It works every time, doesn’t it?

Every so often I come across a news story relevant to the subject matter usually encompassed by this blog that makes me shake my head in disbelief at the sheer stupidity. OK, every day, if you count the antivaccine movement and its attacks on papers like the one I wrote about Monday and yesterday. True, the constant barrage of pseudoscience, quackery, and generalized scientific ignorance that the antivaccine movement floods me with constantly threatens to drown out everything else, even from other areas of medicine. This one, however, caught my attention. It was about a joke done by two Florida DJs on April Fools Day earlier this week:

Two long-time deejays at Gator Country 101.9 FM who perpetrated a hoax on Monday morning involving Lee County water quality have been suspended indefinitely, a station official said.

Tony Renda, general manager at the Bonita Springs country music station, said he immediately pulled Val St. John and Scott Fish off the air when he heard about the April Fools’ Day joke they had been playing on their 5 to 9 a.m. morning show and then started having the joke recanted and an apology aired during station breaks.

“Every break we have we’re telling listeners it was a goof, a bad joke,” he said.

OK, we’ve heard this story before. Radio personalities or DJs pull a prank or broadcast fiction as though it were reality. People believe it. DJ gets in trouble. Sometimes DJ is fired. This sort of thing arguably goes back to Orson Welles doing H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds back in 1938 and earlier. So the question is: What was the April Fools’ Day prank? What was it that these two DJs were saying that freaked out their listeners so much and landed them in real hot water.

Ironically enough, it’s all about water. Really. That’s all it was about, nothing more than water. In fact, it was about dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), and the reaction to the prank these DJs pulled is an utter embarrassment. The radio station’s joke said, basically, “There’s water in your water!” It ended up getting the pair suspended:

The radio station’s joke involved that “dihydrogen monoxide” was coming out of county resident’s taps. Renda said that “dihydrogen monoxide” is water. Despite that, he said, “We have a responsibility to our listeners.”

A search on the internet showed that “dihydrogen monoxide” is an alternative way — and popular hoax term — to describe water.

The station’s news immediately got the attention of Patty DiPiero from Lee County Utilities. She said Lee County residents began calling the utility this morning saying they heard on the station that county water was unsafe and should not be used for drinking, showering or for any use.

Alright. We’re talking some serious scientific ignorance here. It’s also an old joke that’s been used many times before by people as varied as Penn & Teller to Internet skeptics like me. I think I’ve used the joke myself. If the listeners of that radio station are too stupid or ignorant to know that dihydrogen monoxide is water, is it the fault of the DJs? On the other hand, I can sort of see how the joke wouldn’t work if everyone knew that DHMO is water; so there has to be an assumption by whoever uses the DHMO joke that a significant number of people won’t know that DHMO is water. In fact, things escalated to the point that for a while there was real speculation that the DJs might be facing felony charges, as the water department was really pissed:

“They were joking that ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ was coming out of Lee County residents’ taps,” reports Florida’s WPTV, though it also remains unclear just how much the two hosts stoked the joke, and whether they actually told people to stop drinking the “dihydrogen monoxide” coming out of their taps. The WWGR station’s manager did have to issue a retraction — or at least a constant on-air admission that the gag was, in fact, a joke — even though St. John and Fish were technically correct that dihydrogen monoxide was, indeed, coming out of their taps.

“Every break we have we’re telling listeners it was a goof, a bad joke,” Tony Renda, general manager at WWGR radio told WTSP-TV. And apparently, the station, the water works, and perhaps the authorities are still trying to figure out if the two hosts could face felony charges for, again, reporting that the scientific name of water was coming out of the pipes. “My understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue,” Diane Holm, a public information officer for Lee County, told WTSP, while Renda stood firm about his deejays: “They will have to deal with the circumstances.”

I can sort of see the problem if the DJs had actually said that the water was unsafe to drink. However, if they only said that DHMO is coming out of your taps and said nothing about not drinking it or using it, I have a bit more of a problem understanding it.

Fortunately, the story appears to have a happy ending. The hosts, Val St. John and Scott Fish, were back on the air yesterday morning, and apparently the water department is not going to pursue the matter further:

Meanwhile, Diane Holm, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Lee County, told The Atlantic Wire that the department is “not pursuing any other charges.” Monday, Holm had said that it was her “understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue.” However, she told us today that “we were satisfied with the speed and the action that the station management took in all aspects.” She added: “They handled appropriately and expeditiously the discipline of the the DJs as well as the public notification. They immediately retracted indicated that the joke had been in poor taste and it was inaccurate, inappropriate and every break that day they aired that there were no problems with the water.”

The DJs’ joke was totally immature—think grade-school level—and yet remarkably successful. They warned listeners that dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of the taps in the Fort Myers area. Of course, dihydrogen monoxide is water, but people were so freaked that Lee County Utilities had to make a statement saying that their water is safe to drink.

I suppose that this is a grade school level prank in that many grade school level students probably know that water is dihydrogen monoxide because they learned it in their science class. Sadly, it would appear, most adults have no clue about something this simple, to the point that they freak out.

One wonders what other science-related pranks one could pull. Maybe we could warn people that their epidermis is showing. Or that photons are hitting their skin and entering their eyes. Or maybe that we’re all being bathed in neutrinos. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Of course, the reason that Penn & Teller and DJs like Val St. John and Scott Fish use the DHMO gambit is because it works. Sadly, it’s not just Florida. Our goal should be to improve science literacy to the point that the DHMO joke is never used any more because everybody knows that DHMO is water.