This time Segal speaks with Bob Garfield on WNYC.com’s “On the Media.” You can listen to it, or read a translated-by-a-machine transcript with lots of goofy typos by clicking here. I made my own corrections to the faulty transcript in the excerpts quoted below.
In this discussion, David Segal continues the argument he made in the Washington Post last week — that bed bug coverage is overblown in both its quantity and in its hyperbolic nature, when compared with the actual incidence of and difficulty of experiencing bed bugs.
He actually starts by making a valid point– that we need an academic study of how many bed bug cases there are in reality. I would agree with that in a New York minute. As Segal puts it:
. . . the problem with this story has always been that the stats on it are incredibly squishy. There’s just never been a good academic study that has explained exactly how bad the bed bugs really are.
Absolutely — not since Toronto (2003), anyway. And apparently never in New York. We need one ASAP.
However, I don’t agree with his assessment which follows:
David Segal: So every journalist and and almost every story that you see relies on one stat over and over again. And that is the number of calls to exterminators. And there’s a couple problems with this.
The first one is that it’s always tricky to get a sense of the scale of any problem from a party that has a financial interest if that problem gets worse. It creates at minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest.
This is a valid point. However, the stats most NYC journalists cite (and some of which which Segal cites) did not come from pest control operators but from the City of New York.
David Segal continues,
The other problem is that there are so many people who think that they have an infestation of bugs and are being eaten by bugs that psychologists have a name for it. They call it delusional parasitosis. In New York City there were two and a half thousand complaints to the housing authority in the last few years about bed bugs and the check out every one of them. And 500 turn out to be real so you have it seems two or three people who think they have a bed bug infestation and don’t, for every one that does.
Bob Garfield: So what you’re describing is literally a form of hysteria.
Whoa, Nellie! I have to cry foul here.
First of all, Segal cites NYC Housing Authority data here and in the Washington Post Article. This is itself a skewering of the statistics, since NYCHA only deals with infestations in public housing projects, with their own inspectors and their own pest control contractors. All other tenants’ infestations would be included in the data used by the Daily News — which cites much higher numbers of bed bug cases given by the NYC Housing and Preservation Department (NYCHPD) — the ones who take their stats from calls to 311 which lead to housing violations, based on HPD inspections. This agency reported approximately 6000 calls and over 2000 bed bug cases in the last fiscal year. Perhaps Segal does not understand the distinction between the NYCHA and NYCHPD data; he never mentions the latter. I assume, however, that he is not trying to mislead people (as he accuses the hyperbolic media of doing).
Anyone who looks into this issue for a while would realize that even the NYCHPD statistics are seriously flawed — they can only be considered to grossly underreport the actual incidence of bed bugs. I know this to be true: few New Yorkers call 311 to report their bed bugs as a housing violation. Many do not know to do so, and most who are aware of the option would not think of reporting their landlord either because everyone knows that when you have a problem in your apartment, you ask your landlord to fix it, or because (rightly or wrongly) they fear repercussions for doing so.
It is true that I know this only anecdotally from the hundreds and hundreds of NYC bed bug sufferers I have encountered, but I defy David Segal to prove otherwise. PCOs may certainly be overestimating the number of cases they treat, but I guarantee you the NYCHPD statistics grossly underestimate the size of the problem. They also leave out New York’s many co-op, condo, and house owners, who also get bed bugs but would never call 311 to report them.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence for Segal’s idea that more bed bug coverage = more false alarms, based on the NYCHPD data cited by the Daily News and other sources. As I wrote in my response to Segal’s Washington Post piece on 2/26,
Comparing fiscal year 2006 with fiscal year 2007, according to the stats above, the percentage of 311 complaints which are actual infestations verified by NYCHPD went up (from 25% in FY 2006 to 29% in FY 2007) — which may mean there were fewer false alarms in 2007 than 2006 (and/or, possibly, that there were more experienced inspectors, who were able to detect more infestations in the second year than the first).
Since there was undoubtedly more (and more hyperbolic) bed bug news coverage in fiscal year 2007 than FY 2006, it is not likely from this data that more news coverage correlates with more false alarms.
Finally, and most importantly, when “two or three people” call for a bed bug inspection and only one has bed bugs, it is not fair or accurate to assume that the others have delusional parasitosis, an actual medical condition. It is more likely, in my experience, that either: (a) they do not have bed bugs but some other likely explanation that is health- or pest-related (scabies, fleas, folliculitis, and very occasionally mites, also come to mind); (b) they do not have bed bugs but have heard of them, and perhaps have been exposed to them at a hotel or friend’s home, and are genuinely concerned they might have them; (c) they have bed bugs but the NYCHPD inspector does not find them. (We hear variations on all of these, every day at Bedbugger.)
Regarding scenario (c), PCOs and entomologists will tell you that bed bugs are difficult to detect, especially in their early stages. Yet bed bugs will bite from day one, and it is conceivable that at least some of these apparent “false alarms” are just undetected bed bug infestations.
I am sure it’s true that more news stories do lead to more people calling pest control operators for bed bug inspections, but it would be reasonable to assume that some of these people who read stories and call do also have bed bugs (and might not have realized this had they not seen a news report), while others will have false alarms.
Incidentally, University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter, who — as a tenured professor of entomology — will be making his salary whether he causes people become “hysterical” about bed bugs or not, has been cited as saying that up to 50% of people do not react to bed bug bites even if they are bitten. I am much more worried about all the people who have bed bugs and have no idea, and do not know to call for inspections, rather than those who wrongly suspect bed bugs and call.
Bob Garfield later asks Segal,
Have you gotten any kind of backlash over this piece at all? Have people who have actually been bitten by real live bed bugs called you and told you “how dare you!” or anything like that?
David Segal: A lot — and I’ve had a ton of email from people who hope that I get bed bugs, who have had bed bugs, who say “you’ve no idea what you’re talking about! It’s a total horror, and the more coverage about this the better.”
And I’m just waiting for the highly ironic infestation to begin in my own home.
I am one of those who would never wish bed bugs on anyone. However, I would concur that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Since David Segal lives in New York City, one of his friends or colleagues is bound to have an infestation any day now. Perhaps they’ll set him straight.