Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The nasty bite of Poe's Law

I have a love-hate relationship with Poe's Law.

Poe's Law, you probably know, is a rule of thumb named after Nathan Poe, who said in 2005, "The better a parody is, the harder it is to tell from the truth."

I love Poe's Law because the targets of parody and satire are often so richly deserving of it.  Consider one of the most fantastic parody sites out there -- The Onion -- which combines absolute hilarity with acid-tipped social and political commentary.  (One particularly trenchant example is that every time there is yet another mass shooting in the United States, The Onion has an article with the headline, "'No Way to Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.")

On the other hand, I hate Poe's Law because there is enough misinformation out there without waggish satirists adding to it.  The Law itself states that good satire will take people in; the point is to get people to say, "No, really?", at least for a moment.  But for some folks, that moment gets stretched out way too far, and you have people believing satire is the truth.

My favorite example of this -- once again from The Onion -- is the pearl-clutching woman who wrote an outraged letter to the editor of Reader's Digest after they did an interview with J. K. Rowling.  "How can you give this woman more publicity?" the letter-writer said.  "This is supposed to be a magazine that supports conservative morals and values.  J. K. Rowling is an avowed practitioner of black magic.  She has overseen the baptism of thousands of children into the Church of Satan.  There was a major exposé of Rowling's evil activities a couple of months ago in The Onion."

The editor of Reader's Digest, showing admirable restraint, printed the letter, responding only with, "The Onion is a satirical news source, not meant to be taken as fact."

The "hate" side of the ledger got another entry yesterday, when a frequent reader and contributor to Skeptophilia sent me a message about Tuesday's post, which was about a scientific study showing that people are more likely to follow absurd directives than reasonable ones.  The message said, "Um, Gord... I think that site is satire.  Check the 'About' section."

He then pointed out that the lead researcher, Fiona Hayes-Verhorsihs, has a ridiculous name.  Say it out loud.

Yup.  "Hay's for horses."  Funny thing, given my background in linguistics, that this bit of the joke went past me so fast it didn't even ruffle my hair.  I figured the last part of her name was some obscure surname, perhaps Dutch or Afrikaans by the look of it, and didn't give it any further thought.

Suffice it to say that the fellow who sent me the comment is right.  I got bitten in the ass by Poe's Law.  Not the first time this has happened, nor (I suspect) will it be the last.  I didn't really dig too hard into the antecedents of the story; if I had, I'd have realized my error pretty quickly.  The problem is, the conclusion of the faux study -- that people can be pretty irrational at times -- was something I've written about many times before, and I have no real doubt that the general point is true.  So when the study by Professor Hay's-For-Horses popped up, I didn't even question it.

Meaning that I not only fell for Poe's Law, I fell for confirmation bias.

Of course, I'm in good company.  Pravda and Xinhua have both been hoodwinked by hoax stories that sounded plausible.

But so has Fox News.  So maybe "good company" isn't the best way to phrase it.

Anyhow, once this post is up, I'll take the old one down.  I'd rather not add to the morass of wacky stuff online, and find out that someone else has mentioned the absurdity study -- and cited Skeptophilia as the source.  All of which has me rededicating myself to being careful about my own research, as should we all.  Check your sources, look for corroboration, see if you can find out the credentials of the people cited -- all before you post, like, or retweet a link.

And that goes double if you're the author of a blog devoted to rational thinking.


I've been interested for a long while in creativity -- where it comes from, why different people choose different sorts of creative outlets, and where we find our inspiration.  Like a lot of people who are creative, I find my creative output -- and my confidence -- ebbs and flows.  I'll have periods where I'm writing every day and the ideas are coming hard and fast, and times when it seems like even opening up my work-in-progress is a depressing prospect.

Naturally, most of us would love to enhance the former and minimize the latter.  This is the topic of the wonderful book Think Like an Artist, by British author (and former director of the Tate Gallery) Will Gompertz.  He draws his examples mostly from the visual arts -- his main area of expertise -- but overtly states that the same principles of creativity apply equally well to musicians, writers, dancers, and all of the other kinds of creative humans out there. 

And he also makes a powerful point that all of us are creative humans, provided we can get out of our own way.  People who (for example) would love to be able to draw but say they can't do it, Gompertz claims, need not to change their goals but to change their approach.

It's an inspiring book, and one which I will certainly return to the next time I'm in one of those creative dry spells.  And I highly recommend it to all of you who aspire to express yourself creatively -- even if you feel like you don't know how.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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