Did you hear the one about "dihydrogen monoxide"? It sounds like an Internet hoax, but it was in fact a real-life prank, albeit with a serious point.
Copying an idea from an Idaho junior high school student, Nathan Zohner, who used it in a science fair project, the European Science and Environment Forum recently asked 123 Londoners for their views on the substance we usually call water. ESEF, a think tank that fights environmental alarmism, informed respondents that "the chemical industry routinely uses a chemical `dihydrogen monoxide' in its processes. It is used in significant quantities and often leads to spillages and other leaks, and it regularly finds its way into rivers and into our food supply."
The survey noted that dihydrogen monoxide is "a major component of acid rain" and, in its vapor state, "a major greenhouse gas." It "contributes to erosion" and "decreases the effectiveness of automobile brakes." Not only that, but "it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting," "accidental inhalation can kill you," and "it has been found in the tumors of terminal cancer patients." After hearing this litany, three-quarters of the respondents said dihydrogen monoxide should be "strictly regulated or even banned." Only 5 percent realized it was water (H20).
For the survey, ESEF interviewed people near two London subway stations during three days in August; 167 were approached, and 44 declined to participate. Although the sample may not have been perfectly representative of the general public, the results were similar to Nathan Zohner's in Idaho. Of 50 people he surveyed, 43 said dihydrogen monoxide should be banned. ESEF Director Roger Bate says the similarity suggests that another dangerous compound–scientific illiteracy coupled with an insistence on zero risk–is pervasive in Western countries.