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Did you know douchebags are full of dihydrogen monoxide?

Doing what I do for a living, I often find myself reading things on Facebook, Twitter, or those increasingly archaic sites called “blogs” in which the writer expresses concern about industrial effluent in our air, water, consumer products or food. Sometimes the concerns are well-founded, as in the example of pipeline breaks releasing volatile organic chemicals into your backyard. Sometimes, as in the case of concern over chemtrails or toxic vaccines, the concerns are ill-informed and spurious.

And often enough, the educational system in the United States being the way it’s been since the Reagan administration, those concerns are couched in terms that would not be used by a person with a solid grounding in science. People sometimes miss the point of dose-dependency, of acute versus chronic exposure, of the difference between parts per million and parts per trillion. Sometimes their unfamiliarity with the basic facts of chemistry causes them to make patently ridiculous alarmist statements and then double down on them when corrected.

And more times than I can count, if said statements are in a public venue like a comment thread, someone will pipe up by repeating a particular increasingly stale joke. Say it’s a discussion of contaminants in tap water allegedly stemming from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. Said wit will respond with something like:

“You know what else might be coming out of your tap? DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!”

!!!.999999999 . . .!

Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. For the sake of quite likely wholly unnecessary but pro forma explanation, water molecules have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence the symbol H2O; “dihydrogen monoxide” is a way of saying “two hydrogens and one oxygen” in a way not wholly inconsistent wiith accepted chemical terminology, though not in a way anyone ever uses except as a joke.

Though I chuckled once or twice when I first heard the joke back in the end-1980s, back when kilometer-thick sheets of solid-phase dihydrogen monoxide occupied the Northern Hemisphere as far south as present-day Kentucky, it got old fast.

I recognize the temptation to poke mild fun of people who make embarrassing mistakes. I’ll cop to having done so myself, f’rinstance in the post I linked above on the phrase “patently ridiculous alarmist statements.” But it’s one thing to snicker at people who have made basic, easily correctable mistakes, especially when you offer them a way to make that correction.

The “dihydrogen monoxide” joke doesn’t do that. Instead, it mocks alleged “gullibility” in a way that dissuades the corrected from learning.

It may have been first used, as far as Wikipfftdia can tell, by students at UC Santa Cruz riffing on a very similar joke that warned people about the dangers of “hydrogen hydroxide”; the students responsible liked the joke and printed up fliers to post around campus, an early form of Tweeting. But they thought “hydrogen hydroxide” wasn’t quite viscerally scary enough to people unacquainted with chemical terminology, so they upped the ante. Everyone had heard of “carbon monoxide,” and everyone knows it’ll kill you, so the three decided on the dihydrogen monoxide synonym as much more scary.

It wasn’t the first time the term had been used. Google Books records it being used as early as 1910, in a magazine snippet ironically poking fun at scientists for their abstruse technology:

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 6.31.06 PM

 

There are a few other examples of the term before 1990, most of them seeming more or less innocuous. It took Usenet to make the joke version spread.

Here’s how the joke works:

 

  1. Someone makes a statement you find excessively ill-informed and credulous about the dangers of a real or imagined substance.
  2. You make the dihydrogen monoxide joke.
  3. Other people who are in on the joke laugh, or at least you imagine them doing so.
  4. You get a modicum of outside reinforcement of the value of your intellect, should yoou be insecure about same.
  5. The original target of the joke learns nothing, thus ensuring further opportunities for your own levity and morale-boosting.

And you know what? That’s fine if you’re fine with it. If you’re fine with a world in which there are intellectual castes, in which the Alphas get to sneer at the Betas and Gammas, who themselves have in-jokes they use to ridicule the Epsilons. For those that like that sort of thing, as Wilde said, that is the sort of thing they like.

And I understand the appeal. I know the appeal, for instance, of writing things that don’t give everything up to the casual reader, that reward the reader who’s willing to ponder, to look things up, to think about things for a while and be comfortable in not knowing what’s there all at once. That’s the whole point of literature, or poetry, of riddlles and puzzles. They’re fun. And they challenge intellectual laziness.

But ignorance — using the word in the strictly literal, non-pejorative sense — is different. Ignorance of science is an evil that for the most part is foisted upon the ignorant. The dihydrogen monoxide joke depends for its humor on ridiculing the victims of that state of affairs, while offering no solution (pun sort of intended) to the ignorance it mocks. It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.

Besides, I find myself wondering how many of the people who use the dihydrogen monoxide joke would respond appropriately if they were told their Starbucks drink had been proven to contain significant amounts of oxidane. I suspect not many. If that applies to you: “oxidane” is one of two official names approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry for a particular chemical substance. The other?  “Water,” and its equivalent in whatever your vernacular might be. See how easy that was to just explain?

Comments

  1. Nicolas McGinnis says

    It also trades on the trust people place in certain kinds of organizations. Public perception of environmental groups and causes is generally positive. We trust them to be fighting for the public good, a rare enough thing these days. I don’t expect the average person to realize they are looking at a fancy chemical name for a common substance; no doubt they don’t give it much thought at all. They want to endorse a more general principle and trust an expert to carry out the specific implementation of their values.

    It is trivial to trick someone by pretending to act in good faith. (Ultimately this is what e.g. Sokal traded on; the real test would have been whether his piece ended up cited, anthologized, etc.) I’d like to be able to sign petitions and give to charity without having to do extraordinary amounts of research because we live in a society where predatory behavior is the assumed default setting.

