Tag Archives: Satire

Poe’s law and hoaxes

Some of you may be familiar by now with the second in a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Peter Boghossian* (Portland State University’s Philosophy Department), James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose  (the editor of Areo, the online journal that published the hoaxes findings). The first of these hoaxes, by Boghossian and Lindsay, got a fraudulent  (what that means we’ll have to discuss) article into a very weak pay-to-play journal. They then drew dark conclusions about that fact for the future of scholarship.  You can read a very sound rebuttal of their work  by CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci here. TL;DR: the hoax was if anything a hoax on many credulous members of the so-called skeptical movement, who thought that posting a crap article in a crap journal meant something.

The latest version of the hoax improves upon the methodology of the first one significantly–it avoided, from what I can tell, the pay-to-play journals and, importantly, it produced a larger number of fraudulent (I’m still not sure this is the right term) article.  In all, the trio wrote 20 and managed to get seven accepted. They even managed to get one of these articles accepted by Hypatia (which has had its own problems recently).

A couple of minor criticisms before I move on to the main point of this post. Other than Hypatia the other journals are hardly top-tier.  (e.g., Journal of Poetry Therapy?).  I’m also puzzled that they call this stuff “humanities” (in the introduction to the project and elsewhere). Other than the Hypatia piece, most of the stuff is what humanities people such as myself would call “social science.” While on the surface this might appear to be a minor terminological issue, there’s a big difference when you get down to it. People may think they have shown something about history, philosophy, and literature when only two of twenty had that focus.

If you’re interested in reading more criticisms, this piece in Buzzfeed does a pretty good job of summarizing the main complaints.

As an argumentative matter, I think this is a lot of wasted effort. Are there absolutely crappy papers that make it through the publishing process? Absolutely. I bet you could ask anyone who reads this stuff and they could point you to some. Sorting this stuff out, however, is just what one does in Academia–this article was bad, let me refute it; this article was bad, so bad we’re going to ignore it. Those are criticisms. And cumulatively over time these criticisms yield results of a kind–results far better than producing some bad work narrowly tailored to pass muster at gullible journals.

If they’ve shown anything conclusively here, it’s that you can produce shoddy work insincerely. Some of the work they produced was accepted only after revisions. Doing those revisions meant insincerely adapting their work to some kind of standard. Whether that standard is a good one is what people dispute (and why, ultimately, there’s  ranking of journals and so forth). But, speaking of insincerity, you can accidentally stumble into a good point. Consider this bit from one of the hoax papers:

Thesis: When a man privately masturbates while fantasizing about a woman who has not given him permission to do so, or while fantasizing about her in ways she hasn’t consented to, he has committed “metasexual” violence against her, even if she never finds out. “Metasexual” violence is described as a kind of nonphysical sexual violence that causes depersonalization of the woman by sexually objectifying her and making her a kind of mental prop used to facilitate male orgasm.

Purpose: To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes..

This was from a paper that was rejected. Oddly, they’ve stumbled into a sort of virtue theory argument here. Certain activities are wrong not because they actively harm another person only, but also because they turn their perpetrator into the kind of person who would do that kind of bad thing or at least enjoy that kind of thing. It’s bad, but for primarily self-regarding reasons. Stated this way it’s not great (remember the paper was rejected) but in all of the attempt to do a clever hoax, they actually run over the line into something plausible. The fact, however, that they can’t see the line is evidence that their failure to grasp the meaning of the term “humanities” was more than a mere oversight.

So there’s one problem with hoaxing: you might accidentally make the matter hinge on sincerity. Again, the fact that people write insincere papers is not particularly surprising. Demonstrating this fact is certainly not worth the effort they put into it.

Another feature of the hoax–its baseline logical feature–comes out of Poe’s Law–the eponymous internet law that says that a view is absurd to the extent that it’s impossible to create believable satire of it without saying explicitly: this is satire. As it happens, Scott discussed this here (also, follow the references at the end for more). There, the thought was that there are always weak adherents of views to turn the satire into reportage.

So it’s true in this case. It’s not a secret that there exists really crappy, politically-motivated, or downright unethical work in academia. It’s also not surprising that if you try to satirize some of that work, some people will not recognize it as satire and will take it as genuine work. The more direct route to that thesis is just to look at the work. Such work exists, of course, as it was the premise of the entire hoax.

