Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Non-science and Nonsense

I came across this post on the digital divide on Atanu Dey's blog the other day. It has an interesting bit about the south sea cargo cult. I had heard this phrase "cargo cult science" before somewhere, but never bothered to investigate I guess. Turns out it is about things that seems like science (because they go through the motions of scientific inquiry) but actually are not!

This reminded me of the website publicizing the dangers of DHMO (Dihydrogen Monoxide), that I had come across few months ago. It is a really great and amusing website. DHMO can be extremely harmful, even kill people in many cases. The website clearly warns us about the ill effects on this page:
The dangers, uses and potential threats posed by this chemical, Dihydrogen Monoxide, are widespread, and some feel, terrifying. Here is just a small taste of what Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is:
* Some call Dihydrogen Monoxide the 'Invisible Killer'
* Others think dihydrogen monoxide should be Banned
* Dihydrogen Monoxide is linked to gun violence
* Dihydrogen monoxide was found at every recent school shooting
* Athletes use DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE, or DHMO, to enhance performance
* Dihydrogen Monoxide has been found in our rivers, lakes, oceans and streams
* Dihydrogen Monoxide is a major component of acid rain
* Thousands die each year after inhaling dihydrogen monoxide
* Dihydrogen Monoxide can be deadly
* Find out the truth about Dihydrogen Monoxide
DHMO is ofcourse not really harmful. After all about 60% of human body is "contaminated" with it. If you haven't guessed it by now, DHMO or dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) is just a clever way to say "water". The website www.dhmo.org was started in 1997 by Dr. Tom Way, a research scientist in Newark, Delaware. The motivation behind creating it in his own words:
"The original purpose of the site was as a sort of writer's therapy to blow off steam about all the devious (and sometimes just ignorant) ways the truth is bent to prove a point by some in the media, politics, sales, environmental activism, organized religion, web site authoring, etc."
The website then took a life of its own. The city councilors in Aliso Viejo, CA went so far ahead as to vote on a ban on styrofoam cups because DHMO was used in their manufacture (Check out this article in Scientific American). When they were made aware of the truth (probably while some of them were consuming some DHMO themselves), they blamed the fiasco on some paralegal doing bad research. You can read more interesting stuff about dangers of DHMO on the website itself and about the Aliso Viejo incident on this page.

We are being bombarded with all sorts of poll results all the time. Columnists and TV anchors quote results from "latest studies" every day. This DHMO website is a great example of how people can be fooled by seemingly scientific sounding information. It also bring out the importance of ascertaining the facts. That ofcourse takes time and effort which most of us are unwilling to spend. Perception is everything. In India there are all sorts of advertisements where people wearing white lab coats show the effectiveness of a product (like a soap or toothpaste). The ads are full of pretty looking graphs and animations showing the germs being killed. All these things in the media have a huge effect on shaping the public opinion. I guess there is no real way to judge how much of the information we are presented makes sense and how much is pure BS (bad stuff!).

The importance of ascertaining the facts behind everything is obvious. That of course takes time and effort which most of us are unwilling to spend. So who is looking out for me? Is every man to himself when it comes to finding the truth behind the stuff we get from media? I hope not! Blogs are doing a good job at keeping checks. There are some good websites too. Phil Plait's bad astronomy website and others like Fact Check are some examples. I am more and more convinced that participatory internet (through blogs, podcasts and what not) and the mechanics of competition may be robust enough to keep things in order!

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1 comment:

Point 5 said...

Good post. The incident in Aliso Viejo, CA was really humorus...u can trust California to come up with such brilliant ideas...