  2. Nick Coutts says

    I’ve used the joke in the past, although after reading this… I don’t think I’ll be using it in the future!

    Also, I think it’s Penn Jillette, not Gillette.

  3. shouldbeworking says

    One of the candidates for mayor of my city wants to remove the poisonous fluoride from my drinking DHMO.

  4. ekwhite says

    Oxidane, eh? I am one of the 10,000 that learned something new today. BTW – the Dihydrogen monoxide bit was old when I was taking college chemistry in the ’70s.

  5. says

    Besides, I find myself wondering how many of the people who use the dihydrogen monoxide joke would respond appropriately if they were told their Starbucks drink had been proven to contain significant amounts of oxidane. I suspect not many.

    I don’t know what the appropriate response should be, but my response was, rather than revel in my ignorance and freak out about some name (of a substance) I’d never heard of, to first be immensely curious as to what oxidane referred to, and then prepare to go find out. If you hadn’t explained it in the next second, my next stop would have been Google. I’m sure my reaction upon learning the meaning would have been the same as when you explained it: “huh, neat. Another word for water. Now I get the joke.”

    What should my reaction have been?

  6. says

    @7 That’s the best response, I think. When told that a substance you don’t recognize is in something you commonly consume, look up the substance.

    But I think this goes back to education, and how we are educating Americans. Personally, I think I’d have the same reaction that you would, because that’s how I was raised by my parents. We aren’t, as a society, teaching children to think that way.

    Thank you for posting this, Chris. This is a joke I have cracked in passing and I think I will do my best not to do so any more.

  7. says

    It is punching down, and elistist assholery, and exactly the sort of shit that people shouldn’t do. If your “humor” consists mostly of pushing people down in order to make yourself feel higher… just no.

    I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this kind of thing also kills interest in science rather than encouraging it. There’s nothing in finding out that the people involved in something are a bunch of raging shitheads that makes anyone want to be a part of it.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    I think the douchebags are only about 70% dihydrogen monoxide ;) ;)
    [Hi Chris!]
    [May I have a bun

    [Edited to add:

    ]

    ny?]

  9. snarkmatter says

    Using it to deride or mock those who don’t know is detestable. The naming scheme does provide a chance to educate and I use it that way. Too many people are afraid of chemistry and “chemicals” (there is a commercial on the radio for some “energy drink” that claims “it’s not full of chemicals” but the listener isn’t aware that even caffeine, vitamins, etc. are chemicals). I will use some nefarious sounding name for water to talk about and see the listener’s reaction–I prefer hydroxic acid since no one likes there to be hydroxic acid in the public schools drinking water. Once I see how aghast they are, I explain the whole thing to them and rattle of a few of the names for water. Then I point out how such a tactic is used by the alternative whatever industries to scare people into buying their products. Then I point out a few of the natural products out there that can be harmful, and why (eg. Airborne).

    It’s a joke that can be used for a great educational purpose and it is sad that it’s used to be negative. People are getting so scared of things now that they won’t even get vaccines.

  10. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Oh, for goodness’ sake. It is possible to riff on the public’s gullibility —especially elected officials who are supposed to aim to know better —and have a dark laugh at their expense without enacting an elitist, classist major oppression.

    There is a place for such venting of steam when faced with creationist/republican stupidity every goddamned day. Indulging in it doesn’t mean one has forgotten that ignorance needs remedying, and lack of knowledge is not equal to “unworthy.”

    If this is another form of the argument that “stupid” is an oppressive insult, then I’ll have to be on shit list for this one, too.

  11. says

    If this is another form of the argument that “stupid” is an oppressive insult, then I’ll have to be on shit list for this one, too.

    Concern noted.

  12. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Clarification: that sounded like I was whining about being the Witch of the Week on the Official Pharyngula Shit List. Sorry about that; how annoying! I’m not thatdouche-y.

  13. says

    The dihydrogen monoxide thing only proves that if you set out to deliberately mislead people, you’ll often succeed. There’s no particular reason to expect that the average joe will understand it as anything other than “some chemical”. So when you make it sound dangerous, they’ll think it’s dangerous. That doesn’t make them gullible, it makes you a liar.

  14. says

    I’ve coincidentally been thinking about this very subject of late(friend who’s into all the woo/conspiracies and I’m trying to think of good learning by examples for him). I think it’ s when and how we use it plus who we use it on. i.e. Don’t use it to belittle someone who has not had the opportunity to know of it. Use it as a learning example, i.e. show by example how easy it is to lie with the truth by making water out to be highly toxic. However when its someone in the woo-sphere who has set themselves up as a uber-expert, then I’m more inclined to throw a wee bit of belittlement their way. Hopefully I was clearer than 12 foot of frozen oxidane with that :-)

  15. karpad says

    Cool. I’m actually super glad to know about Oxidane actually.

    Because nothing makes me angrier than people who are smug and wrong.

    Josh, my problem (and I think (?) others problem) with this sort of thing is exactly that. You can call someone stupid and gullible. In fact, if they are, you should. That’s how people learn. But insulting someone without letting them know they’re being insulted is cowardly. It isn’t our job to educate the willfully ignorant, but we should wear our contempt on our sleeves when we’re calling them out on it.

