How Dumb Can You Be?



Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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53 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    In a related story, supermarkets all over the state are selling supposedly safe food that’s actually full of chemicals.Report

  2. Avatar James K says:

    It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.Report

  3. Avatar DRS says:

    Actually, it’s dangerous to expose your listeners (who are the reason you receive advertising dollars from local businesses and sponsorship fees from sponsors) to the possibility that you’re showing up their ignorance and making fun of it.Report

  4. I demand that the ignorant should be protected from their ignorance.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Treating this topic more seriously than other posters, a lot of people forget what they don’t need to know or at least what they think they don’t need to know once they leave school. I consider myself a well-educated person who knows a lot but I forgot a lot of the algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus that I studied in high school and college. My grasp of a lot of scientific facts is probably more shaky than it should be. I wouldn’t panic at a joke like this but there are probably things about chemistry and physics that I should know, that I knew at one point but forgot. It wasn’t intentional, its just that I never needed to apply this knowledge to life and somehow forgot it. Its worse with people who hated school.Report

  6. If I had heard from a credible source that “dihydrogen monoxide” was coming out of my faucet, I might be concerned. I wouldn’t panic, but I would be concerned. The reason: dihydrogen monoxide might be water, but it’s not the most common name for water, and some “names “are more jargon than not.

    I would hope, however, that I’d google it and find out that it is, well, water.

    My point is not that “we need a law to protect the ignorant.” And I think it’s preposterous that these radio people were disciplined and that the health department didn’t acknowledge that they said nothing false.

    I do suggest, though, that even as we laugh at the ridiculousness, we keep in mind that if the situation were different, we might have been the butt of the joke. Of course, if we ever are the butt of that joke, then I would hope we could laugh at ourselves.Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    I forget which comedian said it, but “you can’t fix stupid” and it’s apt.

    I remember hearing about his via a few years ago and, although my basic chemistry in high school was 30ish years ago, i still could noodle out that “di” is 2 and “mono” is 1. After that it was easy to figure out that this was all a joke.

    Here’s a thought: let’s make answering the question correctly “explain what dihydrogen monoxide is” a voting test. If you fail, you’re obviously not qualified to select the leader of the free world, or to be on a jury.Report

  8. Avatar Bob2 says:

    Actually I’m more concerned that there are people out there who have never heard of this particular prank. It’s really really old now.

    • Avatar Shannon's Mouse says:

      Seriously. Did Florida just get Internet in the past couple months?

      I’d be curious to know the median age of those that were “duped”.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      I always love it when someone on “Wheel of Fortune” picks “D-H-M-O” as their letters in the final puzzle. I like to believe that it’s not actually intentional, like they just heard the “DHMO” joke and now their mind fixated on that sequence of letters. (Sort of like when someone picks “C-D-M-A”.)Report

  9. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    This is an old one. It reminds me of the kid that won a Science Fair with his project about dihydrogen monoxide:

    In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, made the news when he based his science fair project on a warning similar to the one reproduced in the “Example” box above. [BAN DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE! ] Zohner’s project, titled “How Gullible Are We?”, involved presenting that warning about “the dangers of dihyrogen monoxide” to fifty ninth-grade students and asking them what (if anything) should be done about the chemical. Forty-three students favored banning it, six were undecided, and only one correctly recognized that ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is actually plain old water. Zohner’s analysis of the results he obtained won him first prize in the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair; garnered him scads of attention from newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, universities, and congresspeople; and prompted the usual round of outcries about how our ignorant citizenry doesn’t read critically and can be easily misled.

    Even back then Nathan Zohner’s project wasn’t original, as spoof petitions about dihydrogen monoxide and other innocuous “dangers” had been circulating for years, and Nathan based his project on a bogus report that was already making the rounds of the Internet. Moreover, his target audience was ninth-graders, a group highly susceptible to allowing peer pressure to overwhelm critical thinking. Thrust any piece of paper at the average high school student with a suggestion about what the “correct” response to it should be, and peer pressure pretty much assures you’ll get the answer you’re looking for.

