Poe’s Law

Similar to Murphy’s Law, Poe’s Law concerns internet debates, particularly regarding religion or politics.

“Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

In other words, No matter how bizzare, outrageous, or just plain idiotic a parody of a Fundamentalist may seem, there will always be someone who cannot tell that it is a parody, having seen similar REAL ideas from real religious/political Fundamentalists.

The following is an actual Internet post to Biblically defend a flat Earth:

“All I was saying was that either the earth is flat, and the bible is correct, or the earth is round, and the bible is incorect, i’m going to study the issue more and deside for myself which route I want to take. Either Atheist evolutionist, who agrees with all of mainstream sciences, or flat earth litteral bible believer.

I’m leaning toward being an atheist, because if I can’t believe the bible to be completly litteraly true, then I can’t believe Jesus when he speaks about heaven, etc..That would make the moon landing a fake, and pretty much all of modern science false…”

Response:

“That’s it, I’m claiming Poe’s Law on this guy.”
parody debate humor fundamentalism creationism
by Nathan Poe
“Poe’s Law” is a Christian theological principle that states: “Elements of the Gospel speak to different levels of spiritual concern in different cultures at different times.” It is taught to modern evangelists as a way to better target the message of the Gospel to different audiences for maximum salvific efficacy. The law was named after theologian Dr. Harry Lee Poe, a cousin of Edgar Allan Poe, who promoted the concept in his book “The Gospel and Its Meaning: A Theology for Evangelism and Church Growth.”

According to Poe’s Law, we should emphasize the radical aspect of Jesus in order to appeal to today’s spirited youths.

Poe’s Law states:
“Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing”

Poe’s Law relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies of it. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they both sound equally ridiculous. The law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to be so over-the-top that they think he’s a “deep cover liberal” trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes.

History

Poe’s Law was originally formulated by Nathan Poe. The law emerged at the creationism versus evolution forum on the website Christianforums.com. Like most such places, it had seen a large amount of creationist parody postings and these parody posts were usually followed by at least one user starting a flame war thinking it was a real post. Nathan Poe summarized this pattern in his original formulation of the 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 law caught on and has since slowly leaked out as an internet meme. Over time it has been reformulated to include more than just creationist parody but rather any parody of fundamentalism, whether religious, secular, or totally bonkers.

Expansion of the concept

Originally the law only made the claim that someone will mistake a parody of fundamentalism for the real thing. However, the usage of the law has grown to include three similar but different concepts:

  1. The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
  2. That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
  3. That anybody, not already in the grip of fundamentalist ideas, will mistake sincere expressions of fundamentalism for parody.

The most likely reason for this expansion is the tendency for people to call Poe’s Law (see below under “Reception and usage”) on any fundamentalist rant even before someone has responded negatively. After a while, when many sincere posts were called “Poe’s Law”, or when every parody got labeled “Poe’s law”, the concept naturally expanded. However the actual canonical definition has not changed to encompass the expanded usage, and a true Poe’s Law fundamentalist could object to its usage beyond the original concept. (On the other hand, the objection itself could be parody.)

Poe paradox

The Poe Paradox is a corollary to Poe’s Law. It states that:

“In any fundamentalist group where Poe’s Law applies, a paradox exists where any new person (or idea) sufficiently fundamentalist to be accepted by the group, is likely to be so ridiculous that they risk being rejected as a parodist (or parody).”

The term was first used by RationalWiki editor The Lay Scientist to describe an apparent paradox in the management of editing rights at Conservapedia:

“Any new member of the CP project who’s not as Conservative as them is liable to be chucked out. However, any new member who is as Conservative as them is in serious danger of being called a parodist, and chucked out. Is this the first living example of a Poe Paradox?”

Formalizations of Poe’s Law

Several attempts have been made at RationalWiki to formalize the various concepts that Poe’s Law has been used for, and to explore its implications. Every formalization quickly highlights the need to define several parameters which alter when the observer or potential parody material changes. These parameters are:

  1. The basic likelihood for parody within the topic being written about and the location of its publication. Some topics are more likely to attract parodists, and some publication routes are more prone to parody than others.
  2. How extremist the material being analyzed is in comparison to the normal continuum of material published on that topic.
  3. The inherent bias of the observer, some people are more apt to see parody (or less likely to believe something can be real) than others.

One approach to formalization has been to use a Cartesian graph to visually represent the state space of when something which is perceived as either parody or real fundamentalism. The y-axis represents the bias of the observer, while the x-axis represents the intentions of the poster. One such example is illustrated to the right. In this case it is assumed that a more rational observer is more likely to see parody in fundamentalist positions than a fundamentalist observer is. The actual area taken up by perceived parody or fundamentalism will change depending on the background to the issue and the location of its publication.

Reception and usage

The use of the term is most common in the skeptical and science-based communities on Web 2.0. Many blogs, forums and wikis will often refer to the law when dealing with cranks of any stripe. It is most commonly used after a fundamentalist rant has been posted on a topic and people will rush to be the first to respond with “I call Poe’s Law.” Superior bragging rights can be earned by calling it first, while subsequent calls are just posers. It is also commonly used when is when linking to highly questionable rants by prefacing them with “Poe’s Law strikes again” or just simply “Poe’s Law.”

Outside of Web 2.0 the law is far less known and probably rarely utilized. Wikipedia has deleted the article on Poe’s Law twice so far but now includes it on its list of “eponymous laws

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