How to Not Be Gullible
The curios case of Nathan Zohner’s science fair project
In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner used the science fair to alert his fellow citizens of a deadly, dangerous chemical.
In his report Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer, Nathan outlined all the alarming characteristics of the colorless, odorless, tasteless compound — DHMO for short — which kills thousands of Americans each year:
- DHMO can cause severe burns both while in gas and solid form.
- It is a major component of acid rain and often found in removed tumors of cancer patients.
- DHMO accelerates corrosion of both natural elements and many metals.
- Ingesting too much DHMO leads to excessive sweating and urination.
- For everyone with a dependency on DHMO, withdrawal leads to death.
After giving his presentation, Nathan asked 50 fellow students what should be done. 43 — a staggering 86% — voted to ban DHMO from school grounds.
There was only one problem: Dihydrogen monoxide is water.
Every day, people use facts to deceive you because you let them.
Life is hard. We all get fooled six ways from Sunday. People lie to us, we miscommunicate, and it’s impossible to always correctly read other people’s feelings. But facts? If we let facts deceive us, that’s on us.
When it’s hard to be right, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. But when it only takes a few minutes or even seconds to verify, learn, and educate yourself, choosing to stay ignorant is really just that: A decision — and likely one for which you’ll get the bill sooner rather than later.
If you know a little Latin, Greek, or simply pay attention in chemistry class, the term “dihydrogen monoxide” is easy to deconstruct. “Di” means “two,” hydrogen is an element (H on the periodic table), “mono” means one and “oxide” means oxidized — an oxygen atom (O on the periodic table) has been added. Two hydrogens, once oxidized. Two Hs, one O. H2O. Water.
When Nathan ran his experiment “How Gullible Are We?” in 1997, people didn’t have smartphones. They did, however, go to chemistry class. Nathan’s classmates had parents working in the sector, and they all had chemistry books. They even could have asked their teacher: “What’s dihydrogen monoxide?” But none of them did.
In his final report, Nathan wrote he was shocked that so many of his friends were so easily fooled. “I don’t feel comfortable with the current level of understanding,” he said. James Glassman, who wrote about the incident in the Washington Post, even coined the term “Zohnerism” to describe someone using a fact to mislead people.
Today, we have smartphones. We have a library larger than Alexandria’s in our pocket and finding any page from any book takes mere seconds. Yet, we still get “zohnered” on a daily basis. We allow ourselves to be.
“Too much sugar is bad for you. Don’t eat any sugar.” Yes, too much sugar is bad, but the corollary isn’t to stop eating it altogether. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and they’re all broken down into various forms of sugar. It’s a vital component of a functioning metabolism. Plus, each body has its own nuances, so cutting out sugar without more research could actually be bad for you. But if I’m selling a no-sugar diet, who cares, right?
You care. You should. And that’s why it’s your job to verify such claims. It’s easy to spin something correct in a way that sends you in whatever direction the manipulator wants to send you. The only solution is to work hard in order to not let yourself be manipulated:
- Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. I know it’s hard, but it’s the most liberating phrase in the world. Whenever you’re out of your comfort zone, practice. “Actually, I don’t know, let me look it up.”
- Admit that you don’t know to yourself. You’ll miss some chances to say “I don’t know.” That’s okay, you can still educate yourself in private later. Your awareness of your ignorance is as important as fighting it.
- Google everything. When you’re not 100% sure what a word means, google it. When you want to know where a word comes from, google it. When you know you used to know but are hazy on the details, google it. Seriously. Googling takes ten seconds. Google everything.
- Learn about your biases. Hundreds of cognitive biases affect our thinking and decisions every waking second. Learning about them and occasionally brushing up on that knowledge will go a long way.
- When someone argues for one side of a conflict, research both. Whether it’s a story in the news, a political issue, or even the issue of where to get lunch, don’t let yourself get clobbered into one corner. Yes, McDonald’s is cheap. Yes, you like their fries. But what about Burger King? What do you like and not like about both of them?
- When someone talks in absolutes, add a question mark to every sentence. James Altucher often does this with his own thoughts, but it’s equally helpful in questioning the authority of others. Don’t think in absolutes. Think in questions.
The dihydrogen monoxide play has been used many times to point people at their own ignorance. A 1994 version created by Craig Jackson petitions people to “act now” before ending on a truthful yet tongue-in-cheek note: “What you don’t know can hurt you and others throughout the world.”
Richard Feynman received the Nobel prize in physics, but he started his journey as a curious boy, just like Nathan Zohner. Like Einstein, he believed inquisitiveness could solve any problem, and so he always spoke in simple terms — to get people interested in science.
He also said the following, which still rings true today: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”