By Keir Liddle
The internet is home to a variety of memes, rules and laws, from Rickrolling to Godwin’s law. One such law that skeptics can be particularly susceptable to is Poe’s law, which states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.” Recently, Martin Robbins ran a story on USB sticks being banned by evangelical christians in Brazil, which turned out to be a Poe.
I have a degree of sympathy for Martin, having been taken in myself by a Poe, specifically the “ever dream of this man” meme,which turned out to be a site registered to an Andrea Natella – the creative director of guerrigliamarketing.it and was pretty much hoax-tastic. We are all human and we all make mistakes – and, in fairness, Martin did offer a disclaimer:
Here’s the story, though be aware that aside from being repeated on a bunch of Brazilian websites, I’ve yet to find much to back it up, so if this turns up on Snopes don’t blame me.
This has ignited a debate on twitter regarding whether the disclaimer was enough to excuse publishing the article before all the facts were in, and how much egg Martin Robbins had on his face due to writing this piece criticising a similar media story which lacked a basis in reality. Antony Cox (@Coxar) has also covered this on his blog here. The debate about whether Martin made a mistake or not is superficially interesting, and could serve as an object lesson to skeptical bloggers everywhere, but to my mind it is not the biggest issue with the piece.
The story is essentially a cheap laugh at those wacky religious types and their craaaazy ideas. In itself I don’t have a massive problem with this – satire and humour are not things I object to skeptics or atheists or whoever using to make a point. I don’t even necessarily have a problem if such a thing is used to make no point with the important caveat that appropriate consideration is given to the audience of the piece, and the heading under which it is published.
To my mind, publishing a story about a Christian sect rejecting technology under the science heading of a respected newspaper is a massive faux pas at best, and has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes of skeptics, atheists and scientists as elitist and sneering at worst. The article, even were the tale told not a Poe, is not appropriate for a science section: for one thing it is remarkably light on “science”; it is basically one (reasonably amusing in fairness) joke, and a translation of someone else’s joke. In short, it is nothing more than a puff piece.
Which is a shame, because there were many things that perhaps the piece could have touched on depending on whether the story was real or not. The most obvious thing would have been to raise the debate about science versus religion (although that has been done to death elsewhere and might have seemed a little tedious). It could have explored the psychology of belief or of sects to try and explain why people believe bizarre things. It could even have suggested alternative storage means that the sect could utilise after rejecting USBs (although that might still be a little tenuous under a “science” heading).
When it became apparent that the story was a spoof, there was a golden opportunity to write a piece detailing how we can ALL be fooled: that skepticism doesn’t give us magical powers to sniff out and reject bullshit. That we are all prone to being taken in by things like this, and that we aren’t always as rational or diligent about seeking evidence or proof as we might like to think we are. I half hope that perhaps Martin’s next article takes this tack, as it would be fantastic to see a prominent skeptic and science communicator in the media come out and say “I was wrong”. Indeed, I recommend that he have a look at the excellent book “Mistakes were made, but not by me” if he wishes to follow that advice.
We are all human and we all make mistakes. However, Martin’s big mistake was not being taken in (or otherwise depending on where you stand on the disclaimer), it was in thinking that the story was ever appropriate under the heading science in the first place.