A somewhat sad coda to this was the tweet thread of the graduate student who refereed that paper. He spent hours crafting feedback for what he thought was an earnest, but inexperienced, scholar. Journals such as these are where such earnest scholars go to continue the discussion and to continue their professional development. So, the net effect of the hoax is that some one of these apparently earnest but inexperienced scholars might be an earnest but insincere person looking to waste your time.

*Not to be confused with philosopher Paul Boghossian (NYU) who is now dealing with mistaken requests for interviews.


I’ve encountered a fair number of people who do not understand satire (some of them here).  For them, satire is just a sneaky way of straw manning someone–only to say “I’m kidding, jeez” at the end of it, as if that were immunity to the basic responsibilities of argument and evidence.  They then complain relentlessly about The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Two points.  First, satire–satire faithful to the genre at least–kicks up, not down.  It pokes fun at the powerful, not the powerless.  One reason for this is that it’s not fair to pick on the powerless: they don’t have their own media empires, for instance, or publicists, or people who should warn them not to do an interview with the Daily Show (because they’re going to cut and paste the crap out of it).  What’s funny about many Daily Show or Colbert Report interviews is the fact the that interviewee thinks she can spin the comedian.  She can’t.

Second, satire isn’t really argument.  This drives critics of left wing satire around the bend; how is it that Stewart gets away with mockery, when Rush Limbaugh doesn’t?  They don’t get the difference.

Talking Points Memo brings us an example:

This routine, in which Colbert plays at conservatism in order to portray it as unendingly ugly, should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface. When Colbert plays “Colbert,” it’s not mere mockery or satire or spoof. It’s something far nastier.

Blackface, which has an ugly history dating back to at least the fifteenth century according to historian John Strausbaugh, was used to portray demeaning and horrifying stereotypes of blacks. Such stereotypical imitation has not been limited to blacks, of course; actors tasked with playing stereotypical Jew Shylock often donned a fake nose and red wig, as did actors who were supposed to play Barabas in The Jew of Malta. Such stereotypical potrayals create a false sense of blacks, or Jews, or whomever becomes the target of such nastiness.

And this is precisely what Colbert does with regard to politics: he engages in Conservativeface.

That’s Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator somewhere on the internet.  The objects of Colbert’s mockery–which is, by the way, sadly milder than much common right wing commentary–are powerful and rich people.  Colbert’s satire is directed at that.  I can’t really explain why Shapiro doesn’t get that.

Can’t tell if troll part the millionth

fry-can-t-tell-meme-generator-can-t-tell-if-satire-or-just-troll-1e7d86It turns out the military rape (of women) is a problem.  The National Review Online responds, as you might imagine, by blaming the victims and by changing the subject.

In an epic move that should be satire, but isn’t, Heather Mac Donald argues thusly:

But let’s say that for these homeless female vets, it really was their sexual experiences in the military that caused their downward spiral into, as the Times puts it, “alcohol and substance abuse, depression and domestic violence.” Why then have those same feminists who are now lamenting the life-destroying effects of “MST” insisted on putting women into combat units? Arguably, coming under enemy fire or falling into enemy hands is as traumatic as the behavior one may experience while binge-drinking with one’s fellow soldiers or as scarring as being “bullied and ostracized” by a female superior. Are women on average going to be more able to emotionally handle the former than the latter? Isn’t there a contradiction in expecting the military to “protect” you while it also sends you out to face mortal risk? And do the feminists believe that there will be fewer of these alleged rapes in combat training and duty? Perhaps they think that with enough multi-million-dollar gender-equity training contracts showered on the gender-industrial complex, the problem will go away. Or perhaps they think that keeping before us proof that the patriarchy is alive and well is more important than protecting women from “MST,” especially if that image can serve as grounds for remaking the military.

The point is that if you cannot protect yourself from rape, or you cannot deal with the consequences of rape, then you have no place in the combat zone.  To suggest otherwise is some kind of inconsistency: how can women sustain the rigors of combat?  They can’t even deal with being raped.


Satire and Nihilism

Jim Geraghty at National Review Online has an interesting essay on the state of satire in American political culture.  He makes a contrast between satire in the good old days and the way it’s used today:

When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery…. The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.

So, to keep score:   old satire is taking a moral stand using irony as a means to speaking truth to power, new satire is irony for its own sake.  The new satire just heaps ridicule on everyone who’s earnest, so is incapable of communicating a coherent moral vision.

[T]here isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those (parodic) worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient. . .  unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny….

