Satire, spoofs and Poe’s law

An interesting feature of the LivefromGolgafrincham website discussed in the previous post, and in particular the thread on climate communication, is how many people did not realise that it was a spoof.   Even the blog proprietor, , Willis Eschenbach, a sceptic who posts regularly at WUWT, argued quite vociferously against the post, and continued to do so for some time after more and more hints were given. Perhaps more surprisingly, Geoff Chambers, who himself writes satirical articles such as the “Apocalypse close” series, seems to have been taken in, until the satirical nature of LFG was pointed out by Ian Woolley (who seems to have some inside knowledge about the LFG site).  On the other side of the fence, andthentheresphysics took a lot of convincing that it was satire, leading commenter OPatrick to wonder “I’m mystified. Did I look at a different blog from you lot?”

There does seem to be an increasing tendency for sceptics to ridicule the arguments of climate alarm.  Another such blog is Climate Nuremberg, which recently had a post on Why is it so hard to have a panicked, hysterical conversation about climate change?  Previous comments by this blogger have also been misinterpreted, see this post at WUWT, where the comment thread alternates between angry attacks and people saying the site is obviously satire.

Another spoof website is GreenTremayne, giving helpful tips on reducing your carbon footprint, and selling carbon credits.

The proclamations made in the name of global warming have become so absurd that they are difficult to parody.  For example, recently we have been told that climate change made it harder to find the missing Malaysian plane, and that the climate will “cross the dangerous warming threshold in 2036”.   Numberwatch has a list of things caused by global warming.  Roy Spencer laments that Global Warming is Destroying April Fools Day.

Of course there is a term for this effect – it’s known as Poe’s law:  “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”



22 thoughts on “Satire, spoofs and Poe’s law

  1. Climate change is also responsible for:

    – worse traffic congestion, because it is raining much too hard to bother cycling or walking anywhere.
    – the obesity explosion. What is the point in not eating chips if we are all going to die anyway! By getting fat I can also do my bit to extract carbon from the atmosphere.
    – lousy pension annuity rates, because insurance companies have invested our money in daft renewable energy schemes.

    to be continued …..

  2. There used to be a spoof agony-uncle column on the spiked! website, in which Ethan Greenhart advised on all sorts of difficult ethical green matters (a bit like an even more extreme version of Leo Hickman’s “Can x be green?” column in the Guardian):

    It featured titles like: “Is it ethical to censor climate change deniers?” – the answer of course being: “Not only is it ethical to demand censorship of climate change deniers, it is essential.”

    The column closed in 2008, possibly because it started to be superfluous, the alarmists becoming ever better at parodying themselves.

  3. I think there’s a few things going on all at once:

    1. Different generational expectations: people get used to a certain style of parody, understanding the triggers, giveaways, winks and tropes of it to a degree that it becomes a kind of template for satire more generally. So when something aims to be parodical without deploying these familiar winks it just goes under the radar. I think there’s something to this bit it’s nowhere near a full explanation.

    2. The nature of the debate. I think Tamsin Edwards made a good point when she said there’s a lot of skim reading that goes on now – yes, we know what you’re going to say, it’s been said a thousand times before, where’s the new scrap of meat in this piece – lets skip to that. Which is a sign that nobody’s listening to each other; taking any real notice of the other’s argument. And for good reason a lot of the time. The climate debate has become ossified, mostly due to the prejudices of the alarmist side I would say, with the sceptic side reacting in good measure.

    So I think it’s a mix of things. Yes, I was surprised by people falling for the blog post on LFG – mainly because that hadn’t been the aim. But it threw up some interesting questions, the reaction, definitely. People are so angry on both sides it might be to the detriment of their judgement of jokes, albeit half-jokes in my case.

  4. I’m still blushing about being taken in. But I was, and what’s worse, Lewandowsky has a persuasive explanation of why I was taken in – confirmation bias. I really really wanted to believe it was true.
    On the other hand, some of the stuff by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Lord Deben that I’ve written about on my blog has made me wonder if it wasn’t an elaborate hoax. But it was far less well done than Marcus Toynaboyalé.

  5. geoff,
    I avoid getting taken in on April 1 by not visiting too many sites on that day. I did know the SkS widget hack was an April Fools. Oddly, some of their visitors seemed to fall for that.

