A Study of Gullibility and Mass Hysteria

Many, many years ago, there was a petition circulating around the Internet called “Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide.” The petition gave several good reasons why it should be banned:

  1. It’s an invisible killer!
  2. It is the major component in acid rain.
  3. It can cause severe burns.
  4. It contributes to soil erosion.
  5. It has been found in tumors of cancer patients.
  6. It is used in our nuclear power plants.
  7. It causes drowning every summer.

During a survey of 50 people, 43 said they would sign the petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide. Six were unsure.

And the last holdout? Surely he or she was one of those evil climate-change denier and worked for a major petrochemical company, right?


If you know the joke, please don’t ruin it for everyone else. Dihydrogen monoxide is just the chemical name for water. Yes, H2O. The alleged holdout was not a holdout. Instead, he knew that dihydrogen monoxide was the scientific way of describe the water molecule.

Old and New

This joke appeared on the Internet in 1997. Not long after, my friend Laura in college said that her younger brother, then in junior high school in 1999, tried to submit this study as his science project with the title: “Why People Stupid.” Not surprisingly, his science teacher nixed that idea. Maybe it was the rather offensive title. Maybe he thought it wasn’t worth the while.

If you think that this was just a juvenile stunt, think again. It was submitted as a joke in the Australian parliament in 2011. I presume the legislator wondered how far he could go. It made it past subcommittee and was about to be voted on by the full parliament. That’s right, the people who are supposed to be smart and your leaders fell for a trick that has been circulating around the internet for almost 20 years.

Yes. Almost 20 years.

In their defense and for countless others who have never taken a chemistry class, or forgotten what they learned in high school chemistry, that might be excusable.

Scare Tactics?

If I were to break down why 43 regular people could be panicked into signing a fake petition to ban water, the first place would be the name. Our brains require familiarity: for example, when you see a foreign word and try to pronounce for the first time, you try to associate the pronunciation with words that you do know. In this case, we associate known substances with their trade name; Klorox = bleach; Minute Maid = lemonade or orange juice.

Thus, if you see the name of an unfamiliar object, your brain starts to wonder: what is it? Is it safe? Are there warning labels? If it sounds like a chemical that I don’t recognize, should I avoid it? This person is asking me to support a ban; maybe it IS dangerous.

Secondly, you see the 7 reasons why water is supposedly dangerous. Now, every statement is factually true. The problem: All of them were presented in the most negative way. Of course it is in acid rain; after all, rain is water. Of course it is used in a nuclear power plant; it’s the cooling system that makes fission safe. Of course it is the cause of drowning – swimming pool or ocean, take your pick. Of course it causes severe burns; anyone who has used a kettle knows how powerful that steam can be.

Third, surveys often put you on the spot. That means you have very little time to think and process each question. You might even be ambushed somewhere by a person who thrusted a piece of paper and pen in your face.

Fourth, a petition to ban an allegedly dangerous substance plants a thought that you are going to be doing something good. Who wouldn’t want to save the planet? To refuse is to destroy the planet, right?

Whose Agenda?

This fake dihydrogen monoxide petition is now in its 26th year. It is meant to get a laugh, perhaps at your expense. The creators’ agenda must have been research just what people will fall for. In a twisted way, they succeeded.

While we might laugh, this is also a cautionary tale. We ought to remind ourselves regularly to check the facts – all the facts – before committing to a course of action. Perhaps individually, we do it well every day without realizing it. Check the expiration date before buying perishable goods. Read the lease agreement before renting a new place.

But as a society, we often fail. Imagine that petition has twenty other names on it (even if they were fake names). Would you be more or less willing sign? The pressure on you increases. I have found that decision making is not in a vacuum. It’s you, your friends, your acquaintances, societal pressures, etc.

Modern Parallels

Irish actress Kerry Condon (voice of the AI Friday in MCU) recently joked that she is done talking about the recent pandemic and gives her PTSD just thinking about it. Ms. Condon then quickly clarified that she doesn’t have PTSD and acknowledged how serious it can be. If you are like Ms. Condon and want to put COVID-19 in the past, well, please bear with me for a little longer.

I hope you all can see some of the real life parallels. In the past three years, I noticed government officials and other leaders were pushed into action before all the key facts were made known. In a sense, how could they? Yes, COVID-19 belongs in the class of coronaviruses like SARS but its effects were much more severe. Recall back in March 2020, no one knew just how bad; would it be over in two weeks? Two months? Two years? Would hundreds of millions die like the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1918? Or would the human body naturally fight it like the common cold? Was COVID-19 natural or man-made?

Recall that everyone had an opinion and used their platform to influence outcomes. It didn’t matter which side of the political or social spectrum. What I saw was a lot of fear. Everyone was on the verge of mass hysteria.

Somehow we managed to pull ourselves back from the brink.

Real information came in.

  • Some people died. Some were near death but recovered. Others survived with mild symptoms.
  • We pushed through a risky vaccine and monitored the results.
  • We developed procedures in the work place.

We started fact checking more only to discover Snopes the fact checker wasn’t doing a good job being an unbiased fact checker.

To be honest, I don’t have a lot of high hopes that we learned our lessons. The fake “Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide” petition will always be on the Internet. There will always be people who take the most negative view or blow things out of proportion. In the end, the only solution is to do your research and think for yourself.


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