Zohnerism: How Gullible Are We?

In the morning today, in our group chat, one of our friends commented “don’t believe the media guys as they are experts in spreading post-truth. There is a term coined for the use of a true fact to lead scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion, which is called Zohnerism. This term was coined by journalist James K. Glassman in 1997.

In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called “Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.

The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more.

Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 out of 50 students, or 86 percent of the sample, “voted to ban dihydrogen monoxide because it has caused too many deaths,” wrote Nathan in the conclusion to his project, adding that he “was appalled that my peers were so easily misled… I don’t feel comfortable with the current level of understanding.”

Zohner — whose project won the grand prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair, titled, “How Gullible Are We?” — wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.

One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. The Durand Express, a Michigan weekly, reported alarming news concerning a dangerous chemical that had been found in the city’s water pipes. The chemical was known as dihydrogen oxide. The paper explained that inhalation of this chemical “nearly always results in death,” and that “vapors from it cause severe blistering of the skin which can be fatal if extensive.”

At the end of the article the paper revealed that the chemical formula of this substance was H2O (water). Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students — even those who had taken chemistry — could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information.

And this occurs a lot more often than you think, especially when politicians, conspiracy theorists, etc., use proven facts to persuade people into believing false claims. Humans depend massively on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. Scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with people, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.

In a land where technical ignorance reigns and susceptibility to Zohnerisms is high, the fourth pillar of democracy i.e. the media is seen many times as spreading misinformation, post-truth, biased views, and preconceived opinions on the incidents with the intent to create a false public opinion. That’s a shame.

The fact that people can mislead, and be misled so easily, is highly unsettling. Just think about it!

11 thoughts on “Zohnerism: How Gullible Are We?

  1. Nilanjana Moitra

    Our brains don’t let piddling little facts get in the way of a good story, allowing lies to infect the mind with surprising ease. Voltaire famously quipped that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    Liked by 1 person

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