The internet is today a gigantic heap of good genuine information and a lot of mis-information as well. Analysis of information (data) can be presented truthfully or the analysis may be skewed purposely to direct ill-informed and gullible readers to erroneous conclusions. This is Zohnerism. All this can be done without tampering with the actual data itself. When browsing the net today it is very important to guard yourself against Zohnerism. This write up is an attempt to enlighten readers about Zohnerism, its origin, evolution and prevalence using the substance Dihydrogen Monoxide as a classic example to illustrate how gullible we are.
What is Zohnerism:
Zohnerism is defined as a purposeful distortion of a scientific fact so that an unsuspecting and gullible reader draws an erroneous conclusion from it.
Origin of Zohnerism:
In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Bonneville County, Idaho, USA, made headline news when he made a presentation at the science fair project of his school. The presentation was appropriately titled “how gullible we are” and it dealt with a substance known as Dihydrogen monoxide (DMHO) – the unrecognized killer. The audience for the presentation were fifty 9th grade students in his school. At the end of the presentation the audience was asked if anything needed to be done about the substance in question.
The salient points he elaborated upon during his presentation were the following.
Dihydrogen Monoxide (DMHO) Dangers:
- Is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
- Its chemical nature is unique. It could be a proton donor (acid), when it is called hydroxyl acid. At other times it could be a proton recipient when it is called hydrogen hydroxide.
- Can cause significant damage and loss of life in solid liquid and gaseous forms.
- It kills many thousands of people every year in the USA and all over the world as well.
- A large proportion of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of Dihydrogen Monoxide (DMHO).
- Prolonged contact of the skin to its solid form causes severe tissue damage.
- Even minimal contact of heated DMHO in its liquid form can result in severe burns of the skin.
- If Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is ingested in very large quantities, it can cause a bloated feeling in the stomach,trigger nausea and vomiting and dangerous electrolyte imbalances related to sodium in the body, particularly in the elderly.
- Is the major component of acid rain.
- It can erode natural landscapes particularly near the coastline.
- It accelerates corrosion and rusting of some metals.
- It may cause electrical failures.
- It may cause decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
- It has been found in excised tumors of cancer patients.
- Dihydrogen monoxide has been found in every stream, lake, and reservoir in America today.
- Its presence is also global, and DMHO has even been found in Antarctic ice.
- DHMO has caused millions of dollars of property damage in homes near large rivers.
Benefits of Dihydrogen Monoxide (DMHO):
Despite all the above dangers, dihydrogen monoxide has numerous beneficial effects and uses as well.
- It is extensively used as an industrial solvent and coolant.
- It is vital to sustain most forms of life on earth.
- It is used in nuclear power plants as a coolant.
- It is used in the production of styrofoam.
- It can be used to generate electricity.
- It is used as a fire retardant.
- It is used extensively in of animal research.
- It is used in the distribution of pesticides. Even after multiple washes, farm produce can remain contaminated with this substance.
- It is used as an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products.
Sadly many companies dump waste untreated DHMO into rivers and into the oceans. The American government has refused to ban the production, distribution, or use of this damaging substance due to its importance to the economic well being of this nation. Many military organizations around the world are conduct experiments with DHMO, and are designing multi-billion dollar devices to control, store and utilize it during warfare situations. It is capable of being weaponised. Governments across the world have refused to ban the production, distribution, or use of this damaging substance due to its numerous beneficial effects.
Result of Nathans Presentation:
At the end of his obviously well researched presentation which appeared to be studded with so many facts 43 of his 50 classmates (a whopping 86% of the sample size) said they would support a ban on Dihydrogen monoxide! What they all failed to realize is that Dihydrogen Monoxide is plain old WATER (H2O)!
Nathans aim was not to ban water but to demonstrate how gullible people could be. All the arguments Nathan waxed so eloquently about were 100% factually correct. He just skewed all the information in a particular way to mislead his classmates into drawing false conclusions after listening to him. Nathan was appalled that his peers could be so easily mislead.
