Every now and then I still encounter someone who thinks the Dread Tyrant Trump told people to drink or inject themselves with bleach. That’s a mere annoyance: if people still believe that ridiculousness at this point, I’m obviously not going to be able to talk or write them out of it.
But from time to time I still hear or read references to Americans who actually did drink or inject bleach because (something something something) Trump. The people dropping these references can get very emotional about all the needless suffering and death brought about during the dark days when innocent Americans began mainlining Clorox because (something something) Trump.
Those people are harder to deal with because I don’t actually know whether anyone was actually stupid enough to follow the advice the media falsely claimed the president had given. The president himself never said it. The media only said he had because it was just so much fun to beat him up over yet another thing he’d never actually said, so whenever they mentioned it they took great pains to emphasize how reckless and stupid it would be to drink or inject bleach. There was therefore no one publicly endorsing this idea. But if people had in fact actually died from drinking bleach to prevent covid, where did they get the idea?
The topic came up at a lunch with friends this weekend and we were all sort of scratching our heads over it. Had people actually died from drinking or injecting bleach? If so, why—and how many? If not, why did so many people seem to think they had?
We mulled it over, shrugged, and move on to other subjects.
Later that evening Herself sent me a link that explained it all.
Did 4% of Americans Really Drink Bleach Last Year?
Rachel Hartman, Harvard Business Review, 20 Apr 2021
Yes, it’s an oldie—but definitely also a goodie.
Early in the summer of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report on unsafe coronavirus prevention practices in the U.S. According to the report, 4% of the 502 respondents stated that they had drunk or gargled diluted bleach in the last month, 4% said the same about soapy water, and 4% said the same about household disinfectant. This quickly inspired a number of alarming headlines. (Reuters, for example, headlined one piece: “Gargling with bleach? Americans misusing disinfectants to prevent coronavirus.”)
That alone made me feel better: probably it had just been headlines like that giving people the idea that there’d been a Clorox holocaust back in 2020. It was speculative, not actual.
This media response was understandable. While 4% may not seem like much, if this study sample was representative of the U.S. population, it would imply that roughly 12 million Americans engaged in these dangerous behaviors — an alarming figure indeed.
Hartman addresses some grounds for skepticism about the findings, including problems with the methodology, before getting to the good stuff:
…(a) new study from online research platform CloudResearch sought to address two major issues that can threaten data quality: inattentiveness (i.e., respondents that are careless or aren’t paying attention) and mischievousness (i.e., respondents who intentionally lie or mislead researchers). Psychologists who study relatively rare behaviors, such as hard drug use, have long known about these challenges. For example, in one study on drug use from back in 1973, researchers found that when they included a fake drug in the list of drugs they asked people about, 4% of respondents reported taking a drug that didn’t exist, suggesting that the data was likely not totally reliable.
It gets better:
You might have noticed the reoccurring 4% figure. It turns out, that might not be a coincidence. Prominent psychiatrist and blogger Scott Siskind coined it the “Lizardman’s Constant” back in 2013, in reference to a widely publicized Public Policy Polling report that 4% of respondents said they believed shape-shifting lizard people were controlling the world. This poll garnered a lot of attention in the media, including headlines like this one: “Conspiracy craze: why 12 million Americans believe alien lizards rule us.” But Siskind and others argue that that 4% is a lot more likely to reflect inattentive and mischievous respondents than a true belief in such an outlandish conspiracy.
I’m adding “Lizardman’s Constant” into my handy-dandy statistical analysis toolkit immediately and recommend you do the same. But I’m not as confident as Scott Siskind that the conspiracy is so outlandish: remember, there’s an actual Norwegian princess dating an avowed Reptilian.
Anyway, researchers trying to verify the CDC findings put together a new survey to try and replicate the results with a more definitive approach:
After asking the same questions as the CDC survey, researchers had participants complete a short word association exercise (i.e., circle the unrelated word from a list) to test for attentiveness. These questions were designed to be very easy for anyone with a basic English reading level to get right, as long as they were paying attention. Next, to target mischievous respondents, the researchers asked “reality check” questions: questions with only one reasonable answer, such as “Have you died of a heart attack?” or “Have you ever used the internet?” (The survey was distributed online.)
Finally, as an additional quality control measure, anyone who said “yes” to ingesting household chemicals was asked a series of follow-up questions: They had to confirm that they had intentionally selected “yes,” and then provide some additional details about the context in which they ingested the chemicals.
Momentary interruption here: Isn’t the genuinely interesting thing here the fact that the American government—the “follow the science” people at the CDC—hadn’t already realized that online surveys might require rigorous controls to ensure integrity and validity? There was no one at the CDC sober enough to realize that some people might not be entirely honest on an online survey?
You know what? I bet there was. I bet it went like this:
Sober CDC guy: We’ll have to do something to be sure people are being honest with us.
CDC Team leader: We’ll just have them check a box saying that their responses are true and honest.
Sober CDC guy: How do we know they’re being honest when they check the box saying they’re honest?
CDC Team leader: People can’t lie if they’ve checked a box saying they’re being honest. What kind of world would that be? All we have to do is throw out all the surveys from the people who don’t check the honesty box.
Sober CDC guy: Good point. I’m in.
And at last we get to the findings.
They collected data from a total of 688 participants. Of these, 55 (8%) stated that they had ingested at least one of three household cleaning chemicals (disinfectant, soap, or bleach) — a similar result as reported by the CDC. But of those 55, only 12 passed the basic quality control questions. In other words, almost 80% (43 out of 55) of respondents who claimed to have ingested a toxic chemical did not accurately identify simple related words, and/or gave completely implausible answers to the reality check questions.
That left 12 apparent chemical drinkers who passed the quality control questions. Did they really drink bleach? If so, it would only be 1.7% of the sample, but that would still represent millions of Americans.
So is that the answer? More than 5.6 million Americans actually drank or gargled with household cleaners in 2020?
When asked to confirm whether they had in fact ingested household chemicals, 11 of the 12 stated that they had selected the “yes” option by mistake.
Whew! Okay, so that means it was just one person out of 688. That’s just 0.15%—extrapolate that out to the American population and it’s not even half a million people. Still not good, but not terrifying.
And the one remaining participant — who verified that they had intentionally selected “yes” — responded to the question asking for more detail with “Yxgyvuguhih.” They also reported being 20 years old, having 4 children, weighing 1,900 pounds, and having a height of “100.” (They did not provide units, but neither inches nor centimeters are very plausible). Needless to say, these responses call into question the validity of the final participant’s data.
Not only do they call the validity into question, they make me laugh out loud every time I read them. Mainly because I’m imagining a conference room full of earnest scientists in lab coats listening with furrowed brows and rapt attention, possibly twirling #2 pencils between the twitchy fingers of their scientific hands, while Research Assistant #3 is droning through the results on a great big flag screen covering one wall of the room.
And finally she looks up from her clipboard and says:
“There was one participant who passed the quality control questions, confirmed they had intentionally indicated that they’d consumed or gargled with household cleaning products, and completed all of the follow up questions.”
“Good lord, ” exclaims Senior Scientist With Extraordinarily Bushy Eyebrows, “that means there could be half a million Americans chugging Clorox!”
The other scientists are gasping and shaking their heads.
“Tell us how they responded to the follow up questions,” prods the Empathetic Scientist, a woman in her middle forties who looks like she might have her own OnlyFans MILF channel on the side.
A pained expression crosses Research Assistant #3’s face as she glances back down at her clipboard—less to look for the answer than to hide her shame.
“I don’t know how to say it,” she says weakly.
“Good lord,” exclaims ole Bushy Eyebrows, “is it that bad?”
Research Assistant #3 shakes her head slowly from side to side.
“I just don’t know how to say it,” she says again.
She drops the clipboard and hurries out of the room.
“It’s okay,” Empathetic Scientist says, rising. “She’s been under a lot of pressure.”
Empathetic Scientist crosses over to the fallen clipboard and picks it up.
The room is utterly silent as the other scientists watch her review the papers on the clipboard.
“Ah,” she says. “She was being literal. In the text box where respondents are asked to provide details, this respondent just typed in a random string of letters clustered around the center left of an American keyboard.”
“Good lord,” Bushy Eyebrows exclaims, “just when we’re about to get the information we need, a cat jumps on his keyboard!”
“What horrible timing!” groans one of the junior scientists who isn’t even worthy of a quick character sketch.
“We can’t assume it’s a he,” says the Empathetic MILF. “Although I don’t think many women weigh 1900 pounds.”
“That’s a dude,” unnamed junior scientist says knowingly.
“Good lord,” Bushy Eyebrows says, “But that explains it! Anyone that obese wouldn’t stand a chance against this virus, no wonder he was panicking!”
“It gets worse,” Empathetic MILF says. “He’s got four kids. Those poor children!”
“He did it for them,” said a previously silent young female scientist. “He wants to be there for them.”
Empathetic MILF nods in agreement.
“And he’s only twenty. A teen father,” she says.
“Twenty years old with four kids, I’d pack the pounds on, too,” says unnamed junior scientist. “I’d be the size of this conference table.”
“I was just Googling,” says the obnoxious senior scientist with the inappropriate sense of humor, “and the heaviest known person was 974 pounds at his largest. I’m not sure I trust that 1900 pound number from our respondent.”
Obnoxious and Inappropriate raises his eyebrows suggestively at Empathetic MILF, whose skin crawls.
“But, you know, 190 pounds—that’s not crazy. Maybe just an extra zero slipped in there? I mean, if he’s a tall guy, 190 can be perfectly healthy.”
Empathetic MILF glances down at the clipboard.
“His height is 100,” she says.
“Good lord,” exclaims Bushy Eyebrows, “one hundred inches—the man is over nine feet tall!”
“That’s ridiculous,” says Obnoxious and Inappropriate. “He’s obviously using the metric system.”
“Then he’d weigh over 400 pounds and be like three feet tall,” unnamed junior scientist says.
“Good lord,” Bushy Eyebrows exclaims, and he rises to his feet. “A morbidly obese dwarf whose childhood was taken away from him because he became a teenaged parent. Of course he was guzzling Clorox!”
Yeah, okay, that’s enough. Sorry.
So how many Americans actually ingested bleach to ward off the coronavirus? We don’t really know. We would need more research to reliably answer that question, but the fact that the percentage dropped from 4% to 0% after accounting for basic data quality issues suggests that the real number is most likely a lot lower than headlines would suggest.