And so the new satire is simply (a) nihilistic, and (b) because it takes no substantive moral stand, can’t have any real critical bite.  Now, I think Geraghty is wrong about John Stewart’s political satire.  He does have a moral view.  But, regardless, if satire doesn’t have a critical bite and satirists are just nihilists, then why is it that satirists, according to Geraghty, only needle the Republicans?

As a close to the essay, Geraghty makes a move I find very interesting, and one I’ve been considering on and off for a while — the Poe phenomenon.  Given all the scandals and their silliness (Mark Sanford, Bob Menendez, Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer), the real stories of those in power sound very much like the silly send-ups of them.  Geraghty notes:

[I]n the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion. In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.

Now, I think this is an overstatement.  I’m not sure that if Poe’s Law is true, satire is superfluous.  Satire, even if it’s the nihilistic contempt Geraghty’s worried about, is expressively different (even if not always received as different) from the events satired.  Satire is a meta-language, one that comments on and captures a reaction to the events satired.  Now, I don’t think it follows that satire is superflous, even if it’s nihilisic and difficult to tell from simple reportage, as it’s a different thing from what’s satirized.  But maybe Geraghty’s on the right track —  some forms of satire are simply self-indulgent post-adolescent pap. But that can be satired, too, and (if it’s well done) that’s not superfluous, is it?

Chuck Toddler

There are people with no sense of humor at all (encountered them here) and there is NBC's Chuck Todd.  He is concerned that Stephen Colbert's 24/7 satire of the Republican-allied Fox Network might be anti-Republican. 

Appearing at a Winthrop University forum, Todd said that Colbert was doing a "noble" thing by educating his audience about the inner workings of a Super PAC. However, he told the crowd that he had been "very offended" when Colbert testified before Congress about immigration in character, and that he saw the comedian's presidential activities in the same light.

"He is making a mockery of the system," Todd said. "…Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he's doing it in a way that feels like he's trying to influence it with his own agenda and that may be anti-Republican."

He cautioned the media to be "careful" about amplifying Colbert's message, and said it should not be treated as "shtick" or satire.

"What is his real agenda here?" he said. "Is it to educate the public about the dangers of money and politics, and what's going on? Or is it simply to marginalize the Republican Party? I think if I were a Republican candidate I would be concerned about that."

Perhaps this hypothetical Republican ought to be concerned about having such easily satirized views.  I wonder if anyone pointed out to Todd that satire is a critical genre–someone is going to get it.  Imagine Todd worrying that some Repubican lobbyist might be testifying before Congress with an agenda that "may be" anti-Democratic. 

Not intended to be a factual statement

Sometimes I wonder about the effectiveness of satire.  It's entertainment value is purchased oftentimes at the expense of fairness and accuracy–you have to straw man, a little at least, to satirize.  It appears, however, that sometimes straw manning is unnecessary.  Some people just satirize themselves. 

On this point, please enjoy the clip at this link  from the Stephen Colbert show.  A little context.  Senator John Kyl of Arizona claimed that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's work is abortion.  In reality, it's three percent.  As a clarification he said his remark was:

"not intended to be a factual statement."

Now it is clear.

Good work, also,  here and  here and by the Daily Show.


Jonathan Swift, like Al Franken, was a satirist.  When Swift suggested the Irish solve their problems by raising and eating their own children, he wasn't serious.  While perhaps Franken is no Swift, satire is satire.  Satirizing the opinions, actions, and morals of others by hyperbolizing them does not mean you endorse those opinions, actions, and morals.  Nor does it mean you think such extreme things constitute "entertainment" pure and simple.

Someone ought to tell Michael Gerson, when he wakes up from his fainting spell at the "vulgarity."

Satire has been called "punishment for those who deserve it." Writers from Erasmus to Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have used humor, irony and ridicule to expose the follies of the powerful, the failures of blind ideology and the comic weakness of human nature itself. 

So what is Franken's "provocative, touching and funny" contribution to the genre? Consider his article in Playboy magazine titled "Porn-O-Rama!" in which he enthuses that it is an "exciting time for pornographers and for us, the consumers of pornography." The Internet, he explains, is a "terrific learning tool. For example, a couple of years ago, when he was 12, my son used the Internet for a sixth-grade report on bestiality. Joe was able to download some effective visual aids, which the other students in his class just loved." Franken goes on to relate a soft-core fantasy about women providing him with sex who were trained at the "Minnesota Institute of Titology." 

I'd be tempted to say he's taken Franken out of context, but he's has just said that Franken is a satirist.  If Gerson weren't so earnest in his desire to avoid "vulgarity," I'd say his op-ed was satire.