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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 points out that it is hard to tell parodies of fundamentalism (or, more generally, any crackpot theory) from the real thing, since they both seem equally insane. Conversely, real fundamentalism can easily be mistaken for a parody of fundamentalism. For example, some conservatives consider noted homophobe Fred Phelps to be so over-the-top that they argue he's a "deep cover liberal" trying to discredit more mainstream homophobes.
Poe's Law was originally formulated by Nathan Poe in August 2005. The law emerged at the creationism versus evolution forum on the website Christianforums.com. Like most such places, it had seen a large number of creationist parody postings and these parody posts were usually followed by at least one user starting a flame war (a series of angry and offensive personal attacks) 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 - that if someone made a sarcastic comment stating that evolution was a hoax because "birds don't give birth to monkeys" then there would be a high probability that someone, later in the discussion, would miss the joke and explain (in all seriousness) how the poster was an idiot. However, the usage of the law has grown, and now the term "Poe" is almost synonymous with any parody on the internet. Essentially, the concept has developed to include three similar but different concepts:
- The original idea that at least one person will mistake parody postings for sincere beliefs.
- That nobody will be able to distinguish many instances of parody posts from the real thing.
- 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's Corollary
|“||It is impossible for an act of Fundamentalism to be made that someone won't mistake for a parody.||”|
The main corollary of Poe's Law refers to the opposite phenomenon, where a fundamentalist sounds so unbelievable that rational people will honestly think the fundamentalist is presenting a parody of his beliefs. Such a thing isn't entirely unprecedented - Ray Comfort now uses his "banana argument" as a comedy routine that pokes fun at intelligent design (claiming that it had always been satirical). Poe's Corollary was first submitted to the Urban Dictionary in July of 2008. This corollary comes into play especially when the rational person has already learned and experienced Poe's Law, predisposing them to think that any extreme view is probably parody.
 Poe Paradox
The Poe Paradox is a further corollary to Poe's Law, that results from an unhealthy level of paranoia. 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).||”|
"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?"
 Experimental demonstrations
Investigators at The Ohio State University School of Communication found evidence supporting Poe's Law in a study published in 2009. They measured the relative political conservatism and liberalism of 332 individuals. The study participants then viewed clips from The Colbert Report, a television show that is a parody of conservative news commentary shows such as The O'Reilly Factor and broadcast on the Comedy Central cable network. The researchers found that the relatively conservative people in their study reported that the star of the show, Stephen Colbert, was actually showing disregard for liberals and covertly expressing his true conservative attitude about the matter at hand. Liberals viewing the show tended to view the work as a sincere parody and not view Mr. Colbert as presenting his true political views. Curiously, the liberal and conservative viewers in the study found Mr. Colbert similarly humorous (a non-statistically significant difference). While not a direct or intentional test of Poe's Law, the results fit well with the predictions it makes.
 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. It is also commonly used 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 used. Wikipedia's article on Poe's Law has been deleted twice, but was is listed on the list of eponymous laws following mention in an article in The Telegraph.
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck