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Poe's Law

Nathan Poe labeled the following comment he made on Christian Forums as "Poe's 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 expression has since gone viral.

Poe's Law explains, in part, how I was once hoaxed by my online editor John Renish. John sent me a link to a website along with the cryptic note: “I do like the part about how women are different from men.” I looked at the website and it claims to be a report on the Fellowship Baptist Creation Science Fair 2001. I went to the part about how women are different from men and found an essay that supposedly won second place in the Middle School Division called “Women Were Designed for Homemaking” by Jonathan Goode (grade 7):

  • physics shows that women have a lower center of gravity than men, making them more suited to carrying groceries and laundry baskets;
  • biology shows that women were designed to carry unborn babies in their wombs and to feed born babies milk, making them the natural choice for child rearing;
  • social sciences show that the wages for women workers are lower than for normal workers, meaning that they are unable to work as well and thus earn equal pay;
  • and, exegetics shows that Abraham's god [AG] created Eve as a companion for Adam, not as a coworker.

Given other things I believe about fundamentalist creationists, it was not outside the bounds of credibility for me that some poor kid might actually believe this stuff and be encouraged to believe it by his elders. On the other hand, what better way to teach children that faith requires belief in impossible things and in things that are unknowable than by first teaching them to defend absurdities in front of their classmates? By this method they can learn humility and prepare themselves for the mockery that awaits them in the reality-based world.Patricia Lewis displays her jar of non-living material, still non-living after three weeks.

The caption under the first-prize winner’s picture reads: “Patricia Lewis displays her jar of non-living material, still non-living after three weeks.”

Even the notion that such an experiment would be thought relevant to the belief that life doesn’t come from non-life isn’t that farfetched when you consider some of the other things some creationists teach their children. Furthermore, by parodying those who would mock Jesus, Patricia exemplifies the budding Christian warrior who will one day be able to explain her faith in simple terms, understandable by all: The most powerful being imaginable created people who didn't obey his commands so he killed most of them; the new batch wasn't any better so he sent himself to Earth in human form and had himself killed for all the evil things his creatures had done.

john the baptistIn any case, if you dig around a bit on the Fellowship Baptist website there are signs that, if viewed by atheists, might appear indicative of an elaborate hoax. For example, there is the advice to dress up like John the Baptist on Halloween, scare kids when they come trick-or-treating, and send them off with no candy and a Bible tract. A true Christian might do this, however, if he thought he was doing AG's will. No true Christian would give a kid in a devil or witch costume candy, especially on Halloween, which is Satan's day.

The man responsible for this hoax site is Chris Harper, who even included a page attacking the Landover Baptist Church's website as "one of the more vile and dangerous misuses of the Internet: using it to mock Our Lord Jesus Christ, His teachings, and His followers." Harper should know. He created the Landover Baptist Church website, where he continues his mocking of the Bible and its infallible truths such as the one in Ezekiel 23:20.

Being hoaxed by my editor reminded me that it is people you trust who can most easily mislead you, because you let your guard down and aren’t critical enough. If you’re trying to avoid being duped, here’s lesson number one: Don’t trust people you trust! Unfortunately, this rule is very hard to follow. One reason it is hard to follow is that Satan is a very tricky fellow and often appears as a sheep in wolf's clothing. Or is it a wolf in sheep's clothing? Anyway, Satan wears many disguises and can even trick an experienced exorcist if he gets too cocky.

Poe's Law, through widespread Internet usage, has evolved to refer to any parody that is indistinguishable from what it parodies without some sort of overt signal from the author as to his or her intent. A common explanation for this phenomenon is that the more extreme a position becomes the easier it is to parody and the more difficult it is to tell a parody from the real thing. This may be true, but one should not underestimate the power of Satan to deceive us. A true Christian should be able to distinguish real fundamentalism from a parody of it. Even in areas that don't deal with extreme religious views, there should be ways other than winking smileys or direct disclaimers that a person can use to tell the real from the fake blonde, so to speak.

For example, I was duped recently by a post on the blog Pharyngula by PZ Myers, a blogger I have come to trust over the years. The header for the hoax was Holy crap, Texas, how can you stand your governor? Myers ridicules a piece in the Burnt Orange Report, apparently a generally non-satirical site focusing on Texas politics. The piece is titled Governor Rick Perry Urges Republican Voters to Abandon Public Schools by Libby Shaw. The opening lines read:

Rick Perry prevailed upon Republicans to withdraw their children from the state's elementary and secondary public schools while giving a keynote address to a group of Texas conservative business leaders at a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Houston.

The piece goes on in this vein, including the following:

I am concerned that some the highly diverse Magnet public schools in this city are becoming hotbeds for liberalism. Do we really need free school bus service, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, ESL, special needs and enrichment programs like music, art or math Olympiad? I think we should get back to the basics of the three Rs, reading writing and arithmetic. I mean when is the last time a 6th grade science fair project yielded a cure for a disease?

Myers wrote in his defense: "I was only caught because it's a hair's breadth from reality." That, plus the fact that neither he nor I read the disclaimer at the top of the article: "A nice bit of snark & satire for your Friday... - promoted by Phillip Martin."

There seems to be only one logical explanation for how Myers was duped by Martin and I was duped by both Myers and Martin: AG must have intervened—or Satan (it's hard to tell the difference sometimes because Satan is so sneaky)—and closed our eyes to the disclaimer so we'd make fools of ourselves and give creationists a good laugh at our expense. It is true that the Texas state board of education has been trying to rewrite American history and instill Christian fundamentalist beliefs into its curriculum. The former chairman of the board wrote a book called Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences' Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They're Descended from Reptiles. So, while both Myers and I have difficulty in seeing a difference between the extremism in Texas and a parody of it because of recent events involving its board of education, we both know that parodies exist and that making fun of people is one of the great joys of writing. Thus, we should have been armed and on guard against such an obvious hoax. In any case, I would rather blame AG than take personal responsibility for my being duped. After all, AG is responsible for everything that is, that it is and that it is as it is. And he sent himself to be killed for our sins after making creatures that would rather sin than spend every moment worshipping him. We must have really bruised his ego to have instigated such self-destructiveness.

RationalWiki has collected many examples of Poe's Law. The best example is Poe's Law from Conservapedia, which generalizes the law to read: "It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity." That was my exact thought when I discovered Conservapedia.

See also Sokal hoax, Frauds, Hoaxes, Conspiracies and "Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World." Robert Carroll (2004). Skeptical Inquirer. volume 28, No. 4. July/August, pp. 41-46.

further reading

Chicago-area Catholic priest exorcist says devil is real. An exorcist whose job is to chase devils says devils are real. Really?

Westboro Baptist Church

Musical Cult Control: The Rockefeller Foundation’s War on Consciousness Through the Imposition of A=440hz Standard Tuning

Colbert Roasts President Bush - 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner

Betty Bowers

Ted Gunderson's conspiracy theories seem like parodies.

Even more bizarre and indistinguishable from parody are the beliefs of the folks at nSearch

Last updated 15-Jan-2014

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