Friday, October 16, 2009
The events leading to this blog piece started out as a joke. A good friend of mine dropped “dihydrogen oxide” into a conversation. Call me the sharpest knife in the drawer, because after ten minutes and 800,000 laps around the frontal lobes, I instantly got it. Dihydrogen oxide - two atoms of hydrogen, one of oxygen - is “water.”
A quick Google search turned up its more sinister cousin, “dihydrogen monoxide” (DHMO), also known as “water.” The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division has discovered that DHMO, among other things, is the enabling component of acid rain, the causative agent in most instances of soil erosion, is present in high levels in nearly every creek, stream, pond, river, lake and reservoir in the US and around the world, has been verified in measurable levels in ice samples taken from both the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, and been found in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 which killed 230,000 in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia. and elsewhere.
According to Snopes.com, back in 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, based his science fair project on "the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide." Forty-three of 50 ninth-grade students favored banning it. The prank was based on previous circulated hoax petitions.
In an earlier blog piece, I had fun with DHMO’s more benign cousin, dihydrogen oxide, also known as “water.” Spoofing Oprah’s predilection for featuring wacko fad cures on her show, I introduced "The Dihydrogen Oxide Cure: Nature's Boner-Popping Miracle Answer to Depression, Aging, Heart Disease, Obesity, Wrinkles, Memory Loss, Impotence, and Just About Everything, Totally."
Among other things, I noted that dihydrogen oxide is natural and is found in all of nature, accounts for 60 percent of our body weight, and that without it we would die and all life on this planet would cease. I noted that people were achieving miracle results drinking it and even bathing in it, and that you could buy this miracle nature cure from me for just four dollars a bottle.
Oprah, of course, loved it and invited me back on her show. (Not really, that was a joke.)
In the Penn and Teller clip above, from an episode from their ShowTime series Bullshit, the two magicians dispatch a woman to an environmental gathering to collect signatures for a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide. Hundreds of people signed.
It was tempting for me to sneer at these gullible sheep until I realized it could have been me. In an instant, what had been a joke to me turned serious. Okay, let’s analyze the Penn and Teller piece:
The woman fit right in with the crowd and thereby didn’t arouse suspicion. These were people at an environmental event, primed to lend a sympathetic ear to an attractive and earnest woman wanting to save the planet. My guess is that an older man wearing a suit and spouting corporate jargon would have received no signatures.
I’m also guessing that had Penn and Teller dispatched a redneck to a gun show with a petition to ban the author of this highly inflammatory and un-American piece of rhetoric, “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it,” that he would have collected as many signatures.
The author, of course, is Thomas Jefferson, and the quote is from the Declaration of Independence.
About four years ago, I was in the studio audience for a taping of the Food Network’s hit show, Emeril Live. A major part of the production involved priming the audience for Emeril’s grand entrance. Loud music was played, a comedian warmed us up, and a stage manager with paddles in both hands (the kind ground crews use to guide 747s to their berths) played us like a puppet on a string. I swear, by the time Emeril made his appearance, had he or anyone else affiliated with the show instructed us to take off our clothes and swear allegiance to Rush Limbaugh we would have done so in a heartbeat.
Remember those Nuremberg Rallies? Hitler and his henchmen were master psychologists.
I encountered the phenomenon in my previous incarnation as a financial journalist some 20 years back. In contrast to classic economic theory that posits that marketplace behavior is rational and self-regulating, nearly every day I ran into examples of irrational behavior and out-of-control events. The strange thing is that the same person who would spend an hour clipping coupons to save ten dollars on groceries would not hesitate to entrust a stranger with $70,000 of hard-earned savings he or she might never see again.
There are various terms for the phenomenon: mob psychology, group-think, and so on. The only cure is a highly-skeptical mind. The catch is, as the Penn and Teller piece so vividly illustrates, that we all tend to let our guard down in situations where we feel comfortable and with people we think we can trust.
Con men and rabble-rousers thrive in these situations. They see us as sheep. Think it can’t happen to you? That it has never happened to you? Replay the clip. If you believe in environmentalist causes: Would you, in that situation, have signed that petition? Alternatively, if you don't believe in environmentalist causes: Would you, at say a gas and oil industry convention, have signed a petition saying global warming is a myth? Be honest now.