    But… I think it’s not to late to express my ire!! Now that I read the Marcus’s article I’m furious. My site was “studied” in the Furious Recursion paper, and I was quoted. It seems either I, or people who I must have been referring to using the term “some” suffer from “tacit assumptions” which– evidently means I (or these “some” ) easily presume “misconduct and malfeasance” on the part of Lewandowsky. Yet despite that, I did not manage to make it onto Marcus’s list of sites who are not to be visited.

    Is this Marcus’ method of accusing me of not being paid? Of being above reproach? Or is he suggesting it’s ok to visit my site? Or what? Maybe it’s just sexism. Harumph!!

    On a more serious note, as an imitation of many of the articles lecturing readers on what to read, Marcus’s article had a very interesting feature: It actually listed the things one is supposed to avoid reading by name. That is ordinarily not done. In fact, I think it violates some sort of “communication rule” I’ve read… somewhere. Had I read the post yesterday, I might have noted that unusual feature. Or not.

    Maybe I’d just have groused that Marcus left me off. But I can do that today anyways. 🙂

  6. Paul,

    Thanks for raising this hard, and therefore good, question.

    Marcus is right to mention Tamsin Edwards’ skim-reading observation above, I think. When a passage strongly activates one of the 2 known climate schemata (Affirmative or Negative) it is all too easy for the reader to miss or actively suppress those little deviations from the template that a satirist includes in order to make it… well—funny. This is not necessarily a pathological reading habit (you could think of it as a tribute to our built-in powers of noise correction and tolerance), but it makes it harder for the writer to get subtle points across.

    Another thing nobody likes to talk about, because it isn’t particularly funny, is that satire comes from a place of respect and even affection. You can’t take the piss out of people whose thinking you can’t relate to on some level.

    We all have someone in our lives who’s a climate believer—a mother, a brother, a friend, a colleague—and hopefully we’ve figured out by now that it’s not really their fault. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid, gullible or immoral. It just means they never learnt how science works, which is hardly an indictment of them. 98% of the population has never been told how it works.

    (They haven’t even been told that they need to be told—they’re invariably under the impression that the scientific method is some kind of birthright of all modern citizens, and that anyone can piece it together from snippets remembered from high school and movies. Try questioning a person’s understanding of how science works and they’re guaranteed to take this as a personal insult. For some reason people can handle the truth that they don’t know how Icelandic grammar works—they’re usually quite fine with this, because, after all, they’ve never studied the subject—but if you dare suggest they might not know how science works either, they’ll deny and confabulate till they’re blue in the face.)

    Much of what we satirise, therefore, is the pseudoscientific language the climate movement has used to fool our scientifically-illiterate loved ones. And to us, this language barely seems scientific enough to deserve the name pseudoscience! It’s past the point of ridiculousness. Over the last twenty years they’ve become increasingly shameless, stretching the limits of what anyone would have expected ordinary people could possibly think scientists sound like. Who would have thought, in 1988, that any “scientific” belief movement would get away without even bothering to name the hypothesis it “believed” in? Who would have thought it was possible to convince the scientifically-illiterate majority that there was something called “the science” and that if you didn’t believe in it, you were a “denier”? So the sheer audacity of the scam makes it a classic candidate for Poe’s Law, as mentioned in your post. A writer has to try very hard to make it sound sillier than it already does.

  7. [changed avatar, quite easy in the end]

    Brad, you hit the nail on the head here with the friend/relative/colleague observation. (Well, and the noise correction too.) There’s a handful of people I know who take a lot of care to respect the notion of evidence-based reasoning but when it comes to climate change just will not budge, will not see it, they just won’t have it. One friend in particular (and I’ll point him to this thread in case he wants to comment) is very good on the fraudulence of people like Gillian McKeith and new age ‘woo’ as Ben Goldacre likes to call it, but when I argue a similar thing is going on but at a much grander scale with climate change his spirit of enquiry peters out. It’s galling to see because you don’t want your friends to fall for it. Your rational, atheist, science-interested, bad-science loathing friends are having the wool pulled over their eyes and they don’t deserve it.

  8. Ian, thanks for your reactions. You’ve piqued my curiosity though: are any of these “rational, atheist, science-interested, bad-science loathing friends” actually science-literate, in the sense that somebody has sat them down and taught them, systematically, how science does and doesn’t work, at a tertiary level—as part of a PhD in a natural science, for example? Because I’ve yet to encounter anyone who can still fall for the bullshit of the climate narrative once they know about the scientific method. As far as I can tell it’s a 100% effective vaccine for climate belief.