  16. palebluedot89 says

    Probably misunderstanding something here, but I didn’t think that the point of the joke is that people don’t know what Dihydrogenmonoxide is. The point of the joke is to poke fun at alarmism. You can use a vaguely sciency sounding name for water, people don’t understand what you mean. No problem so far, no cause for laughter. If someone is laughing at this point I agree, they are being douchebags. Next step, you say that the DMHO in the lakes and oceans is very dangerous. The part that earns (in my opinion at least) the mockery is when they don’t ask “so what is this DMHO, what does is do? Why are you trying to convince me that it’s dangerous”. If you’re just willing to accept whatever vaguely plausible sounding danger someone approaches you with, and then promote that danger in the form of a petition that promotes it, I’m sorry but that seems to earn a little bit of mockery. It’s legitimately dangerous behavior, and in the right context, very much so. Not too much mockery, but that is almost not worth mentioning because it applies to literally anything that deserves any amount of mockery.

    And sure, we should always bear in mind the education angle. They were never taught to not blindly accept everything they see, but this strict moratorium on a little bit of admittedly immature joking just doesn’t seem to be reasonable. Not everything we do needs to be to some grand and noble goal. Sometimes I just want

    Although maybe I’m only exposed to a non-representative sample of the DMHO joking, or am missing something (?).

  17. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    StevoR, I have told before you’re not welcome in my threads here. — CC

  18. says

    this strict moratorium on a little bit of admittedly immature joking just doesn’t seem to be reasonable

    Who said anything about a strict moratorium? I’m just letting you know I think you’re a jerk if you mock people for not knowing as much about science as you think you do.

  19. says

    I actually do not think the problem why it is possible to make these jokes lies in US education system (at least not completely, it might make it worse). I live in a country with very good, freely available education including university. Yet such a joke would have no problem succeding here.

    Bell curve has two ends and there is a lot of stupid people out there (and I do not mean stupid equals low IQ). That is, unfortunatelly, the fact of life and it means that no matter what, some portion of population will always be ignorant, gullible and assholey about it.

  20. palebluedot89 says

    Again, it’s not about not knowing science. I didn’t know what Dihydrogenmonoxide meant the first time I heard of it. I’ve certainly never heard the term oxidane. I’ve never heard anyone made fun of for saying “Dihydrogenmonoxide, what’s that?” In my mind this constitutes the right attitude. They have passed the test that the petition signing joke presents. I could care less if people immedietely make the connection between those terms and water, even if it was a term that scientists used. The problem is when people hear a term that sounds vaguely scientific, assume that it must therefore be harmful or blindly accept cues to that effect, and sign a petition to remove it from our lakes and rivers. That is a whole lot more than just not knowing the term. That is a matter of not caring what it is, or what it might actually do, or whether the people telling them about it know what they are talking about. Yet apparently caring enough about it to promote getting rid of it. It is this attitude which deserves mocking in my opinion. Definitely not simply not being aware of scientific terminology that nobody even uses (or that scientists regularly use for that matter). It’s not about what they know or don’t know, but rather their attitude towards knowledge. Penn Jillette, as you correctly note, uses this joke to bad effect, mainly because he is trying to cast doubt on perfectly legitimate worries. The fact that he did this doesn’t poison it in my opinion. It seems to make a good point about how blindly some will accept horror stories. Penn simply proves it works in the other direction as well.

    Although, perhaps what I’m missing here is that most people who make this joke are in fact doing what you describe? All I can speak to is that whenever I see someone make this joke it’s about the blind acceptance, not a misunderstanding of the term Dihydrogenmonoxide.

  21. Brad says

    In jokes like that can be used to punch up on the neurotypical privilege axis. There’s a fuckload of overlap between those who both don’t get it and also don’t respond like #7 and the human garbage that removed the “at risk of” from my depression.

  22. Stacy says

    Probably misunderstanding something here, but I didn’t think that the point of the joke is that people don’t know what Dihydrogenmonoxide is. The point of the joke is to poke fun at alarmism.

    Yup, that was always my take on the joke as well. If you’re using the joke to make fun of people for not knowing chemistry, ur doin it rong.

    It is possible to riff on the public’s gullibility —especially elected officials who are supposed to aim to know better —and have a dark laugh at their expense without enacting an elitist, classist major oppression.

    There is a place for such venting of steam when faced with creationist/republican stupidity every goddamned day. Indulging in it doesn’t mean one has forgotten that ignorance needs remedying, and lack of knowledge is not equal to “unworthy.”

    Agreed. And to “gullibility” I’d add, deliberate alarmism (cherry-picking scary-sounding stuff to promote an agenda.)

  23. eigenperson says

    While I agree that the point of the “joke” (I would argue it is not a joke, since it isn’t funny or witty) is to criticize alarmists, it isn’t very good at that. If you make the “joke”, you are effectively saying “You think X is dangerous; therefore, you are an alarmist, and you probably think dihydrogen monoxide is dangerous too.” That’s obviously bogus. It’s a one-size-fits-all dismissal of anyone who dares to say that anything might be dangerous.

  24. Holms says

    I will agree that it is a fallacious argument as noted by eigenperson, and also with the more general ciritism that it has not been funny for a very long time, but I will take my place amongst the others already on the ‘Who Gives A Shit About This Joke’ list.

