It's Us Not Them: A French Philosopher Takes On The Paris Bed Bug Hysteria
Despite the panic on social media, at home and abroad, there is absolutely no evidence of a "bed bug invasion" in the City of Lights. French philosopher Gaspard Koenig explores why Paris (and the world) get sucked in to a bunker mentality of always fearing the worst.
Updated October 6, 2023 at 5:15 p.m.
PARIS — And suddenly, like an army descending from a Trojan horse in the night, bedbugs appeared before our frightened eyes.
We see them on trains, in movie theaters, in our apartments. We read heartbreaking accounts of ravaged families. With horror, we look at photos of their victims, their bellies swollen with bites. The progress of the invasion is documented city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Reactions are equally dramatic. Journalists, like the author of these pages, revel in a subject that is far more exciting than the exploding burden of public debt or the planned administrative harassment of welfare recipients.
Some wonder about the effectiveness of ultrasonic devices, while others wonder whether migrants could be seen as some type of new ruse by migrants to undermine the foundations of our nation.
The public authorities are not to be underestimated. The Paris city council is proposing a review of home insurance contracts. The government has summoned transport operators "to reassure and protect" transit users. A national conference on pest control is planned. It's only a matter of time before the president of the Republic announces that "we are at war" — with bedbugs.
Nothing to report
The only event of similar magnitude that comes to mind is the shark attacks in the summer of 2001 in the United States.
In early July, a little boy named Jessie Arbogast had his arm ripped off in the waters off Florida. In the days that followed, a New Yorker lost a leg in the Bahamas, then a surfer was torn apart. The recovery of Arbogast, whose arm was found in the shark's belly and sewn back on its owner, was the subject of non-stop coverage. TIME magazine titles its late July issue "Summer of the Sharks."
Shark migrations were tracked by helicopter; American beaches gripped with fear and psychosis. The government is summoned to react. Only the September 11th attacks could divert the public's attention.
Except that, as noted by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics, in 2001 there were 68 shark attacks worldwide, four of them fatal. Between 1995 and 2005, there were around 60 shark attacks per year.
Without the initial media coverage of Arbogast's spectacular case, no one would have paid attention to these dramatic but statistically insignificant accidents. As Levitt and Dubner humorously conclude, newspaper headlines should have read: "Nothing to report this year on shark attacks."
People sitting on the Parisian metro
A real-fake crisis
Renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains our tendency to extrapolate this type of news item by the "availability heuristic," i.e. our mind's propensity to transform shocking images (and therefore easily "available" to the brain) into a general rule, in defiance of any rigorous probabilistic reasoning.
Could it be that bedbugs are subject to the same availability heuristic? While these fingernail-sized bloodsuckers have made an undeniable comeback since the 1990s, after having been all but eradicated in post-war Europe (with devastating insecticides like DDT), there's no indication that their population has particularly exploded this year.
Why are we suddenly so anxious about the irritating but by no means dangerous cimex lectularius?
But once social media has been saturated with a few creepy photos, how can we stop the anxiety-inducing cycle of information? Are there really more bedbugs in cinemas, or have we simply taken it upon ourselves to seek them out and report them?
The real-fake bedbug crisis has taught us two lessons about our times. The first is that, despite the developments of neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence, human nature is hardly changing — we're still as stupid as ever.
The second, and perhaps more serious, concerns our relationship with living things. Why are we suddenly so anxious about the irritating but by no means dangerous cimex lectularius, which have been pestering mankind for millions of years and were already annoying Aristotle?
Beyond the itches and tickles, we can't stand the idea of bugs taking the liberty of roaming our skin at night. Forgetting that our bodies are in constant contact with a host of microorganisms, we'd like to turn our bedrooms into bunkers. Bed bugs! What fools!
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