In 1997, Nathan Zohner was a 14 year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School.
He was trying to gather signatures on a petition at The Greater Idaho Falls Science fair.
The petition was about a chemical called Dihydrogen Monoxide.
Apparently this chemical was far more pervasive than most people suspected.
He gave his project the title JUST HOW GULLIBLE ARE WE?
And he attempted to educate people about the effects of this chemical they didn’t fully understand.
Amongst Dihydrogen Monoxide’s side effects are the following:
1) Accidental inhalation can cause death.
2) It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state.
3) It is the major component in acid rain.
4) It contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
5) It decreases the effectiveness of automobile brakes.
And yet, despite all this, it was still being widely used in the following situations:
1) In nuclear power plants.
2) In the distribution of pesticides.
3) As an industrial solvent and coolant.
4) In the production of styrofoam.
5) As an additive in certain junk foods.
Zohner asked 50 people to sign his petition calling for tighter controls and stricter regulations on this chemical.
These would include either labelling it as hazardous, or possibly even an outright ban.
Of the 50 people he asked 43 signed straight away.
They agreed something had to be done about it, and fast.
6 people hesitated.
They said it sounded serious but they just weren’t sure what to do.
One person said “Hang on, Dihydrogen Monoxide stands for H2O. That’s just the fancy chemical name for water.”
And of course he was right.
That had been the real point of Nathan Zohner’s science project.
In fact he even gave everyone a clue, with the title of his project.
JUST HOW GULLIBLE ARE WE?
And he proved his point: if we set up the questions right, we can virtually dictate the answers.
People can be led (nudged) into the desired response.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
And what choice architecture does is create a vacuum to suck people into.
That’s all Nathan Zohner did.
Everything he wrote was true.
1) Inhaling water is called drowning.
2) In its gaseous state it’s steam.
3) Acid rain is mainly rain.
4) The sea washes away cliffs.
5) Wet brakes don’t work so well.
And, of course, water is the main ingredient in nuclear power plants, pesticides, solvents and coolants, anything we make, and everything we eat or drink.
Now put like that it doesn’t sound so harmful.
And I bet those 43 out 50 people wouldn’t be so quick to vote to regulate it, or label it as hazardous, or ban it.
All of which answers the question posed by the title of 14 year-old Nathan Zohner’s project.