  25. rjlangley says

    The joke does have its uses. There’s a woman.on Facebook with whom a lot of my friends are friends, and she signs up to every conspiracy theory going. So I see my Facebook friends repost complete idiocy from her about vaccines, chemtrails, and all kinds of woo. I’ve never done it, but I did consider getting in touch with her and asking her to spread the word about dihydrogen monoxide, just so I could discredit her and stop my friends believing her nonsense. She’s a complete lost cause for rationality – an alien abducted, in fact – and will never be educated about these subjects. But if it stops my friends refusing to vaccinate their kids (not to mention clears my Facebook wall of a tonne of idiocy I’m compelled to argue against) it’s worth it.

  26. krubozumo says

    I agree and disagree. On the one hand using terminology to bludgeon someone with no particular reason to be familiar with such terminology is indeed a cheap shot, a sort of sucker punch. On the other hand the only time I have seen the di-hydrogen monoxide joke used on someone was in a thread on talk.origins where some commenter was claiming authoritative knowledge of bio-chemistry.Someone tripped him up with the di-hydro ploy and it was quite the joke. Sometimes the only appropriate response to dishonest discourse is ridicule.

    I think I understand Mr. Clark’s point of view. The level of discourse in which we indulge should be approprite to the topic at hand and held to a standard in keeping with the gravity of the subject under
    consideration. But there is a caveat to all that that must be noted. Sometimes, the “other side” does not
    play by the rules. What to do?

    Once the rules have been broken, I do not think that is a dispensation to abandon them, on the contrary,
    it is a demand to adhere to them more strictly. But how does one deal with mendacity in the context of
    what we think of as reasoned debate? Should it be ignored?

    I don’t think so.

    Everyone is fallible and in every work we each produce there are probably errors. Fairly pointed out
    if we are sincere and honest we go back and try to correct them. If we sincerely think the errors pointed out are themselves erroneous we can marshall arguments against them. But recent history has
    shown that some will offer any spurious argument at the behest of vested interests regardless of
    whether the argument has any merit. The so-called evolution debate is one example, AGW is another.
    In both cases the science is clear and unambiguous. But the attacks by the believers in an alternative
    world are vicious and deeply threatening. They are in fact designed to be so such that they will discourage any discourse that is contrary to the conventional perception sustaining the advantage
    of the status quo.

    Reluctantly, because I have an innate aversion to conflict, I have to say that accomodating penurious
    malfeasance by granting it a degree of immunity from ridicule and mockery is misguided. While it may
    be true that those means of contradiction are not disciplined or rigorous, it is unambiguously true that
    they are effective in the popular mind set.

    Used indiscriminately mockery is ineffective. Or less effective. But it has a place in the armory of reason aligned against willfull ingnorance..

  27. Irreverend Bastard says

    The “dihydrogen monoxide” joke is a very useful litmus test. It quickly tells me if someone is either a) informed, b) ignorant, or c) willfully ignorant.

    “It mocks people for not having had access to a good education.”

    If people are truly ignorant or uneducated, I try to educate and inform them in a nice manner.

    But when they are being willfully ignorant, or insist that education stops at graduation, I let them have it with both barrels, dihydrogen monoxide and mockery included. And if they bring out chemtrails or the moon hoax, I carpet bomb them with Mockery Nukes until I see tears flowing.

    I can respect honest ignorance or lack of education. I can’t respect willful ignorance or outright refusal to educate themselves when they have the chance to do so.

  28. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    Huh. I got the dihydrogen monoxide bit (I’ve never heard that joke, but I am only 22. Maybe it’s gone out of fashion?), but I didn’t get that oxidane was water. I’m one of the 10,000 :) What does oxidane literally mean, just out of curiosity? As in, dihydrogen monoxide literally means “two hydrogens one oxygen”. What does oxidane mean?

    I think when it comes to ignorance, there are two sorts. You can either be ignorant because you can’t be bothered/don’t want to learn, or you can be ignorant because you’ve never had the opportunity. The former deserves mockery, the latter does not; so I think it’s best to give someone the benefit of the doubt until you’re sure it’s the former and that they are willfully remaining ignorant…. then you can let rip. Sort of a three-post-rule, but applied everywhere rather than specifically to blogs. That’s generally how I deal with it, anyway.

  29. gravityisjustatheory says

    19
    palebluedot89
    12 July 2013 at 12:45 am (UTC -5)

    Probably misunderstanding something here, but I didn’t think that the point of the joke is that people don’t know what Dihydrogenmonoxide is. The point of the joke is to poke fun at alarmism.

    That’s how I alwasy saw it too. That, and to point out that just because somethign has a scary, “chemical” name doesn’t mean it is harmful. And that statistics can be misleading taken out of context.

    This idea that it as actually a way for elitists to opress the less educated just strikes me as bizzare, and looks like looking for offense where this is none.

  30. The very model of a modern armchair general says

    Like a few others here, my take on the DHMO joke was that it’s not about sneering at those who don’t know chemistry jargon. It’s about demonstrating how anything can be made to sound scary with the right sort of language. So, if you fell for the ominous DHMO warnings the first time you heard it (as I did), you can learn to be wary of other alarmist warnings which take the same form (vaccines, flouride, etc).

  31. Lofty says

    I’ve seen the DHMO gag used to poke at conspiracy theorists, it’s not the sharpest chisel in the skeptic tool bag but I think it does more good than harm. As for the scientifically uneducated, it’s not exactly hard to google the term and learn, so you won’t be ignorant for long.

