The Dihydrogen Monoxide Menace

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Photo by DodgertonSkillhause at Morguefile.com

In 1983, the Durand Express ran an April Fool’s article detailing the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. The weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan reported the presence of the chemical present in the city’s water pipes. They warned of it being fatal if inhaled and the production of blistering vapors.

This was repeated on multiple occasions. It was first replicated by Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen, and Matthew Kaufman. At the time, they were housemates at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This was built upon by Craig Jackson when he created the parody organization “Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide”.

In 1997, Nathan Zohner used the hoax as an experiment in gullibility. What happened with that?

Zohner gathered petitions to ban DMHO. The outcome was that 43 of those students thought a ban was appropriate, six of them were undecided, and only a single student recognized that DMHO was the chemical compound for water.

Time and time again, the hoax has been replicated with similar results. People just don’t get it.

The most recent iteration of this was carried out a few weeks ago when my health class was assigned the topic for research. My professor made it abundantly clear that it was a trick question, that there was a right or wrong answer, and that it was about checking sources and thinking critically about the things you found on the internet.

I even blurted out the fact that it was water. Yet still, when the first round of submissions was collected there was a distinct 50/50 split among the class. People couldn’t figure it out.

I was flabbergasted. I kept asking myself why. Why did they forget basic scientific nomenclature? I literally handed the answer to them and they still got it wrong. I felt like my brain was going to explode.

Chemical Conundrum

The site I was directed to was an obvious fake. Yet, since many of my classmates bought it, they clearly didn’t see the signs.

The best place to start is with the visuals.

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Screenshot of the DHMO website’s header

The visuals are presented in an aesthetically unpleasant manner. The gradient is unappealing, and the logos are poorly designed.

The site has indeed been updated since its inception in 1997, but it has not received a visual overhaul. In this era, where a content management system can do so with a click of a button, that is likely an intentional decision.

If one looks at pseudoscientific or conspiracy theory related websites, they’re often poorly designed. Those assembling those sites often don’t have a keen eye for design, nor do they really care. It is possible to dress up incorrect information with good visuals. Spirit Science is a YouTube channel that does just that. But a poorly designed website often signals poorly thought ideas. The storefront uses Comic Sans as its font. All it’s missing is Papyrus and we’ll have the unholy dyad of fonts.

The claims are written to circumvent your rationality and appeal. It is blatant fearmongering.

Each year, Dihydrogen Monoxide is a known causative component in many thousands of deaths and is a major contributor to millions upon millions of dollars in damage to property and the environment.

It lists the individual dangers further.

  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.
  • Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.
  • Excessive ingestion produces a number of unpleasant though not typically life-threatening side-effects.
  • DHMO is a major component of acid rain.
  • Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.
  • Contributes to soil erosion.
  • Leads to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.
  • Contamination of electrical systems often causes short-circuits.
  • Exposure decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • Found in biopsies of pre-cancerous tumors and lesions.
  • Given to vicious dogs involved in recent deadly attacks.
  • Often associated with killer cyclones in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere, and in hurricanes including deadly storms in Florida, New Orleans and other areas of the southeastern U.S.
  • Thermal variations in DHMO are a suspected contributor to the El Nino weather effect.

It proposes links to violent crimes, citing its availability.

Allow me to draw a circle around something I mentioned earlier. The site is trying to sell you something. That is a major red flag because someone trying to sell you something does not necessarily have your best intentions in mind. If you are being sold crystals on a New Age website and being told that it’s going to heal you, there’s a reason they tell you what you want to hear.

Far too many people let down their critical barriers, they become convinced that the person selling them a product is doing so with the best of intentions. As the platitude goes, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

Ultimately, the DHMO site throws a flashlight on the scientific illiteracy in American culture. It calls attention to the conspiratorial thinking, uncritical acceptance of purported facts, and the anti-science mentality that pervades the status quo. Until the anti-intellectual attitudes that permeate our culture are erased, this will continue to repeat indefinitely.

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