Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poe's Law Nevermore?

Our friends Scott Aiken and bob Talisse have an interesting post up about the argumentative effects of Poe's law. Poe's law is:

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 (it) for the genuine article.
They neither endorse nor deny Poe's law but ask what effect it truth would have on argumentation.

Their concern is that, as Cass Sunstein discusses in great detail in his wonderful book Infotopia, dismissal of one's opponents as irrational leads to group think which in turn leads to intellectual polarization, that is views becoming more and more extreme on both sides without rational checks. This is an effect that social psychologists have documented over and over again.

We've discussed before what happens when an opponent becomes the strawman, when they hold absurd views, but what is novel here is the notion of parody. It is when parody becomes impossible that Aikin and Talisse's scenario comes in to play, when one side has motive to disengage critically from the arguments of the other and the discourse community thereby falls into danger. So, what then are the preconditions for the possibility of parody?

Nathan Poe's claim about Creationism is actually not new. Spike Jones said exactly the same thing in the early 1950s as he retired. Rock and roll music, he proclaimed, could not be parodied. We might read this as sour grapes. His beloved big band swing had been replaced from the dominant position in popular music and he could not adapt his act to the changing times, so he was bitter. As Weird Al Yankovich would show decades later, Jones was wrong.

But was he? Maybe at the time Jones spoke, he was right. Maybe it was only decades later that parody was possible. Rich Little used to say that Johnny Carson was the most difficult impression to do because he had so many mannerisms that none was iconic. doing impressions is not just a matter of getting the voice and pacing correct, but also including in the act vocal regularities (word inversions, puns, sentence structures) and bodily gestures that are associated with the person. The imitation is recognized as parody precisely once the three-dimensional person is made into a two-dimensional icon which is then reproduced with varying degrees of skill, but the icon seems to have to exist before parody is possible.

Maybe Spike Jones was right because rock and roll was too new to have an icon. Thomas Kuhn argues that every scientific field goes through a period of "pre-science" in which advocates have not acquired a dominant paradigm, that is when it is still up for debate how to talk about their subject, when the linguistic rules and basic assumptions are not explicitly worked out. Without this clear linguistic substructure, those outside have nothing to hang onto when trying to make sense of the conversation within that community (Kuhn himself would argue that those outside can never make any sense of the conversation happening within, but this surely is too strong).

So, I would argue that there needs to be a linguistic structure in place which is sufficiently nailed down to turn it into an icon, an overly-simplistic representation of that discourse, to be able to allow parody. But does modern Creationism have such a unified linguistic and argumentative structure? Maybe Poe's law is really an argument that it doesn't, that it is still in the process of forming a coherent paradigm, which it may or may not ever do but has not yet. Similarly, when we move the example from Creationism to the folks at Westboro Baptist, again, maybe the inability to parody is their lack of intellectual boundaries, in their not having an icon because of their ability to flow wherever the current tragedy or crisis lays. In this case, it is not that we are dealing with strawmen as Aikin and Talisse worry, but that we no longer have well-defined views in opposition which always is a challenge for critical argumentation, but in the messiness of real life happens often. Thus they are exactly right that we might need to think about what this means in terms of argumentation because it is a different stance than we usually have to adopt.