Being a better skeptic and a better satirist

Steven here….

Poe’s Law was coined by Nathan Poe in 2005 and states:
“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 it for the genuine article.”

Because of the similarity between parody sites such as Landover Baptist and actual fundamentalist sects, skeptics tend to jump to Poe’s Law as a quick cut-and-paste response to anything religious with the same speed you’d see them recite the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment when debating a theocrat.

In breaking down bad arguments observed at the Texas Freethought Convention, PZ Myers spells out why Poe’s Law is a minimizing tactic for people confronted with irrationality, and is a bad excuse people give for writing awful satire. I agree with him, and I’m a comedy writer who specializes in writing over-the-top characters.
PZ said:

“Oh, and for anyone who tries to mimic creationists, Republicans, or Christians as a clever mockery of their beliefs, if it isn’t clear what you’re doing, don’t try to dignify it as a “Poe” — all it is is bad fucking satire. Satire is a good and historically authentic method of speaking against power and foolishness, but if your schtick can’t be distinguished from the real thing, it’s contributing to the crapfest of idiocy we’re already drowning in, rather than opposing it.
So just stop it.”

Where my point of view diverges from PZ’s is that I think Poe’s Law is still useful as a term. But only if we use the term in a slightly different way. Rather than using it as a casual dismissal, I believe its absence should be one of the metrics on which the success of satire is measured. When someone tells me that I’ve invoked Poe’s Law, I now use that as a clue that I need to do a re-write of the article in question to either clarify my point or make the joke funnier. I used to find it hilarious to get a comment like this:

But as a comedy writer, I want to make more people laugh than just myself and the people making fun of the oblivious commenter. The problem is that good satire should make the reader laugh and make them think. And if they miss the point of the article and didn’t get the joke, you failed on both counts. I’ve made a concerted effort to improve the quality of my satire since I first started writing comedy, because I really do feel that mockery and humor can help illustrate why an argument is bad in a way that just presenting a syllogism alone can’t. I think I did a decent job making fun of creationist arguments against the Big Bang in this post:

“Cosmetologists are pretty stupid scientists by the way. I was reading through a copy of Cosmo, and it didn’t even bother to explain the Big Bang. Instead it just kept using ad hoc explanations of how to please your man. Look, scientists, I’m onto your bullshit! If you guys don’t understand how the universe works, don’t dress up your lack of understanding with sex.”

In that post I use humor to point out that creationists are using the Argument from Ignorance fallacy with their first cause arguments for God, and dismiss scientific evidence by arguing against a strawman. I could have just said that sentence, or quoted a real creationist. But by making “Harry Trunckles” just a little too stupid to be believable, I was able to draw people in who would otherwise have assumed it was a real creationist and closed the window without reading the rest of the post.

There will always be people who don’t get the joke, let alone the point you were trying to make. Even the most skilled satirists will encounter this. Probably the biggest problem with what PZ proposes is that no one starts out as a master. You have to try and fail a lot before you get good at something, and writing comedy is no different. I don’t want to discourage people from trying their hand at satire. A good approach for newbies would probably be to have other people read over your posts more frequently when you’re just starting out, that way you can catch Poe’s Law before you contribute to the problem of stupidity online.

Coming from the audience’s end, if you encounter an argument that triggers Poe’s Law, I suggest dealing with it as though it were the genuine article. The very worst thing that can happen is that you can be made fun of for taking a serious-sounding argument at face value. That is still worth something to the people observing your takedown if you’re demonstrating how to apply logic and reason to a bad argument. And besides, as the saying goes: “Skeptics gonna skept.” Or something like that.

I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
You can also follow me on Facebook or that bird thing.

  • invivoMark

    I think The Onion has written a lot of articles lately, particularly about Romney and the Republican party, which, if not branded with the helpful image of a green bulb, could certainly fail to pass muster according to PZ’s criterion.

  • machintelligence

    I always thought that the point of Poe’s law was that if you try to satirize a creationist using “over the top” satire, you find that there is no top.

    • John Horstman

      That’s it exactly; the expanded version states that it is impossible to satirize extremism of any form (the original formulation was specifically about religious fundamentalism) without someone taking the satire as a serious argument. I’ve proposed that with respect to some topics, we’ve crossed Poe’s Event Horizon, the point at which the population of true extremists is large/vocal enough that it becomes universally impossible to distinguish satire from honestly-held positions. My biggest issue with the whole Poe idea is that people are mis-applying it to intentional sock-puppet representations, people trying to accurately mimic e.g. creationists. But really, PZ’s just gonna have to deal; I don’t jump down someone’s throat every time ze uses “they” as a singular noun, and I don’t complain to managers at supermarkets with “15 items or less” signs. Language be dynamic, yo, and prescriptivism with respect to non-technical terms is wack.

  • Michael

    Kudos for coining “Skeptics gonna skept.” Very nice.


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