In defence of DHMO

Chemophobia and the use of satire such as the old DHMO joke, to tackle it seems to be the topic of the week. I’m guessing (and maybe I’m flattering myself) that my ironic piece in the Guardian, in response to the now notorious Buzzfeeds article, may have added fuel to the flames. So here’s my tuppence worth.

The latest round of the chemophobia debate started with Chris Clarke’s post Do you know douchbags are full of dihydrogen monoxide? Chris clearly doesn’t like the use of the DHMO ‘joke’, as it

 ..mocks alleged “gullibility” in a way that dissuades the corrected from learning.

plus its as old as the hills (or glaciers), as he puts it,

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.

Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science doesn’t like it either.

Really, all the target of the joke learns is that the teller of the joke has knowledge and is willing to use it to make someone else look dumb.

and she goes on to say

 ..there are instances where the dihydrogen monoxide joke isn’t punching down but punching up, where educated people who should know better use large platforms to take advantage of the ignorant.

I deployed DHMO in the Guardian (a large platform)  in an attempt to quench chemophobia and so even if Chris and Janet’s comments aren’t levelled directly at me, then very similar ones have.  Here’s my defence (and thanks to  for his).

The DHMO joke (and similar) is a clear example of reducto ad absurdum.  It use makes for a powerful argument. And the fact that the joke is old serves to flag up any satire. I thought that this plus the multiple links throughout and the increasingly ludicrous statements I made should also have made it clear that my piece was satire. I hold up my hands now and admit that it may not have been obvious enough (but then even more extreme examples of satire, in the Guardian, have recently been taken seriously).

I did not set out to punch down, up or any other which way. My aim was merely to demonstrate that through over extrapolation and application of the wrong spin any chemicals can be made to sound dangerous. I thought this was obvious. Admittedly it might not have been immediately so, that much is apparent from the comment’s thread which is littered with people who were taken in but then later realised the irony. What is also apparent was that the majority of those that did not realise it was a parody DID release that the arguments I appeared to use were garbage (I received plenty of abuse from this crowd). There was also a fair amount of concern that I was punching down (although that phrase wasn’t used). This criticism I take seriously. BUT after a trawl through the comments (donning my thickest skin first) there appeared to be little evidence of the punched.

In short, there were those that got it and thought it funny, or not, either way no harm done. Then there were those that didn’t get the joke, but got the science, no harm done here either (except to me who had to deal with some fairly vocal trolls). And those that thought it an in-joke which did more harm than good, but I don’t see much evidence of the harm.

Which all in all leaves me to conclude that we may be underestimating the intelligence of the audience. They aren’t abused and ignorant, they get the science, if not the joke.




  1. Pingback: Consider the audience when addressing chemophobia » Atoms and Numbers

  2. Pingback: The top 10 chemistry blog posts of 2013 : The Sceptical Chymist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *