) and has to live with it.  We hear about his struggles with bed bugs in fairly graphic detail.  It's fascinating and (for me) a gross-out.

But then, the show goes on to interview a specialist in bed bug biology and behavior, Gail Getty.  Getty speaks about the size of the bugs, their behaviors, and what it takes to get rid of them in strikingly clear language.  And it occurred to me, aha!  Here is a scientist who knows how to talk to laypeople.

The show is formatted with a really clever hook, in other words.  A hook (or news peg) is the thing that draws you into the story in the first place, either by making the content relevant to you in some way or by "hooking" or pegging the story on to another big news story.  If the Colorado Matters bed bug story had just started out as a story about entomology (the study of bugs) it might not have been so interesting.  But instead, we start out with the story of a man who is battling the bugs.  The human interest side draws us in, and then all of sudden the science becomes relevant and interesting.

A pretty good trick.

Comments (4)

I know New York was having a huge problem with this over the summer. They were afraid the problem would become huge nation-wide from people traveling without properly checking themselves for bed bugs. From what I have heard, you have to heat whatever is infected to a relatively high temperature and essentially bake it. Unfortunately, this combination is great for making steel, but awful for fibers, foods and everything else that makes our life possible. I haven't checked out the link yet, but I'm curious to see if they included solutions to the problem, as I mentioned, or if they simply stated the problem which could cause a panic as it did in New York.

They do talk about solutions, but the scientist interviewed was skeptical about heat working because they can live in so many places (not just fibers). Looks like heavy-duty chemicals are the only viable answer at the moment.

You could always bring in some spiders to take care of the problem! But that would not go down well with many folks. Somehow this reminds me of the pine beetle that is annihilating the forests in the Colorado mountains. It sounds like there isn't much we can do about getting rid of either infestation without ruining the thing we are trying to protect...

You have a great point with the hook recommendation. Sometimes the best SC happens when you don't even realize that you are learning. This has happened to me countless times while watching an interesting television program and they have experts talk about things. You are learning from them but were so hooked by some other aspect that you just soak up that information.