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  • Deepanshu

How Gullible Are We?

In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old boy, wrote a paper as part of his school science project. He circulated a report to 50 of his classmates detailing the hazards of Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) seeking the ban of the chemical’s everyday use. The report, which had been doing rounds on the internet at that time, had the following main points about DHDO:

  • Its accidental ingestion had been implicated in the deaths of thousands of Americans every year.

  • In gaseous form DHMO could cause severe burns.

  • DHMO is the main component of acid rain, contributing to erosion of the natural landscape.

  • It accelerates corrosion and rusting in many metals.

  • It may cause electrical failures, and decreased effectiveness in automobile brakes.

  • For everyone with a dependency on DHMO, total withdrawal can lead to death.

Then Nathan Zohner listed the places DHMO was found:

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant, in nuclear power plants.

  • In the production of Styrofoam, and as a fire retardant.

Lastly, and most importantly, despite the hazardous properties of the chemical, its presence had been confirmed in every stream on water in America. Moreover, traces of DHMO were even found in the Antarctic ice.

At the end, he added a questionnaire, he asked his classmates to vote on what action they thought should be taken as regards DHMO. 43 of his 50 classmates (86%) voted to ban DHMO immediately.

Seems like an open-and-shut case.

However, dihydrogen monoxide means two hydrogen molecules fused with one oxygen molecule – H2O. DHMO is just an unconventional way of writing ‘water’.

Nathan’s experiment wasn’t an attempt to ban water, but rather an experiment on how gullible we are.

The statements that he made were factually 100% accurate. He had just skewed his manner of presentation of this factually accurate information to drive people towards a predetermined conclusion.

A journalist later coined the term 'Zohnerism' based on this experiment –

Zohnerism (n): The use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion.

This phenomenon is more common in our everyday life than we would think. Politicians and journalists might often be seen using this tactic. Even companies can use factually correct information skewed in their favor to persuade you to buy their products (but that is a whole conversation in itself).

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