As I perused the Science website the other day, I ran across another “Experimental Error” post. For those unfamiliar with these articles, they are expertly and hilariously written by Adam Ruben. Ruben is a scientist and the author of “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.”
In this post for “Experimental Error,” Ruben touches upon one of the most famous scientific hoaxes perpetuated across the internet – the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, or DHMO.
Entire websites, such as DHMO.org, are dedicated to communicating the dangers of this compound. As the website describes, DHMO is a main component in acid rain, used in warfare, and found in many types of tumors.
Now all this is true. But take a moment to return to your high school chemistry class and write out the formula of dihydrogen monoxide – two hydrogens and one oxygen. H2O – water.
Due to the ease of spreading information across the Internet, the DHMO hoax has been widely heard. A YouTube search turns up numerous “public service announcement” about the dangers of DHMO. Countless graduate students have gathered around a lab computer to laugh about the (true) descriptions of DHMO and the inaccurate claim of its danger and our impending doom.
Some people, however, don’t think it’s so funny. In 2004, a radio station in the town of Bremerton, WA announced that DHMO was found in the city’s water supply. Residents of the town inundated emergency phone lines with worried questions, and the town mounted an emergency response. Clearly, the joke had not been understood by everyone.
So, how careful do those who understand the humor behind the hoax have to be when communicating it to those who may not understand? Are science hoaxes funny fodder for grad students during down times in the lab or potential for misunderstanding and fear?