    As goes ninth graders, so goes the nation.Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Remember when we’d tell people that they were going to blow out the phone lines? Good times.Report

  11. Ugh. When vanilla and unoriginal “Morning Zoo”-style jokes have become the basis for disciplining vanilla and unoriginal “Morning Zoo”-style radio hosts, we truly have reached the peak of humorlessness and the end of self-awareness and self-deprecation.Report

  12. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    I should probably try to find investors for the turbo encabulator in Florida.Report

  13. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I don’t think the hoax is necessarily punishable, but let’s not just laugh at the idiots who got punked. I saw a similar hoax and it took me a minute to say, “Wait… I know what that means.”

    I was not taught that water’s scientific name was dihydrogen monoxide; hell, typing it in here brings up “dihydrogen” as a misspelling with it’s very own squiggly red line. It is possible that a teacher somewhere referred to it as such, but it is not something I was ever required or expected to learn. I was taught, explicitly, that water is H20 and contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but knowing that and knowing the specific scientific nomenclature based on a thousands-year-old dead language is not one in the same. Furthermore, carbon monoxide is a very harmful substance which people ought rightly be concerned about; it is fatal. Given that this report was given over the radio where people heard it as opposed to seeing it written, I think it reasonable that even intelligent people become concerned about the report, especially seeing as how it was given with the explicit intent of causing concern.

    Where you might want to find real fault with the radio personalities is in the fallout of the hoax. If people flooded 911 or other government agencies with calls, such that they were preoccupied with a false emergency that did or could have prevented them from appropriately handling a real emergency, that is highly irresponsible even if the actual agents were confused people on the ground. Whether that rises to actions that are either criminal or fireable is not for me to say, but I’m not really comfortable saying we should chide the morons and chortle with the brainiacs on the radio.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Dude. April Fool’s Day and two radio morning show personalities (haven’t heard their show, but if they aren’t composed at least 90% of lame jokes they’re a major anomaly in morning radio).

      This is like blaming The Onion for one of their articles going viral and people think it’s real.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I don’t “celebrate” April Fool’s Day. The only reason I usually know it’s going on is because of either A) my students or B) GMail/Google. And that usually won’t happen until mid-morning. If I’m driving into work, flipping through the stations, and hear an earnestly given warning about something in the drinking water at 7AM, I’m not going to immediately think “joke”.

        The difference between this and The Onion is that The Onion’s intent is not to deceive, which appears to have been the explicit intent of the radio hosts. If no one panicked, the “joke” likely would have been deemed a failure, no?Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Then again, we went to war over faked weapons threats… so maybe we’re all just a bunch of idiots who should have known that an economically isolated developing world country is unlikely to possess nuclear arms.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            You know given the current situation with North Korea, that is not so funny anymore.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              And given that folks regularly are told to not drink their tap water (e.g., Hoboken, NJ has had multiple “boil water” warnings in the past month), faux panics about tainted drinking water aren’t so funny.

              Here’s what I’m trying to say…

              I’m 29 with an undergraduate and graduate degree, though neither in any of the physical sciences. However, I’d like to think of myself as smarter than the average bear (and hope that my writing here indicates this to be true). And when I saw the phrase “dihydrogen monoxide”, it gave me a moment’s pause. And I had the benefit of A) seeing it in print and B) the source being Snopes, where one tends to look at things skeptically. And I still immediately though, “What the fish is that?” when I first read the phrase. But I took that moment and pieced together what it meant and realized, “Oh, I get it.”

              Now, if I had heard it in on the radio, at 7AM, given with some sort of urgency, and I had children or family in the affected areas who could be harmed by tainted water… I don’t know that I would have taken that moment or been so clear headed. I might have panicked and started making calls or turning to Google; and lest we forget, not everyone has immediate access to Google or the mindset to turn their for every question. People *should* call the department of health or other such agency if they have a real concern about the safety of drinking water.

              So… do you want to call me dumb?Report

              • Well, Smokey the bear had a PHD in natural resource management. He may not be average, but it makes me wonder about all the others.

                More seriously, no, I don’t think you’re dumb. I was trying to make the same point in my comment above. Or….I was a bit timid about being “that guy” who naysays the joke, so my point wasn’t clear.

                But yes, we shouldn’t be too quick to laugh, without recognizing that there but for the grace of theos go we.

