Poe's Law

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Poe's Law states:

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.[1]

Poe's Law relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies thereof. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they may both espouse equally extreme beliefs. Poe's law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to be so over-the-top that they think he's a "deep cover liberal" trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes.

History

Poe's Law was originally formulated by Nathan Poe.[2] The law emerged at the creationism versus evolution forum on the website Christianforums.com. Like most such places, it had seen a large amount of creationist parody postings and these parody posts were usually followed by at least one user starting a flame war thinking it was a real post. Nathan Poe summarized this pattern in his original formulation of the law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.

The law caught on and has since slowly leaked out as an internet meme. Over time it has been reformulated to include more than just creationist parody but rather any parody of fundamentalism, whether religious, secular, or totally bonkers.

Expansion of the concept

Originally the law only made the claim that someone will mistake a parody of fundamentalism for the real thing. However, the usage of the law has grown to include three similar but different concepts:

  1. The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
  2. That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
  3. That anybody, not already in the grip of fundamentalist ideas, will mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalism for parody.

The most likely reason for this expansion is the tendency for people to call Poe's Law (see below under "Reception and usage") on any fundamentalist rant even before someone has responded negatively. After a while, when many sincere posts were called "Poe's Law", or when every parody got labeled "Poe's law", the concept naturally expanded. However the actual canonical definition has not changed to encompass the expanded usage, and a true Poe's Law fundamentalist could object to its usage beyond the original concept. (On the other hand, the objection itself could be parody.)

Poe paradox

The Poe Paradox is a corollary to Poe's Law. It states that:

"In any fundamentalist group where Poe's Law applies, a paradox exists where any new person (or idea) sufficiently fundamentalist to be accepted by the group, is likely to be so ridiculous that they risk being rejected as a parodist (or parody)."

The term was first used by RationalWiki editor The Lay Scientist to describe an apparent paradox in the management of editing rights at Conservapedia:

"Any new member of the CP project who's not as Conservative as them is liable to be chucked out. However, any new member who is as Conservative as them is in serious danger of being called a parodist, and chucked out. Is this the first living example of a Poe Paradox?"[3]

Formalizations of Poe's Law

Visual representation of one possible arrangement of state space for Poe's Law

Several attempts have been made at RationalWiki to formalize the various concepts that Poe's Law has been used for, and to explore its implications. Every formalization quickly highlights the need to define several parameters which alter when the observer or potential parody material changes. These parameters are:

  1. The basic likelihood for parody within the topic being written about and the location of its publication. Some topics are more likely to attract parodists, and some publication routes are more prone to parody than others.
  2. How extremist the material being analyzed is in comparison to the normal continuum of material published on that topic.
  3. The inherent bias of the observer, some people are more apt to see parody (or less likely to believe something can be real) than others.

One approach to formalization has been to use a Cartesian graph to visually represent the state space of when something which is perceived as either parody or real fundamentalism. The y-axis represents the bias of the observer, while the x-axis represents the intentions of the poster. One such example is illustrated to the right. In this case it is assumed that a more rational observer is more likely to see parody in fundamentalist positions than a fundamentalist observer is. The actual area taken up by perceived parody or fundamentalism will change depending on the background to the issue and the location of its publication.

The term has also been represented mathematically:[4]

\lim_{Fundamentalism \rightarrow \infty} Religion=Parody

Reception and usage

The use of the term is most common in the skeptical and science-based communities on Web 2.0. Many blogs, forums and wikis will often refer to the law when dealing with cranks of any stripe. It is most commonly used after a fundamentalist rant has been posted on a topic and people will rush to be the first to respond with "I call Poe's Law." Superior bragging rights can be earned by calling it first. It is also commonly used when linking to highly questionable rants by prefacing them with "Poe's Law strikes again" or just simply "Poe's Law."

Outside of Web 2.0 the law is far less known and probably rarely utilized. Wikipedia's article on Poe's Law has been deleted twice,[5] and currently it has also been removed from Wikipedia's list of "eponymous laws"[6] due to the nature of the source material containing Poe's Law (largely blogs, forums and wikis).[7]

Test yourself!

Three of the seven following sites are parodies, while the others are serious attempts at religious expression. Good luck choosing which are which!

Answers

ROT-13 encrypted answer: Encgher Ernql, gur sbhe fgrc cebbs, gur Ynfg Trarengvba genpg, naq Gvzr Phor ner frevbhf, gubhtu gur ynggre vf fb ovmneer gung bar jbhyq guvax vg vf n cnebql bs fbzr vaqvfpreavoyr oryvrs. Gur erfg ner cnebqvrf.[8]

Real-life examples

  • One Conservapedia editor, for some degree of time, explained transitional forms as genetic hybrids created by Noah's super technologically advanced peers.
  • AntiSpore was a recent example of Poe's Law, setting fire to the entire blogosphere which couldn't decide whether it was fake or not.
  • Conservapedia was, and still is, rife with such examples. For example this entry which remained for some time, and explained how exploding volcanoes in the Mt Ararat region were responsible for distributing animals after the flood.
  • Blogs 4 Brownback [9] seemed to really be an ultra-conservative Christian website - it even took us in.
  • Meanwhile, Answers in Genesis is, to the best of anyone's knowledge, serious business.
  • Now that you've had some practice, here's another test - is this a parody or not? (Warning: sometimes NSFW)
  • Various letters written into newpapers: For example this gem regarding global warming.
  • From a woman who can't quite grasp how to talk to her son about homosexuality to someone who says gravity is a myth because people don't orbit mountains, many of the Fundies Say the Darndest Things Top 100 certainly suffer from Poe's Law.
  • Science and Math Defeated - was taken as being real in RationalWiki:What is going on in the clogosphere? but StumbleUpon lists it as satire.[10]
  • Christwire.org, this level of racism, paranoia and Bush fellation cannot possibly be real... can it?

Known parodies

We out them here!

  • Baptists for Brownback— Now known as the Republican Faith Chat ("Conservative Christians ONLY. Liberals, Atheists Not Welcomed.")
  • Shelley the Republican— Obviously parody. Or is it?
  • Anti-Spore- Has disclosed its parody status with a very subtle note on a post on 09/11/2008.
  • Anything by Edward Current, although some YouTube commenters don't realise it.

Still unknown

  • We are still puzzling over whether this site is a a parody or not. This one too.

See also

Footnotes

  1. "Poe's Law" in the Urban Dictionary
  2. Nathan Poe's original post here.
  3. http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Conservapedia_Talk%3AWhat_is_going_on_at_CP%3F&diff=191625&oldid=191609
  4. Fun With Poe’s Law: Placing Blame in the Economic Crisis - Submitted to a Candid World
  5. 2nd AFD discussion for Poe's Law
  6. Wikipedia's list of eponymous laws. The list includes a separate Poe's law, as formulated by Edgar Allan Poe, concerning the ideal length of a poem.
  7. For a long and bitter discussion regarding the inclusion or non-inclusion of Poe's Law, including one or two familiar faces, see the list's talk page.
  8. Copy and paste to here to decipher, if you can't read ROT-13 easily.
  9. Blogs for Brownback
  10. Science and Math Defeated's listing at StumbleUpon
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