Of truths and half-truths : The Tribune India

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Of truths and half-truths

Of truths and  half-truths

Photo for representation. File photo



Usha Bande

THE word ‘Zohnerism’ came to mind when I read the report that the Indian Council of Medical Research had taken umbrage at the misleading nutrition claims on food packages and advised companies to avoid deceptive expressions.

Zohnerism is an eponym born in a classroom. It is not about falsehood, nor is it about advertisements. It is basically about our gullibility and failure to recognise misleading half-truths. It is about the use of facts twisted deftly to lead the public to false conclusions.

In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a student of Junior High School, Ohio (US), presented his science project on di-hydrogen monoxide as a dangerously toxic chemical that is present in acid rain. When vaporous, it can cause burns; it corrodes iron and kills thousands of people annually. He proposed that it should be banned. His classmates readily agreed with him and 43 out of 50 students raised hands in favour of the ban.

Nathan then surprised his classmates with another revelation — di-hydrogen monoxide is nothing but water (H2O) and he was not advocating a ban on it. He narrated the truth by means of a palpable untruth — water causes burns, acid rain, floods and so on — to show how proven facts can be warped to persuade people into believing false statements. Journalist James K Glassman coined the word Zohnerism in recognition of Zohner’s innovative experiment.

Zohnerism is a pointer towards our naivety. We gullibly accept the selectively packaged narratives transmitted to us through print and electronic media as well as social media. With self-serving falsehood and disinformation, a new kind of reality is created which appears genuine. Based on it, we frame our perspectives on almost everything as a nation — religion, violence, harmony, progress, development and the like. The ‘convenient’ truths are presented subtly to shape our opinions and assessments.

The Mahabharata epsiode in which Ashwatthama dies and Yudhishtir confirms it with the line ‘Naro-va, kunjaro-va’ (it could be a man or an elephant) is a glaring example of Zohnerism. Likewise, Mark Antony, in his famous speech that begins with ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’, twists the language to his advantage and successfully manipulates public opinion in his favour in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

Zohnerism is an eccentric word but it bristles with ingenuity and holds a mirror to our ignorance; it offers us a powerful reminder to detect the invisible ploy that may take us for a ride. It chuckles at our naivety and awakens us to our power to discern and not accept things at face value.


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