In 1997, Nathan Zohner wrote a paper as part of his school science project.
It was called “How Gullible Are We?”, he circulated it amongst his classmates.
It started with information about Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO for short), which was a compound found in every river, stream, lake, and reservoir in America.
Its accidental ingestion had been implicated in the deaths of thousands of Americans every year.
In gaseous form DHMO could cause severe burns.
Further dangers were as follows:
DHMO is the main component of acid rain, contributing to erosion of the natural landscape.
It accelerates corrosion and rusting in many metals.
It may cause electrical failures, and decreased effectiveness in automobile brakes.
For everyone with a dependency on DHMO, total withdrawal can lead to death.
Then Nathan Zohner listed the places DHMO was found:
As an industrial solvent and coolant, in nuclear power plants.
In the production of Styrofoam, and as a fire retardant.
In the distribution of pesticides, and as an additive in certain ‘junk foods’.
At the end, he added a questionnaire, he asked his classmates to vote on what action they thought should be taken as regards DHMO.
43 of his 50 classmates (86%) voted to ban DHMO immediately.
His classmates were science students, their parents worked in the local science-related industries.
They were invited to research DHMO for themselves, even ask their teachers about it.
But none did.
Which is a shame, because they could have checked the etymology of its full name: Dihydrogen Monoxide.
‘Di’ means two – so that’s two atoms of Hydrogen, ‘mono’ means one – so that’s one atom of oxygen: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen.
Another way of writing that would be H2O, still another way would be ‘water’.
His classmates had voted to ban water.
What made Nathan Zohner’s paper really interesting was that this group were far more educated about science than the average person.
All they were presented with were the simple facts, and yet they were persuaded to ban the one substance that was absolutely vital for life on the planet.
Remember the title of his paper was “How Gullible Are We?”
But before we turn our noses up and call his paper a deception, remember it’s the same language we use every day.
“You can’t buy a better butter”, maybe, but this is what’s called a ‘top parity claim’.
We imply we’re the best, but actually we just say we’re as good as anyone else.
“Can help with weight loss as part of your calorie-controlled diet”, well duh, if you’re on a calorie-controlled diet anything that’s part of it will help with weight loss.
“Too much sugar can be harmful”, well yes it can, but so can too many carrots.
The right amount of sugar can be as healthy as the right amount of anything.
“Our finest bread ever”, it may well be the finest bread WE’VE made, but that doesn’t mean it’s better than anyone else’s.
“Made by the nicest people in the world”, of course we have no way of knowing if this is true, but it falls into the category of ‘advertising puffery’.
Advertising puffery is defined as: “broad exaggerated or boastful statements that are a matter of opinion rather than a fact, and which no reasonable person would assume to be literally true.”
All of these are examples of ‘weasels’, which is what we do when we imply something without explicitly stating it.
Without lying, we allow people to infer what we want them to believe.
Or, as Homer Simpson said: “Don’t knock weasels, they’re the only thing that separates man from the animals. (Well, except the weasel of course.)”