A few years ago, I proposed the banning of the spooky-sounding chemical 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione, which has so infested our food supply that hundreds of millions of Americans suffer daily exposure. Not very libertarian of me, I know, but beyond that, I suspect that, if my petition went wide and started gaining traction, I’d be the subject of an avalanche of threats and personal attacks, and not from those evil bastards in the food and beverage industries that rely on it to attract consumers.

Obviously, there’s a gag here. 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione is more commonly known as caffeine. Coffee, tea, chocolate, colas, and all the variants that contain one or more of these, plus energy drinks and certain analgesics “benefit” from caffeine, and if you try to pry my morning cuppa from my hands, well, I’m not a violent person, but there are limits…

There are all sorts of benign or beneficial things out there that sound spooky or scary to some, and this sad reality was played to success, hilarity, and eternal notoriety by a fourteen year old named Nathan Zohner circulated a petition among 50 of his classmates, calling for the banning of “Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” because:

It can cause severe burns.
If consumed, it can cause bloating, excessive urination, and sweating.
Thousands of people die each year from accidentally ingesting it.
It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain and cancerous tumors.

among other reasons.

43 of 50 classmates signed the petition.

Dihydrogen monoxide is water.

Zohner presented this outcome as part of a science project called “How Gullible Are We?” and won the grand prize at a regional science fair. His gag got wide enough attention to earn the sobriquet Zohnerism.

Others have parodied people’s “fear born of ignorance” reaction to the term dihydrogen monoxide, with pretty common success. I have a water bottle that I occasionally use at the gym. It warns that the bottle contains ‘Dihydrogen Monoxide, a chemical commonly found in chemtrails.’ That such products are made and marketed illustrates both that the fear born of ignorance is not that rare and that many “get the joke.”

It’s when we get into “fear born of ignorance” driving matters of policy that the laughter gets replaced by frustration. One such matter, and it’s been going since 1979, when, in a shocking and historically devastating coincidence, a certain Jane Fonda movie got released a mere twelve days before the worst nuclear accident in US history (and, by most accounts, the worst accident that could happen) occurred. Nuclear power, clean, land-efficient, durable, reliable, and safer than any other power source (including wind and solar, which require rare earth metals, which requires extensive mining (two tons of magnets per wind turbine), which kills people both in accidents and in pollution). Fact is, no one died at Three Mile Island. No one even got cancer from the (small) radiation leak. But, people got scared shitless, thanks to the movie, thanks to an ignorant and sensationalizing press, and thanks to a broad ignorance of the realities of nuclear power.

Then, Chernobyl happened. Chernobyl was the result of stunning recklessness and governmental irresponsibility, going all the way back to its basic design and criminally inadequate safety provisions (no containment vessel, for example). No Western reactor exists that even remotely rises to that level of stupidity, and none ever will. This means that Chernobyl, while a tragedy, has no relevance in the nuclear energy debate in this country. And, yet, countless people say “Chernobyl” when asked why they oppose nuclear power.

Then, Fukushima happened. An earthquake and tsunami that killed a couple thousand damaged the reactors and resulted in a radiation release. Still, of the thousands of casualties, only 6 were exposed to radiation, and only one died.

That’s one radiation casualty in the history of Western nuclear power (there were three in 1961 at a human-caused accident at an experimental facility, but it’s suspected that was a murder-suicide). While there are certainly more deaths if we look at the mining of uranium and other building materials, at construction accidents, and at other more mundane causes (e.g. auto accidents involving workers, those occur in all forms of power generation, and the clear conclusion is that nuclear power is the safest of the all. And, the safety numbers become staggering if we include pollution. Coal energy releases particulates, sulphur dioxide, and other pollutants into the atmosphere, to the tune of over a million pollution-related deaths per year.

But, those deaths are all mundane, and death from radiation is eerie and scary and horrifying. It’s a fear of a certain type of death, and that fear tends to override rationality and hard data. It’s akin to fear of flying, even though you’re almost 100x more likely to die from an auto accident than from flying. In fact, you’re three times as likely to die from choking on food as from flying. Yet, very few fear being in cars, and very few fear eating. Again, fear born of ignorance.

A meme, shared here, offered up by the fine folks at the Facebook page Refutations To Anti-Nuclear Memes, translates some data presented in a French study that demonstrates the public’s ignorance of nuclear power realities. France has long made most of its electric power from nuclear plants, but is in the process of shifting away from this clean and reliable source and towards the intermittent, unreliable, and dirtier wind and solar (and, almost certainly, with some sort of carbon energy production as backup for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine). Why would they do that to themselves? Simple ignorance, as demonstrated by the widely believed falsehoods listed in the meme.

Germany is engaged in the same self-destructive behavior, shutting down its nuclear power plants for reasons that are entirely political, i.e. politicians pandering to public ignorance.

Politicians’ first job, their real first job, is to get themselves elected. Their second job is to get themselves re-elected. Both those jobs are occasionally served by doing the right things, but they’re also quite often served by pandering to the segment of the electorate they think will give them the best chances at jobs #1 and #2. We shouldn’t trust them to tell us the truth, or to correct our ignorance.

Some do, and some try, but the power of emotion-based fear is, in the aggregate, stronger than that of logic- and fact-based rationality.

Mostly, though, they either initiate or propagate half-truths and outright lies to advance their agendas, and often rely on public ignorance or misinformation, especially when it comes to complex issues (e.g. global warming) or spooky things (e.g. nuclear power). Lobbyists, rent-seekers, and other agenda-driven people also leverage fear born of ignorance, for direct personal gain or to advance agendas (both overt and hidden).

Fear born of ignorance is a very difficult obstacle to overcome. It’s rooted in our survival instincts, in that subconscious part of our brains that translates unknowns into (an incorrectly) high probability of death. That it remains such a powerful aspect of both culture and politics serves as a reminder that we are not wholly rational beings, that we are not a society of Spocks, that we, individually, need to be ever-vigilant of being misled by our lizard brains, and that we, collectively, face a very difficult task in correcting popular misconceptions. Especially when others happily exploit on those misconceptions for personal benefit.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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