This phenomenon was widely discussed in the press at that time and in October 1997, a journalist James Glassman working for the Washington Post at that time coined the word “Zohnerism” for this phenomenon. It illustrated how gullible we are and how our rational thinking could be influenced by misrepresentation of facts.
Zohnerism in Medical Literature:
Unfortunately Zohnerism is widespread today especially on the internet and in medical literature as well. Prestigious journals with high impact factors have been forced to retract previously peer reviewed and published articles after they were subsequently found to convey erroneous conclusions because of skewed fear mongering scientific information. Influencers on social media often use Zohnerism with telling effect. Today with smartphones in our pockets we should guard against being Zohnered on the net!
Before the cocky experiment by Nathan Zohner, the Durrand Express, a newspaper based out of Michigan carried an article on April fools day in 1983 about the deleterious effects of a substance known as Dihydrogen Monoxide which was found in the city’s water pipes. The report caused a few ripples at the time but they died down. The phenomenon of Zohnerism was relatively unknown at the time.
Prevalence of Zohnerism:
Over the years, surprisingly, there have been several misguided public efforts to warn against DMHO
- In 1989, Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen and Matthew Kaufman, who were students on the UC Santa Cruz Campus circulated a spurious Dihydrogen Monoxide (DMHO) contamination warning using photocopied fliers. They hit upon the plan one afternoon when Matthew recalled a similar spurious warning about another name for water – “Hydrogen Hydroxide” that had been published in the Michigan Express newspaper.
- In 1994, Craig Jackson created a website in support of the Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO). The page rapidly became popular on the net.
- In late 1997, after drawing inspiration from Jackon’s website and Zohner’s hugely influential research presentation, Tom Way created a website known as the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division as an online educational resource for information about critical thinking and information literacy.
- In 2001 a member of the New Zealand Green Party, MP Sue Kedgley’s office fell hook line and sinker for the DMHO ruse and responded to a request for supporting a campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide. She announced that she was “absolutely supportive of the campaign to ban the toxic substance”.
- High school students from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Kate Dalgleish and Mikael Sydor, circulated a petition in April 2004 to ban the the toxic substance in their Western Canada High School film festival. Several chemistry teachers and numerous students signed the petition that was circulated. The petition requestedthe government to ban the ‘dangerous chemical’ under a shady Hazardous Chemical Act.
- Teams in a 2005 edition of The Game circulated a petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide at the Fisherman’s Wharf in SFO, California.
- In 2007 Jacqui Dean, of the New Zealand National Party, fell for the hoax, and wrote a letter to Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton asking if the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs have a view on the banning Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO).
The famous French philosopher François-Marie Arouet Voltaire is known to have famously quipped about Zohnerism “those who make you believe absurdities can also make commit atrocities”. The implications are ominous especially when there is an ongoing pandemic!
The 1965 Nobel laureate for Physics, Richard Feynman famously said about Zohnerism “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself but you are the easiest person to fool.”
Probably the world’s oldest successful attempt at Zohnerism occurred in ancient vedic India during the Mahabharata war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Dronacharya took over as the commander in chief of the mighty Kaurava army after the near fatal injury to Bhishmacharya. The Pandavas were in awe of Dhrona and petrified about the thought of taking him on in battle. They hatched a plan to fool the mighty Dhrona and kill him. Dronacharya had a son called Ashwathama. Yudhishtira the most upright and truthful of the Pandavas ordered that an elephant called Ashwathama be slaughtered. He announced aloud that Ashwathama the elephant is no more.
The words Ashwathama is no more were announced aloud but the words “the elephant” were whispered. Dhronacharya heard only the words that were announced aloud as he was some distance away and coming from the mouth of Yudhishtira, a truthful and trustworthy warrior, Dhronacharya assumed that his son had expired. He was overcome by grief and he lay down his arms. Soon thereafter he was surrounded killed. Yudhishtira did not tell a lie but he twisted the truth, cetrainly a classic case of Zohnerism. Does Zohnerism exist in main stream media and social media with covert ulterior motives? Ah, but that’s a subject for another big, indepth article in the future.