  32. says

    When I was at Uni I had a chemist friend who would order isopropanol in our local. The barman eventually learned to give him a pint of ale (isopropanol->isopropyl alcohol->IPA->India Pale Ale) rather than the much funnier rubbing alcohol.

  33. crocodoc says

    I agree with palebluedot89. Using DHMO as a synonym for alarmism is perfectly legitimate. I have never experienced that someone who has not heard of it before and asked what DHMO is got mocked for that. And anyone who nods and gleefully agrees that there’s so much stuff out there that “they” don’t want us to know about has surely deserved a little lesson.

  34. says

    The ‘a’ in oxidane denotes single bonds, and an ‘e’ would denote at least one double bond, so I am assuming that oxidene would be carbon monoxide.

  35. tuibguy says

    I feel a sudden urge to start a petition to ban the use of Oxidane in coffee. Will it fly on change.org?

  36. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The ‘a’ in oxidane denotes single bonds, and an ‘e’ would denote at least one double bond, so I am assuming that oxidene would be carbon monoxide.

    Nope. You would need a carbon in there somewhere, or be using organic nomenclature. It simply is oxygen (oxi-) saturated with hydrogen (-ane), which is water. There can’t be a double bond in a molecule of only oxygen and hydrogen. Oxidene is nonsense.

  37. tuibguy says

    I think that this is one of the hazards of “slacktivism” and it also applies to issues that don’t involve tricky names for common (and healthy) chemical substances. Not long ago a Facebook friend sent to me a link for a petition to stop the inhumane practice of using stray dogs as bait for large fish. The petition included a photo of a dog with a fishing hook through its nose, being removed by a veterinarian. It also had a lurid story about the common practice in the Mediterranean of trolling for, I don’t remember exactly which sport fish it was, but let’s say marlins or sailfish or sharks, with dogs as live bait.

    The obvious appeal was to the shock value of the reader; I mean, who the fuck would do something like that? Obviously not an American sport fisherman, but perhaps someone swarthy or from a society that views dogs as “unclean” animals. Say, Muslims, for example. Those people are cruel to animals by their nature and view them only as food or a means to get food or sport, right?

    I checked a bit further, because my skeptic sense was tingling. The picture was actually of an animal that had accidentally hooked itself into a line that had broken and was on the beach. There are no documented cases of sport, nor commercial, fisherman using live stray dogs for trolling bait.

    All of us must be careful to check things out before rushing to put our names on petitions online, or at the supermarket or mall or whatever; whether it is to ban a substance or a practice.

    I privately messaged my Facebook friend the info I had found, I didn’t want to humiliate that person.

  38. Louis says

    Chris,

    I’ll cop to the bad use of the DHMO joke too, and I certainly get the punching down aspect of it and will be more careful how I use it in future. I’ll use it as “mockery of wilful ignorance, not mere ignorance”, i.e. of conspiracy not cupidity, and as the first step in dispelling ignorance. So use the DHMO thing as a joke to illustrate the FORM of bad arguments, then why those arguments are bad.

    However, and dammit you knew this was coming, this:

    It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

    Erm no. I’m a chemist, and chemophobia is a real phenomenon that is really a problem. It’s a problem that exploits disadvantaged people more than it is used to mock them. By orders of magnitude. The success of “chemical free” marketing or “natural = good, chemical=bad” tropes is not universally “mere ignorance” (and thus punching down to mock or attack). I’m not punching down at a homoeopath who is marketing their “chemical free” drivel as an alternative to genuine therapies. I’m not punching down at a corporation who is exploiting mere ignorance (i.e. exploiting the mere ignorance of others by their cynical pose of ignorance or genuine wilful ignorance) by marketing “chemical free” entities to people.

    I 100% agree that we should use these opportunities to educate, not to sneer at chemically relatively ignorant hoi polloi from our ivory towers, indeed I find that as despicable as you, even if I am occasionally guilty of it due to my own fallibility as a human being.

    Chemophobia is not a sneer in any of the uses I put it to, and certainly not the majority of uses I have experienced (anecdote I know). It is the lament of a group of people who, sorry, like it or not ARE more chemically informed than the average* and who are trying with the best intentions to combat the exploitation of this relative imbalance of information.

    Louis

    * I see no crime in being more informed than the average about a topic. The investment I’ve put into chemistry is not equal to that of the majority of people. The investment you have put into your fields of expertise dwarfs my investment in them. Neither situation makes one of us “better” or “superior” to the other, that’s a disgusting red herring too often, I agree, used by the dick wavers. What it does do is render one of us more likely to have a reality based view of a subject than the other. Not exclusively, but probabilistically.

  39. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    And you know what? That’s fine if you’re fine with it. If you’re fine with a world in which there are intellectual castes, in which the Alphas get to sneer at the Betas and Gammas, who themselves have in-jokes they use to ridicule the Epsilons. For those that like that sort of thing, as Wilde said, that is the sort of thing they like.

    This doesn’t resemble a world that anyone lives in. People generally think that they are right and sneer at those that they don’t agree with. Having the privilege of access to education does not save one from being the object of mockery.
     
    Although in no uncertain terms access to education correlates with power, at a certain level the correlation between power and wisdom, clearly levels out–like a sigmoid all curve. Just look at the ruling class. The state of Texas, where I live, will provide today a deplorable example of how the educated and powerful can be arbitrary and shortsighted (and wrong).

