Football is dead to me! I can't watch any more without thinking about brain-damage and abuse of women and dogs. So instead of watching playoff games today (although I'm beaming bad-luck vibes at Brady and Belichick, whom I love to hate), I traced the history of "ironic science."
In my previous column, I claimed ownership of the phrase "ironic science," which in my 1996 book The End of Science I used to describe science so hand-wavy that it's more akin to philosophy, literary criticism or even fiction than to genuine science.
My post provoked a tweet from science writer Rolf Degen (@DegenRolf). Commenting drily, "The term 'ironic science' is a bit older than Horgan," he posted the above graph, or "Ngram," compiled via Google Books, allegedly showing "ironic science" popping up as early as the 1880s!
Although I was intrigued, I figured most of the precedents, especially older ones, would be bogus. I was right, but only partially. [*See correction below.] Many texts featured the phrase "ironic science fiction," which to my mind doesn't count. For example, an article in The New Hungarian Quarterly by Ivan Boldizsar, 1955, states: "Great was my astonishment when I found out that this was the Grand Central Station, unforgettable for me, though as yet unseen, from Leo Szilard's ironic science fiction short story bearing the same name."
Other citations are ineligible because punctuation separates "ironic" and "science." For example, in 1914 the journal Volta Review (no author listed) has this snippet: "To us, the non-hearing, science may seem a wondrous mockery, and its radiant smile ironic. Science…"
In my favorite pseudo-precedents, "ironic" refers to the element iron. Here's an example from the journal Industrial Education (no author listed), 1973: "This book traces the history of the Ironic science from the discovery of current flow to the present."
But! I found nine instances in which the meaning of "ironic science" was at least vaguely similar to mine—although some define "science" broadly, to put it mildly. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:
1994. Reluctant Treasures: The Practice of Analytic Psychotherapy, by Gordon Warme. Warme calls psychoanalysis "The Ironic Science," and of course he's absolutely right. If Freudianism ain't ironic, nothing is.
1991. Heterology and the Postmodern, by Julian Pefanis. "This ironic 'science' proceeds in its analysis according to a dream-like movement that associates the heterogeneous elements on the map of the unconscious." Okay, but calling science "ironic" and also putting scare quotes around it is overkill.
1985. Robert Longo, by Carter Ratcliff and Robert Longo. "Out of this ironic science, Smithson generated an esthetics of ecstasy, an assertion of life in the face of death." In the case of this text, about artist Robert Longo, scare quotes around "science" would have been appropriate.
1983. Science and Literature, Harry Garvin and James Heath, "…Scriblerians' exploitation of an ironic science of signs all their own, what one might call a physics of language." One might call this more postmodern gobblebygook.
1980, Studies in Canadian Literature (no author listed): "The ironic science of reconciliation, as analogy or dialectic, at the roots of empirical law knows other growths in the synthetic philosophy of..." Ah, I miss the heyday of postmodernism, when bullshit passed for profundity.
1975, Books and Bookmen (no author listed). "He details the charges with a perceptive acuity under the following heads : 'The Science of Language'--an ironic 'Science', this." If you're suggesting that linguistics is ironic, I'd say: Like, totally.
1970, DADA, by Kenneth Coutts-Smith. "Jarry also 'invented', through the person of his character Dr. Faustroll, the science of Pataphysics, the ironic 'science of imaginary solutions.'" Imaginary solutions? Sounds like a precursor of string theory.
1929. Pomona College Magazine (no author listed): "There are times when one is tempted to call history the ironic science--or the deceitful art, perhaps." I often succumb to that temptation, especially when arguing with my historian friend Jim McClellan.
1887. Romantic Love and Personal Beauty, by Henry Theophilus Finck (they don't makes names like that anymore.) "Physiology is not usually considered an ironic science…" Maybe modern physiology isn't ironic, but modern neuroscience surely is.
If you alert me to any other early usages of "ironic science," I will be sincerely--not ironically--grateful.
*Correction: I originally said that I couldn't find any legitimate citations before 1900, because my first Google search gave 1913 as the publication date of my final item, Romantic Love and Personal Beauty. Actually, as Rolf Degen points out in his comment below, Finck's book was originally published in 1887. Thanks again, Rolf.