                But I don’t think it should be punished by anything more with an expression of regret about “if anyone was caused undue worry.” I also think the Florida health department should not have said the prank was “inaccurate.”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                If there wasn’t any real consequences beyond listener panic and a few overstressed representatives a utility companies, any punishment should probably be behind closed doors… “Hey, guys, we get you were going for funny and it wasn’t necessarily unfunny, but be a bit smarter next time, okay? Don’t make us punish you.”Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      ” I’m not really comfortable saying we should chide the morons and chortle with the brainiacs on the radio.”

      I remember when this happened and it was universally agreed on the Internet that anyone who called it in as a bomb threat was a moron, even though the police closed three bridges and the Charles River over it.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Even chemists don’t call it that.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        no, but it is the sort of dog-IUPAC nomenclature that you just get.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:


          And, clearly not everyone got it.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Internation Union of Pure and Applied ChemistryReport

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              At what age should we expect people who don’t even know what the IUPAC is to know their nomenclature?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I agree. This is not the scientific way of referring to water, it’s not even a way that scientists talk about water, and no competent science teacher would ever have taught this label, so you would have to remember the rules for naming things from chemistry classes in high school if you were going to get it. Now, I think the panic was silly, and I don’t think they should fire radio hosts for a silly prank, but the sort of ignorance that the people who were fooled displayed seems pretty excusable to me.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                It probably goes without saying that “ignorant” ~= “dumb.”Report

              • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

                “you would have to remember the rules for naming things from chemistry classes in high school if you were going to get it.”

                So we’re seriously going for “we cannot make jokes anymore because people are too stupid to understand that they are jokes”?

                “Idiocracy” isn’t a joke anymore. It’s real.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Well, his very next sentence spells out what he was going for:

                Now, I think the panic was silly, and I don’t think they should fire radio hosts for a silly prankReport

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Yeah, you should have kept reading.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                We all realize that “jokes” and “pranks” are not synonymous, right?Report

              • I consider “prank” to be a subset of joke. But perhaps it’s more of a venn diagram thing, where there’s a lot of overlap, but no necessary connection.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Perhaps. Prank, to me, relies upon an attempt to deceive. A prank is a BAD one if no one is deceived. Meanwhile, a joke is a bad one if no one gets it. If everyone “got” the DHMO joke, it would be a joke and NOT a prank; everyone would laugh at the humor but no one would be fooled.

                If you told a joke with a punchline about DHMO, no one would call you out for it, except maybe for indulging in some real exceptional nerd humor. These people critical of the radio hosts (or, perhaps more specifically, critical of those criticizing the marks of the park) aren’t humorless or anti-joke.Report

              • That’s an interesting distinction, and I really haven’t thought about it too much (or at all) before you brought it up.

                I do think that on some level jokes, or at least some jokes, rely on deception, or on presenting the listener with an unexpected set of circumstances, the unexpectedness resulting in humor. I’m not sure how far I’d want to insist on this, though.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                That’s true.

                To me, a prank is what Ashton Kutcher used to do on “Punk’D”. There is a victim, even if the harm done is relatively benign. But the show worked (to whatever degree it did work) because it went to great lengths to convince the people that something real was happening. If they didn’t, if the mark didn’t take the bait, it wouldn’t have been particularly interesting.

                I brought it up because Heffman made a statement to the effect that no one can make jokes now because of dumb people. That’s not it. At all. There are a great range of jokes that are not made at people’s expense; this was not one of them. This wasn’t, “Let’s all laugh together at the unexpected turn”… this was, “Let’s laugh at these people we manipulated because they took us at our word.”Report

              • I think your way of defining “pranks” is more useful than mine.Report

              • Avatar Anne says:

                Two scientists walk into a bar
                The first one says “I’ll have some H2O.” The second one says, “I’ll have some H2O too.” Then he dies.Report

              • Avatar Fnord says:

                It’s not even correct IUPAC nomenclature, I’ll point out to anyone who still wants to feel superior for “getting” the prank. “Monoxide” is non-standard; compounds with a single oxygen atom normally use the simple “oxide”. The actual systematic name for water is dihydrogen oxide, or you could make a case for just hydrogen oxide or hydrogen hydroxide, not that any of those are ever used either.Report

