Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poe's Law is unflattering

Poe's Law says that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so ridiculous that it won't be mistaken for the real thing.  Alternatively, it says that it is impossible (or very difficult) to distinguish between sincere religious fundamentalism and a parody.

PZ Myers recently came down against Poe's Law, and said he was sick of people referring to it.  This surprises me because as far as I know, PZ is still the most widely read atheist blogger, and I see commenters on atheist blogs referring to Poe's Law all the time.  People are always saying "It's a poe," which either means, "It's another parody that fooled us," or, "This is yet another instance where it's hard to tell whether it's a parody or not."

I don't agree with PZ Myers' argument:
Declaring something to be a “poe” is a minimizing tactic; it’s a way to pretend that a real problem doesn’t exist. Are you really going to try to delude yourself and others into thinking that the Tea Party, Fox News, and the whole goddamned Repuclican party are an act put on by snarky liberals?
That's not really the impression I get.  When people call something a Poe, I don't think they are trying to deny the craziness of conservative religion.

In fact, my impression is the opposite.  What people mean is, "Okay, well maybe this time it was just satire, but the fact that some among us were fooled is a testament to how crazy fundamentalists have gotten!"

In other words, calling something a Poe is not a way of denying how crazy religion is.  It's a way of taking satire, which is something that constitutes no evidence whatsoever, and twisting it into still more confirmation that religion is crazy.

Instead of turning satire into confirmation bias, there are far more unflattering conclusions we can draw.  For instance, we could conclude that the person declaring "It's a Poe" is so unfamiliar with the fundamentalism they oppose, that they can't recognize it when they see it!  Or we could conclude that they are unable to recognize humor or unable to recognize sincerity.  Or perhaps satirists of religious fundamentalism are generally incompetent.

Poe's Law, it's just a stupid internet meme.  People like it because it's a common cultural touchstone.  But like most stupid internet memes, its only value is self-referential emptiness.