I met Michelle in San Francisco last weekend, just after she’d presented a poster at this year’s AGU fall conference. We stuck largely to the typical tourist fare: the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, Mission burritos, etc.1 It amounted to a relaxing, if short, getaway. Photos will be posted to Flickr once Michelle’s had a chance to sort through the lot; she inaugurated her first digital SLR with this trip, and so might be extra critical of what is shared.
More than just the tacky refrigerator magnets and sourdough loaves, however, we brought home an extra-memorable souvenir of the trip. Maybe. Sometime during my second day of stay at our conveniently-located-in-Union-Square HI hostel, Michelle started noticing spots on her arms. Her skin is normally rather sensitive, and we didn’t make much of them until we arrived home. And she subsequently broke out again. This time much worse. Bedbugs were our immediate hypothesis; web-browsing and a visit to her university clinic confirmed our suspicions. And completely wigged us out.
Lice infestations may be common enough in elementary schools to dispel my connotations of parasites and filth, but we learned bedbugs are far more elusive and patient beggars, living away from their host and capable of surviving months without food. We meticulously searched our suitcases and clothes, then proceeded to (literally) turn our bedroom upside-down in search of any evidence. The insects themselves are 5mm long, reminiscent of an apple seed: not necessarily difficult to find. Yet, for all our work, we turned up nothing. No bugs, no eggs, no tell-tale fæces. Now this doesn’t mean that the fitful sleeping stopped. Nor the phantom itching. And certainly not the suspicion.
“Perhaps its just one.”
“She’s somewhere we forgot to look.”
“Between two pages of a book we didn’t open.”
“Or she scurried from the to-search pile to the already-searched pile while we weren’t looking.”
We’d stumbled upon the fallacy of a negative proof. Our house must have bedbugs, because we’ve found no proof that our house doesn’t have bedbugs. We might have searched as hard as we could, and I don’t think we’d have been able to find any proof that there were no bedbugs there. I immediately made the parallel to arguments for the existence of god(s) and couldn’t help but laugh. We were plagued by an infestation only of our consciousness. Evolution-wise, it makes good sense that our mind would favour a false-positive to a false-negative. Once we learned that Michelle’s second outbreak could have been a delayed reaction to initial exposure in San Francisco, there was just as little evidence that we’d brought anything home. The itching subsided. Our suspicion faded. We slept through the night. Friar Ockham be praised!2
1. I also managed a short pilgrimage to Brian Hibb‘s Comix Experience. If Absolute Sandman, Volume One didn’t weight more than 3 kilos I might have considered schlepping it up and down (and up) San Francisco’s hills.
2. Falling asleep one night, after the epistemological extermination, I couldn’t help but draw a further parallel between Russell’s Teapot and monsters under my bed. These applications of logic are left as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps tonight, as s/he is falling to sleep?