Sometimes it takes a young, independent thinker to really make us aware of scientific issues in our country. Student Nathan Zohner decided to devote his science fair project to the circulation of a petition to band Dihydrogen Monoxide. As the web page which made him aware of the issue points out,
Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and
odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide,
Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the
unstable radical Hydroxide, the components of which are found in a number of
caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine
and Ethyl Alcohol.
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. Some of the known perils of Dihydrogen Monoxide are:
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.
All of the above is true, and yet it is of course the willingness of so many individuals to sign the petition that is most worrying, since Dihydrogen Monoxide is another way of denoting that familiar chemical formed from two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, H2O. In other words, water.
Zohner was fully aware of this, and his science experiment was to test his classmates’ gullibility, lack of scientific knowledge, and willingness to sign a petition to ban something vital to their existence based on a fully accurate but clearly “spun” description of its properties.
Is it any surprise that so many people will sign petitions that seek to oppose or undermine the teaching of evolution? The reasons for doing so are the same in both cases – lack of scientific knowledge coupled with a “phobia” towards science and anything that involves multisyllabic chemicals or scientific jargon.
I am indebted to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent book Death by Black Hole for drawing this story to my attention. Tyson’s book is a compilation of a number of his essays. They are all interesting, although his treatment of religion (in Dawkinsesque fashion) as being an approach to knowledge fundamentally opposed to science is somewhat disappointing (p.347). It is hard to blame him, though, when so many people do indeed oppose science in the name of religion. And even here, he is far more balanced than Dawkins in his treatment of the topic. Because Tyson’s statements are carefully nuanced, for the most part, they usually communicate important points accurately and clearly. So let me conclude with what I felt was the most important statement in the book in many respects: “When scientifically investigating the world, the only thing worse than a blind believer is a seeing denier” (p.292).
Something to keep in mind the next time we’re presented with a petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide.