Saturday, September 04, 2010

Poe's Law Observed

In case you didn't know, here's an explanation of Poe's Law from Rational Wiki:

Poe's Law states:[1]
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing.
Poe's Law points out that it is hard to tell parodies of fundamentalism (or, more generally, any crackpot theory) from the real thing, since they both seem equally insane. Conversely, real fundamentalism can easily be mistaken for a parody of fundamentalism. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to be so over-the-top that they argue he's a "deep cover liberal" trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes. 

 Today's New York Times' "Beliefs" column (living up to its name) actually talks about the faux-Christian news site, and without mentioning Poe's Law, gives a classic example of it and the psychology surrounding it.

Bryan Butvidas is a software developer who works out of his house in Southern California. Kirwin Watson is a former Pepperdine student who moved back home to Kansas, where he now works “on the patient-care staff” of a local hospital. According to phone interviews with both men, they met online in 2005, when both were contributing to the news aggregator
They are fuzzy on the dates, but soon — “maybe it was 2007,” Mr. Butvidas offers — they were posting collaborative humor pieces on the Web. Mr. Butvidas bought the domain name, and the partners began to conceive the Web site that exists today, something like what The Onion would be if the writers cared mainly about God, gay people and how both influence the weather.
“The first real post that we let stay up,” Mr. Butvidas said, “was ‘Gays Raising Stink Over Rick Warren Prayer at Socialist Obama’s Inauguration,’ and that is dated Dec. 31, 2008.”
Today, the expanded editorial staff, who all work free, includes “six to eight other monitors, who keep an eye on things,” said Mr. Watson, “and 20 to 30 other regular writers.” Mr. Watson usually writes the pieces signed “Jack Gould.” Mr. Butvidas typically writes the pieces by “Tyson Bowers III,” whom you may know from Wednesday’s article, “Gays Now Using Santa to Entice Man Boy Love Relations"...

“There’s just rampant idiocy in the media sometimes,” Mr. Watson said. “People watch their favorite news channels, don’t question it and will regurgitate it the next day at the office. That is no good at all.”
“Our main culprit,” he adds, “is Fox News.”...

Marie Jon, who writes for the quite earnest conservative site, used to allow her stories to be reposted to ChristWire. After I called her for this column, her editor at RenewAmerica wrote a letter to ChristWire asking that Ms. Jon’s writing — and her picture, which had run between photographs of men identified as “Jack Gould” and “S. Billings” — be removed.
Later, in another telephone interview, Ms. Jon explained why she had allowed the satirical site to use her words.
“I thought if somebody comes and stumbles upon my article and reads something that is actually the truth, maybe they will get a blessing from it,” she said.
I asked her if she knew the site was satirical, and she indicated that she had not really paid attention. “I might have mistakenly contributed in the past,” she said, “because I didn’t know the site, and then shrugged my shoulders because I didn’t know how popular they were.” 

 That is the basic issue with Poe's Law: you have to pay attention in order to question it.  I do not think Poe's Law would apply to science, or even to Zen Buddhism, though I suppose in the latter case there are those who are good at faking sincerity and mindfulness.  I doubt it, though.  I think at some point Poe's Law operates because of a desire of people to want to have their biases confirmed, and that especially tends to get us into trouble.


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