  40. says

    @ Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls,
    I wondered because of ethane/ethylene being single/double bonds between carbon nuclei. Thanks, man!

  41. says

    I’m a diabetic. I consume a fair amount of aspartame over the course of a day. I did get concerned about the reports people made about it being unsafe, and followed up on the claims. Yet the people who tell me I need to stop using it because it is a neurotoxin probably think they are educating me.

    People who offer bad advice or out of date advice to diabetics are also idiots.

  42. David Marjanović says

    It wasn’t the first time the term had been used. Google Books records it being used as early as 1910, in a magazine snippet ironically poking fun at scientists for their abstruse technology:

    To me that reads more like 1) using that name to emphasize the chemical purity of the water and 2) poking fun at the reductionist identification of “water” with “pure H2O” as opposed to the solutions more commonly encountered in the real world.

    hydroxic acid

    Nope, by definition not an acid. The pH of pure water (7.0) is defined as neutral.

    Josh, my problem (and I think (?) others problem) with this sort of thing is exactly that. You can call someone stupid and gullible. In fact, if they are, you should. That’s how people learn. But insulting someone without letting them know they’re being insulted is cowardly. It isn’t our job to educate the willfully ignorant, but we should wear our contempt on our sleeves when we’re calling them out on it.

    I agree. OK, I don’t care if it’s cowardly, I’ve always been proud to be a confessing coward – but insulting someone without letting them know is pointless. It’s useless. It helps neither them nor my SIWOTI syndrome. :-)

    What does oxidane literally mean, just out of curiosity?

    Not much, it’s ultimately derived from a generalization of a reanalysis of the name “methane”, see comment 43.

  43. Vicki says

    I have learned two things from this, at least.

    One of them is that “germane” is a standard-form chemical name, in the same way as methane and oxidane. Methane is CH4, and germane is GeH4. If only I could find a good use for this fact other than sharing it here (or in one other odd place where “did you know ‘germane”‘ is a noun?” might amuse)

  44. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    robertbaden: if I can use this as an example of what I’m expressing poorly:

    People who offer bad advice or out of date advice to diabetics are also idiots.

    Yes they are. But they don’t know that. They think that they are the smart ones. And probably some of them sneer at “idiots” who disagree with them.
     
    Clearly, there are ways to punch down with mockery of the ill-informed*…giving people a shitty time for not having gone to college, or having gone to a shitty college, when they had no other choice is clearly just wrong. Even giving people a shitty time for having attended Patriot University can be a shitty thing to do, if the point is to simply dismiss a person’s argument, or POV, or what have you, based on the quality of their education. But what if that person’s argument is 1) persuasive to many, 2) dangerously** wrong, and 3) predicated by the authoritarian stance*** resulting from a sham degree from a bullshit university. Clearly the right thing to do is to deal with the argument the best you can, and try to explain why the argument is shitty…but let’s say you go after the degree? If someone’s argument is persuasive because of some claim to education and expertise, is it OK to erode that claim? Is that punching down? Clearly others with the same shitty degree, who are not involved in this debate can be damaged by such a practice.
     
    I mean, we, here, mock the stupid all of the time. Hell. The lack of clarity of this comment is a legitimate cause for mockery****. Should someone decide to give me a ride about it, should they be concerned about splash damage to all of those who don’t express themselves in writing as well as they would like, due to some perceived lack of education*****, or some innate difficulty with written language? Or will the willfully ignorant vs. genuinely curious but educationally disadvantaged just manage to self-sort in terms of absorbing splash damage******?
     

    *I don’t mean this in any perjorative sense.
    **Let’s say it is in regard to some public policy decision.
    ***Arguing from authority is technically a logical fallacy, but in regard to questions of a highly technical or abstruse nature, maybe pretty effective.
    ****My use of commas alone is FAIL.
    *****Just to be clear…this is the perception of the person receiving splash damage…I don’t think in general that one should expect clarity of written expression to be strictly determined by one’s education.
    ******Also, one thing that we have to be realistic about is how people perceive mockery of ideas that they cherish. I have often deluded myself in thinking that going after an idea can’t hurt a person who holds it. It can. For all practical purposes lampooning an idea often does the same damage as lampooning people who hold it. And further, I’m not necessarily worried that somehow my “right to mock” is being threatened– BUT, people also don’t often see a distinction between a surgical critique of a cherished idea and the pillorying of that idea. It can be really hard to attack an idea without inflicting some sort of psychic pain on the people who hold it, even if your intent is not to mock. I mean, bad ideas still have to be dealt with. It’s just difficult to avoid splash damage, because intent isn’t magic, right?

  45. says

    gravityisjustatheory:

    This idea that it as actually a way for elitists to opress the less educated just strikes me as bizzare, and looks like looking for offense where this is none.

    I don’t know about that. Years ago, when I came across it, it was clear to me it was an in-joke, and there was much making fun about all the people too stupid to get it, who fell for it, and so on. I didn’t have a clue (I’m an artist, I don’t know from long names for stuff), so I looked it up. Ever since then, when I’ve come across someone using the “joke”, I’ve always explained it to whoever the “joke” was aimed at, because every time I’ve seen it, there’s been a meanness to the use.

    I think if someone feels compelled to use said joke, they could at least provide a brief explanation as well, so there’s a little education in there somewhere. Of course, a person being willfully ignorant is different from plain ignorance, but it’s not always immediately clear which is which, so a little education can go a long way.

