I attended a panel once about urban legends, where the famous story of Dihydrogen Monoxide was brought up. You probably know the story: a kid gets a bunch of people to sign a petition calling for a ban on “dihydrogen monoxide”, listing all kinds of horrific side effects and dangers of the chemical. Later on it is revealed that the dihydrogen monoxide is nothing but water.
I’m not particularly sure that this really counts as an urban legend, since Snopes.com points to a documented case of this happening. On the other hand, I’ve been hearing this story since I was in high school, so maybe this does count. For the purposes of the panel I was at, it did count as an urban legend.
The panelists asked the audience to consider what, if anything, this particular story might have to reveal about our culture. One of the panelists suggested that it contained a very subversive message; and that message was to distrust science. That message may indeed be there in this story, but is it a subversive one?
Brunvard, in The Vanishing Hitchhiker and elsewhere, suggests that most urban legends have a very morally conservative tone to them. The story of “The Hook”, for example, contains a warning to young people to not go “parking” with their boyfriends or girlfriends. The story of the “Hippie Babysitter” contains a strong warning against taking drugs. So for this story of Dihydrogen Monoxide, I would suggest that the message — not to trust science — is, in fact, a very socially conservative message. Our culture, I think, since the 50’s has become more and more anti-science, particularly after we saw the destruction wreaked upon the world by the atomic bomb, arguably the most visible evidence of scientific advancement. We have also seen the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, massive pollution of our water and air, and so on. I think that this has introduced a backlash against science. And this story seems to reinforce that message: You simply cannot trust scientists, because they don’t even speak English. Furthermore, stories like this seem to suggest that scientists aren’t even interested in communicating with the ordinary American, and might even go out of their way to deliberately confuse and make fun of them.
I think that there is also a religious backlash against science as well. Many people believe that scientific findings contradict the teachings of their faith and, so, undermine their faith. I don’t believe that this is necessarily true, but enough people believe this that there are major movements in the United States to alter science curricula in high schools to eliminate the teaching of evolution.
It seems to me, therefore, that rather than embracing a message of subversive distrust in science, this urban legend actually promulgates a reactionary conservative message of distrust in science.