Sunday, April 1, 2018

The End of a Tradition

Given that this blog has always been a side project that I work on when I happen to have the drive and opportunity, I have not beholden myself to a regular posting schedule here. Nonetheless, a few annual traditions have arisen. At the beginning of the year, I always write up an overview of the past year's scientific discoveries on maniraptors, shortly followed by the results of my annual poll on my readership's favorite newly-named maniraptor genera. Then on April 1st, I always make an April Fools' post, usually on a blatantly fake scientific discovery, but sometimes on a dramatically different creative direction for the blog. Starting this year, however, I will be scrapping that last tradition.

Didn't see that coming, eh?

My decision was prompted by a Twitter thread by biologist David Steen, in which he argues against the use of "April Fools' articles" by scientists and science communicators. To summarize his points: first of all, misleading the audience when one has built themselves up as a credible source is counterproductive. Secondly, not everyone will get that such articles are jokes. Lastly, the articles will not be read only on April Fools', nor will everyone who did read them on April Fools' remember when they did so.

This is not by any means the first time I've encountered similar sentiments. They are legitimate concerns, I've thought to myself in self-consolation. But my April Fools' jokes have never been intended to "fool" anyone. If anything, I aim to get a laugh out of my audience rather than a laugh at their expense. My posts are slathered so thickly in absurdity and sarcasm that the jig is obvious. In fact, they could even be considered a creative brand of science communication, considering that I often use them as an opportunity to point out the flawed logic of real pseudoscience. No one would ever misinterpret my April Fools' posts as seriously championing the outlandish claims they contain.

Unfortunately, it has dawned on me that the last point up there isn't true. Regardless of my intent, it's likely that some readers will be (and probably have been) misled. Though I don't remember anyone ever claiming to have taken the April Fools' jokes on Raptormaniacs seriously, I should've known better from experience with my earlier attempts at satire, such as the time I pretended to justify depicting phorusrhacids without feathers using the same flawed arguments that I've seen applied to dromaeosaurids*. Even with excessive use of exclamation marks, even with blatant self-contradictions, even with my explicitly pointing out the fact that there were self-contradictions, more than a few commenters confessed that they'd thought (if only momentarily in some cases) that I'd been serious. Naturally, I'd feel a twinge of frustration whenever someone didn't get the joke, but ultimately I can't blame the audience. Some pseudoscience really is that outlandish, that illogical, and that poorly-presented.

*Such arguments don't appear to be nearly as common anymore. Things do change...

Aren't unfeathered terror birds ridiculous? No one will ever think that I think terror birds were unfeathered if I drew a satirical picture of one without feathers! Actually, some will.

I've had fun coming up with my April Fools' articles and (I think) some of my readers have had fun reading them as well. I myself have enjoyed reading the fake articles written by other science bloggers such as Darren Naish (who has also announced that he will be dropping the tradition this year). However, having fun is not worth adding to the mountains of misinformation that already exist.

I don't want to come across as anti-fun. I am a staunch supporter of using humor and levity in science communication. But humor can be employed in many ways that don't involve creating misinformation. By abandoning this yearly tradition, I hope to remind myself to apply my sense of humor in a more productive fashion.

Another old work of mine (and a Raptormaniacs comic to boot) that (I think) uses humor while communicating science more effectively than a fake scientific article.

(If anyone has read to the end expecting me to pull a double fake-out: no, this post is not a joke.)

3 comments:

  1. The story about the K-Pg tyrannosaur was a great April fool’s joke. I quickly saw it for what it was, but can still see the point you make here.

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    1. I got a good chuckle out of that one, too. I do enjoy reading the jokes that the paleo-blogging community comes up with. I'm just not convinced that they're a good thing for sci comm anymore.

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  2. Good call. People have a terrible time remembering that intentionally false statements were false.

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