  46. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Given the prevalence of anti-intellectualism and misology in not just general society but among elected politicians, and how damaging many of its forms are, I have to question the idea that mocking it is “punching down.”

  47. Gregory Greenwood says

    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) @ 51;

    Given the prevalence of anti-intellectualism and misology in not just general society but among elected politicians, and how damaging many of its forms are, I have to question the idea that mocking it is “punching down.”

    I think part of the point that Chris is making is that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the kind of wilful, calculated anti-intellectualism that seeks to paint ignorance as a virtue and knowledge as a vice on the one hand, and personal ignorance that afflicts a person through no fault of their own through a lack of educational opportunities in their lives on the other. When mocking the former, it is important to avoid ‘splash damage’ that might affect the latter.

    The kind of attitude that seeks to stratify society into some notional high flying intellectual elite that exists above the ‘unwassed masses’ – paired with the idea that there is, and more worryingly should be, little or no potential for social mobility from one layer of education and intellectual opportunity to the other – is highly problematic. It runs the risk of suggesting that this is not a function of opportunity and wealth or the lack thereof, but instead is some reflection of an innate and immutable superiority that separates olympian intellectuals from lesser mortals.

    That mindset, taken to its ultimate extreme, is the reason why you can still dig up the odd bonkers eugenicist here and there…

  48. Sven says

    I hear the Navy uses that stuff in their propulsion systems.

    Seriously though, the DHMO joke, like any practical joke, can be harmlessly funny or needlessly cruel. The difference is execution and attitude. The joke itself isn’t nasty, but being a dick about it is.

  49. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    When mocking the former, it is important to avoid ‘splash damage’ that might affect the latter.

    Are we allowed to say that now?

  50. morgan says

    Thanks for this topic Chris. This gives me an excellent opportunity to complain about my insufficient science education. When I was in middle school there was a chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements on the wall. I understood not one bit of it so one day, after staring at it for months, I innocently asked, “What is an Element and what makes it Periodic?”

    I truly do not think the teacher knew. I got a garbled reply that cleared up exactly nothing. I made it a habit of asking that same question in every class which displayed said chart and never, not once, did I get a good, clear, educated reply. That was when I knew we were in trouble.

  51. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I think part of the point that Chris is making is that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the kind of wilful, calculated anti-intellectualism that seeks to paint ignorance as a virtue and knowledge as a vice on the one hand, and personal ignorance that afflicts a person through no fault of their own through a lack of educational opportunities in their lives on the other..

    Yes, and the heuristic “things with ‘chemistryish’ names are obviously and dangerous,” and the allied fallacy that “natural” substances are harmless, belongs to the former category. Until this thread, piss-taking that idea was that only context I’d ever heard “dihydrogen monoxide” in, and it’s certainly the context in which it was coined and popularized. Apparently someone’s used it to make fun of people opposed to fracking? Huh?

    It feels to me like there’s a knee-jerk assumption that criticism or mocking of any form of ignorance, cultivated or otherwise, implies

    the kind of attitude that seeks to stratify society into some notional high flying intellectual elite that exists above the ‘unwassed masses’

    and I find that really problematic.

  52. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    You can either be ignorant because you can’t be bothered/don’t want to learn, or you can be ignorant because you’ve never had the opportunity. The former deserves mockery, the latter does not; so I think it’s best to give someone the benefit of the doubt until you’re sure it’s the former and that they are willfully remaining ignorant…. then you can let rip.

    I generally give people a tiny bit more slack before going for pure mockery (but, admittedly, that may be because I haven’t had my patience tried that much. Yet). I can understand that people might not be bothered to learn some things – there are things I do find too boring to waste time on, and I get that chemistry isn’t an important interest for most people, even those who are sometimes highly educated in other fields of science.

    I draw the line at willfully ignorant and making shit up, or systematically spreading made-up shit on a subject they are ignorant about, after having been informed that it is made-up shit.

    I innocently asked, “What is an Element and what makes it Periodic?”
    I truly do not think the teacher knew.

    This is terrible teaching ! Here all science teachers must go through basic general and organic chemistry classes, so as to know their subjects a bit beyond what they teach.

    On the subject of mocking ignorance, I have rarely seen it in chemistry. Most profs and grad students I know were often very happy to be asked questions, and would be very polite and helpful when informing people they are wrong about something.

    The most dreadful, condescending and unhelpful behavior I have seen is from people in my current field (computer science).

  53. Ing:Intellectual Terrorist "Starting Tonight, People will Whine" says

    I like the point that people have used this to basically exploit people’s trusting nature and altruism to combat altruism and ecology activism.

  54. says

    I think part of the point that Chris is making is that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the kind of wilful, calculated anti-intellectualism that seeks to paint ignorance as a virtue and knowledge as a vice on the one hand, and personal ignorance that afflicts a person through no fault of their own through a lack of educational opportunities in their lives on the other.

    Yes, and the heuristic “things with ‘chemistryish’ names are obviously and dangerous,” and the allied fallacy that “natural” substances are harmless, belongs to the former category.

    I talk with people who engage in the naturalistic fallacy all the time. It’s not wilful calculated anti-intellectualism on their part. It’s a lack of access to the tools we often take for granted about how to distinguish scientific fact from fancy and hearsay.

    Apparently someone’s used it to make fun of people opposed to fracking? Huh?