  14. Avatar trizzlor says:

    I don’t mean to take the whole thing way too seriously, but it does sort of matter what context they were presenting this in. If I hear on the radio that there’s dihydrogen monoxide in the water AND that it’s unsafe to drink or shower in, I’m still going to be worried. Yes, I know what H20 is, but I also remember some rumors that drinking distilled water is harmful or that water without impurities can explode in the microwave; enough vague notions to make the story at least plausible. Basically, if someone in a position of authority is telling me to be concerned I’m going to be concerned until I see some contrary evidence, and I think that’s a pretty typical response that doesn’t really have anything to do with intelligence.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      If you’re over the age of twenty, and your response to someone telling you there’s a crisis isn’t “Let me do some research to see just how far out of proportion this is being blown,” you either haven’t been paying attention or are incapable of learning from past experience.Report

  15. Avatar Pyre says:

    Question for a question:

    One of the things that really sets me off is when people refer to “the Clinton surplus”. All of the figures are out there that show that there was never a surplus but rather a movement of debt from one T-account to another. Even if one didn’t want to get into how the debt was being shuffled about, a cursory look at the national treasury shows that, while our debt growth did slow (in and of itself dependent on several unsustainable factors), it never reversed.

    Yet, a large percentage of people still believe in this moronic myth.

    On the other hand, I’m crap at chemistry. I took the same chemistry course twice (down to retaking many of the same tests) and barely raised myself from a D to a C-. While I understand physics (being math), chemistry eludes my understanding. If someone told me that Dihydrogen Monoxide was coming out of my pipes and I didn’t have Google handy, my reaction would have been “Is that a chemical in the water?”

    Just because something is easily understandable to one person does not indicate universal understanding. Honestly, as we sign more and more of our intellectual faculties over to Google, this sort of reaction is likely to be more and more commonplace.Report

    • Avatar Pyre says:

      D’oh. I accidently erased “So does that make me more or less dumb than people who don’t understand how to look at the national treasury page?”Report

    • I didn’t know that about the “Clinton surplus”….and I’m a bit skeptical because, not knowing how to understand the national treasury page, I’m leery of jettisoning the idea that the U.S. was more financially solvent in the late 1990s than it is now. But I don’t know.

      And I agree with the spirit of your comment. I was horrible at physics and about as horrible at chemistry. (I got better grades in chemistry, but I understood it less.)Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      While “Clinton surplus” is presumptuous, since the Internet boom and the spending restraint enforced by Congressional Republicans deserve a lot of the credit, there was a real surplus. Sort of. It depends how you measure it, really.

      There are two ways in which the debt is commonly reckoned. One is gross debt, which is how many outstanding treasury bonds there are. A big chunk of those bonds, though, are held by the Social Security Administration. The net debt (commonly referred to as “debt held by the public”) excludes this, because the SSA is part of the federal government.

      At the end of the ’90s, the gross debt was growing but the net debt was not. That is, debt held by the public was shrinking, but not by as much as debt held by the SSA grew.

      Neither of these are particularly good ways of assessing the government’s long-term fiscal picture. A better way would be to take the total of debt held by the public and the net present value of all scheduled future expenditures net of scheduled tax receipts, and track how this changes from year to year. The year-over-year difference would be the true deficit. The problem, of course, is that even a team of completely honest economists and accountants would be unable to predict these flows accurately. Throw in powerful incentives to bias the estimates in the current administration’s favor and the plausible deniability conferred by the genuine difficulty of macroeconomic forecasting, and it’s a pretty tall order.

      That said, while it would be tenable in some sense to say that there was a surplus under Clinton, the reality is that even gross debt significantly understates the true debt, as it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that the debt held by the SSA is less than the NPV of its future liabilities net of scheduled tax revenues.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        It’s like the way CEO salaries “grew” by umpteen jillion percent during the 1980s. They didn’t; it’s just that tax laws changed and a lot of the stuff formerly regarded as “perks” now had to be reported as income. Like, if the company has a limo that picks you up and a jet that flies you around, and buys you dinner every night, you get charged taxes for those things now.Report

  16. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Let’s not lose sight of the important point here, which is that it’s extremely important that we make it as easy as possible for these people to vote, and that their votes should count just as much in deciding policy as those of people with a “superior” “understanding” of silly things like “chemistry,” “statistics,” and “economics.”Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      We need to ensure that the people making decisions are intelligent and well-educated. We could even come up with a slogan for the sort of people we mean. How about “The Best and the Brightest”?Report