    Another fascinating aspect of the debate is that we can see well-meaning people getting conned and no matter how disappointed and frustrated this makes us, we know they’re not (necessarily) bad people, or even (necessarily) stupid people. Christopher Hitchens was a believer but he’s pretty much the last person I’d suspect of voluntarily electing to be wrong if he could help it. He just lacked a specific piece of knowledge that a very few people possess, and he was quite open about it: he didn’t know how science works. Which, considering how much he did know, is hardly blameworthy. Not everyone has time to do a science degree.

    By contrast, believers seem completely unable to explain the huge swathes of the community that disagree with them without positing the existence of bad faith, stupidity, mental illness (e.g. “denial”), Medieval rejection of science, and various other insulting conjectures. I’m yet to meet a believer who can explain why I’m not a believer except by assuming I’m not rational.

  9. Brad, no I don’t think any of them really are science-literate in the strictest sense. Keen on science I’d say. Well read. I don’t know if my friend has the time to make any comment here himself, but I know he’s pretty much the same as me in being irritated by pseudo-science and has read on it widely. So you’re right, a rigorous lesson in exactly what science is and how it works is needed by him and me to really get over this area of difference between us. I’ve only read enough to ‘feel’ where the truth lies, and maybe that’s why I’m not convincing him of the pseudo-climate-science case. I wish he’d read The Hockey Stick Illusion, though. (Dean! are you getting this?)

  10. Hi Ian,

    I think you’re on the right track. It would take more than “a rigorous lesson” to get on top of how science works—think Icelandic grammar—but in the meantime the ‘Hockey Stick Illusion’ approach is a good way to prove to your friend that whatever’s going on in the world of paleoclimate research, it’s not science. The reason Michael Mann’s work is such a flashpoint for denialists versus gullibilists is probably that everyone on either side, regardless of their tertiary qualifications, does know something about science: it requires honesty. To concede Mann’s dishonorable and mendacious nature, as amply exposed by Montford’s book, would be to concede that the climate orthodoxy has elected to a position of leadership and respectability a man who doesn’t even deserve to keep his job as a scientist. Alarmists like Dominic “BBD” try to pre-empt this moment of realisation by conspicuously insisting that Mann’s work is only a minor “footnote” in the history of climate science, but nobody buys this. Alarmists cannot afford to throw Mann under a bus, however richly he deserves it, which is why they do everything humanly possible to avoid the facts about his unsavory career.

  11. PS—”denialists versus gullibilists” was facetious; the rank-and-file members of the respective camps in the climate debate don’t actually deserve to be designated anything of the sort. Just to obviate any misunderstanding. ;-D

  12. Thanks for that link Ian. No, I hadn’t heard it before; and yes, it’s very probable that Hitchens would have benefited from hearing it. Note the means by which Clive James figured out that there’s something fishy going on in the climate establishment, and it wasn’t (by his own admission) by knowing anything about climate science. He simply knows we’ve been lied to about the existence of a consensus. This is, strictly, absolutely irrelevant to the science in question—so even if a consensus could honestly be said to exist, no honest believalist advocate would ever have presented it as any kind of reason to believe in the first place. And James’ formulation of the essence of scientific truth—”at the end, it has to agree with the facts”—is not quite right, or at least not the best way of explaining it. (I’d prefer Ted Koppel’s definition of science as “the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That’s the hard way to do it, but it’s the only way that works.”) So it is a mark of his intelligence and curiosity, and grounds for hope, that James is still able to see through the scam.

  13. I’m just wondering if this also works the other way round – has there been any attempt from the other side to create a spoof or satirical pee-take of climate scepticism? And if so, how successful was it? Can’t think of an example off-hand, but could be there is one somewhere…

  14. I can’t believe that I forgot to mention the master/mistress of the genre, Alene Composta. Alene wrote to top psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky, expressing her dismay at the hurtful comments she had received, and saying that she hugged her little cat and cried for an hour. She was consoled by a sympathetic letter in response from the man himself and another from John Cook. Apologies to Alene for this omission.
    Here is her 2011 blog post. Lewandowsky’s response was Bitten by a sock puppet, but the climate is still changing. Jo Nova’s commentary on the incident was Lewandowsky bitten by a hoax.

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