    I only ever see it from anti-enviros these days. That’s certainly a bit of sampling bias and confirmation bias mixed, but it really does exist.

  55. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    If you make the “joke”, you are effectively saying “You think X is dangerous; therefore, you are an alarmist, and you probably think dihydrogen monoxide is dangerous too.” That’s obviously bogus. It’s a one-size-fits-all dismissal of anyone who dares to say that anything might be dangerous.

    Actually, it isn’t. Just that every risk must evaluated IN TOTALITY, AND AGAINST OTHER RISKS. There is no such thing as absolutely safe. Life involves risk, and controlling that risk requires tradeoffs. Example, spraying swamps with DDT to kill mosquitoes that might have malaria bad; large splash damage to birds, etc. Rinsing a bed-net in a DDT solution before selling in tropical regions, an effective tool against malaria, and minimal splash damage.

  56. imthegenieicandoanything says

    The first time around, this already felt like a too-clever-by-half asshole nerd’s joke. That it’s being re-tooled shows it always was that, and no humor was involved from the start.

    Being a loser means desperately looking to prove other people are bigger losers, I guess.

  57. Stacy says

    I only ever see it from anti-enviros these days. That’s certainly a bit of sampling bias and confirmation bias mixed, but it really does exist

    Ah, now I understand your take on it, Chris. I encountered the joke in a different context, and it didn’t strike me as mean-spirited, but that was some time ago.

  58. Gregory Greenwood says

    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) @ 54;

    Are we allowed to say that now?

    I didn’t realise there was a problem with the term – I thought it was simply a reference to a pen and paper RPG game mechanic used to convey the problematic nature of terms that may be denigratory toward entire groups of people rather that just engaging a single individual. If it has offensive connotations I am unaware of, then I will avoid it in future.

    @ 54;

    Yes, and the heuristic “things with ‘chemistryish’ names are obviously and dangerous,” and the allied fallacy that “natural” substances are harmless, belongs to the former category.

    As Chris says @ 60, not everyone who employs the naturalistic fallacy does so as some cynical gambit – there are plenty of people who simply don’t know any better, and so fall into the trap of assuming that, because something ‘sounds right’ to them with regard to how they think a particular issue should relate to their interpretation of the ‘natural world’, then this is somehow the self-evidently correct ‘common sense’ conclusion. Their are all too many people who legitimately lack the educational tools to understand what a logical fallacy is, let alone avoid their use.

    Until this thread, piss-taking that idea was that only context I’d ever heard “dihydrogen monoxide” in, and it’s certainly the context in which it was coined and popularized. Apparently someone’s used it to make fun of people opposed to fracking? Huh?

    With respect, you need to consider the possibility that your experience may not be universal with regard to this type of humour.

    It feels to me like there’s a knee-jerk assumption that criticism or mocking of any form of ignorance, cultivated or otherwise, implies

    the kind of attitude that seeks to stratify society into some notional high flying intellectual elite that exists above the ‘unwassed masses’

    and I find that really problematic.

    I agree that not everyone, or even the majority, of people who use the joke think in those terms, but a joke that can so easily be used to punch down the educational privilege gardient will very likely appeal to those who fancy themselves innately superior rather than simply lucky in their circumstances.

  59. says

    I didn’t realise there was a problem with the term – I thought it was simply a reference to a pen and paper RPG game mechanic used to convey the problematic nature of terms that may be denigratory toward entire groups of people rather that just engaging a single individual. If it has offensive connotations I am unaware of, then I will avoid it in future.

    Azkyroth took some (IMO unwarranted) heat recently for using the term in much the sense that you describe here, so I took his question as a sardonic reference to that episode.

  60. Gregory Greenwood says

    Chris Clarke @ 65;

    Azkyroth took some (IMO unwarranted) heat recently for using the term in much the sense that you describe here, so I took his question as a sardonic reference to that episode.

    I see. I don’t remember catching that particular thread, hence my confusion. Thanks for the information.

  61. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    To elaborate slightly, what happened was more or less this:

    1. The term “splash damage” was coined in the context of video games to describe the effect certain weapons (explosives, etc.) have of “hitting” characters other than your intended target, who happen to be in proximity to them.
    2. This was borrowed, by analogy, by some people in the social justice movement to describe the effect of using terms like “retarded,” “gay,” etc. as pejoratives – doing so stigmatizes the people the term legitimately refers to.
    3. People who weren’t familiar with the video game context and the borrowing assumed Social Justice invented the term and … became very upset when I used it, again to refer by analogy, to the use of fashion choices with multiple meanings and popularity with multiple subcultures as a metonym for obnoxious personality traits displayed by a particular group, based on the perception that it was being “appropriated” for issues outside of the effects of certain behaviors on systematically oppressed groups to which is was misunderstood as properly referring.
    4. The basis of this confusion did not become obvious until the exchange had stretched for more than a hundred comments and become extremely heated, but was subsequently elucidated.
    5. Some of those involved responded appropriately to belatedly realizing they had committed a simple pattern matching error.
    6. I stopped reading the thread after it had died down a bit. I’d rather leave it alone.

  62. Jym Dyer says

    ≎ That 1910 citation is interesting, but doesn’t really use the phrase in the same way. I remember it showing up amongst the nerdy set in the 1970s, around the time that Monsanto was doing their “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible” public relations campaign. The point of that campaign was to promote the type of ignorance that the phrase was trying to make fun of. Yet the two camps made common cause.