Zohnerisms ...


Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, October 22, 1997

It's in Your Own Home And It's a Real Killer!
By James K. Glassman The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - The chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide, or DHMO, has been implicated in the deaths of thousands of Americans every year, mainly through accidental ingestion. In gaseous form, it can cause severe burns. And, according to a new report, "the dangers of this chemical do not end there."

The chemical is so caustic that it "accelerates the corrosion and rusting of many metals ... is a major component of acid rain and ... has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients." Symptoms of ingestion include "excessive sweating and urination," and "for those who have developed a dependency on DHMO, complete withdrawal means certain death."

Yet the presence of the chemical has been confirmed in every river, stream, lake and reservoir in America.

Judging from these facts, do you think dihydrogen monoxide should be banned?

Seems like an open-and-shut case - until you realize this chemical compound is plain old water.

Last spring, Nathan Zohner, an enterprising 14-year-old student in Idaho Falls, Idaho, conducted his science fair project on just this theme. Nathan distributed a tongue-in-cheek report that had been kicking around the Internet, "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer" (from which the quotes above are drawn), to 50 of his classmates. 

These are smart kids who had studied chemistry; many, like Nathan, have parents who work at the Idaho Nuclear Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Nathan simply asked them to read the report (which is completely factual) and decide what, if anything, to do about the chemical.

In the end, 43 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, titled "How Gullible Are We?"

I'm sure that, if Nathan tried the same experiment on adults, he'd find at least as many would want to ban DHMO. Says David Murray, research director of the nonprofit Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, "The likelihood is high that I could replicate these results with a survey of members of Congress."

Mr. Murray, whose organization "looks out for misleading science that's driving public policy over a cliff," ran across the Zohner story a few months ago on the Internet. But, he writes, "we thought it sounded like an urban myth - too pat, too neat." He discovered from local press reports that it was indeed true. I confirmed it too, after talking earlier this week with Nathan's mom, Marivene, who says that Nathan wants to be "a scientist in the nuclear field," like his dad.

The implications of Nathan's research are so disturbing that I've decided to coin a term: "Zohnerism," defined as the use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion.

Dow Corning was driven into bankruptcy through lawsuits over its silicone implants - even though science doesn't support claims that they're dangerous.

In the headline above an article Sunday about population growth in rural areas, The New York Times claimed, "Hint of Racial Undercurrents Is Behind Broad Exodus of Whites." The reporter wrote that studies by a demographer "show that of the 40 fastest-growing rural counties, virtually all are at least 70 percent white."

Shocking? Well, according to the Bureau of the Census, 83 percent of the U.S. population is white.

Finding Zohnerisms in the press, Congressional Record and speeches of administration officials makes a great parlor game. One place to start is the collected speeches of EPA chief Carol Browner, who has used Zohnerisms masterfully to promote expensive, disruptive new standards for particulate matter and global warming - despite evidence from scientists that is, at best, inconclusive.

That's a shame. In a land where technical ignorance reigns and susceptibility to Zohnerisms is high, it's the duty of politicians, journalists and scientists to present facts responsibly and in context.

After all, think what would happen if the EPA really did ban dihydrogen monoxide.




Last modified: 11/26/1997