I was scanning my Twitter feed recently, pretending to look for "news" while really searching, as usual, for items that praise, condemn or merely allude to me—I mean, let's face it, all of us social-media addicts are narcissists--when the bells in my amygdala started clanging.
Someone had tweeted a paper called "The Ethics of Ironic Science In Its Search for Spoof." I liked the intriguingly obscure title, with its "spoof-proof" wordplay, which added a nice meta-twist. An ironical treatment of irony. Cute! But mainly I liked what I assumed to be the reference to my 1996 book The End of Science, which introduced—to the best of my knowledge--the phrase "ironic science."
Filled with anticipation, I checked out the article, which was published in Science and Engineering Ethics and written by Maryam Ronagh and Lawrence Souder, scholars in the department of culture and communication at Drexel University. The paper begins:
"The goal of most scientific research published in peer-review journals is to discover and report the truth. However, the research record includes tongue-in-cheek papers written in the conventional form and style of a research paper. Although these papers were intended to be taken ironically, bibliographic database searches show that many have been subsequently cited as valid research, some in prestigious journals."
As an example of what they call "ironic science," Ronagh and Souder cited a 2001 paper in BMJ, the British Medical Journal, that supposedly proves prayer can help people get better—even in the past. The article was published in a Christmas issue of BMJ, which has traditionally featured spoofs, including speculation about why Rudolf the reindeer's nose is red.
Of course, some boneheads don't get the joke. Ronagh and Souder's found 15 citations of the prayer article that apparently took it literally. They conclude that "publishing ironic science in a research journal can lead to the same troubles posed by retracted research," and they recommend that publications take steps to prevent such misunderstandings.
First of all, Ronagh and Souder take the issue of ironic science too seriously. I often employ humor and sarcasm, and if people don't get the joke, I don't fret over it. Sometimes the confusion just adds to my pleasure. In 2013, for example, I proposed, seriously, that research on race and intelligence be banned. In a postscript I suggested that violators of the ban be "detained indefinitely in Guantanamo until or unless a secret tribunal overseen by me says they have expressed sufficient remorse and can be released."
Some White Supremacists went nuts! Come on! That's funny! Also, people who are so dumb that they take Onion articles and other spoofs seriously shouldn't be taken seriously.
But by far my biggest complaint about "The Ethics of Ironic Science" is that it doesn't cite me. Ronagh and Souder cite 71 sources, but The End of Science is not among them. None of the bloggers who commented on "The Ethics of Ironic Science"--including Retraction Watch, Neuroskeptic and Rose Eveleth at The Atlantic--cited me either.
In The End of Science, I employed "ironic science" in a subtly different way than Ronagh and Souder do. Before introducing the phrase, I argued that the era of great scientific discoveries is ending, and scientists are increasingly bumping up against limits as they try to solve the deepest mysteries of the universe.
I defined "ironic science" as "speculative" and "post-empirical," and I said that it is more akin to philosophy, literary criticism and even literature itself than to genuine science. Ironic science "offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, interesting… But it does not converge on the truth."
Ronagh and Souder are concerned primarily with scientific claims not intended to be taken seriously. I'm concerned primarily with claims that are intended to be taken seriously but shouldn't be. My favorite examples of ironic science are string theory and multiverse theories, but all grand unified theories of consciousness, human nature and social organization are clearly ironic, from psychoanalysis and Marxism to evolutionary psychology and panpsychism.
[Important digression: Postmodernism could be defined as the belief that all scientific claims are ironic; the phrase "scientific truth" should always be bracketed with scare quotes. I'm not a postmodernist. I believe that science has discovered many profound, permanent truths about the universe, embodied in the periodic table, quantum mechanics and relativity, the big bang theory, evolutionary theory, the genetic code and so forth. I'm what a friend--an historian of science at my school—calls a naïve realist.]
For a while, I thought "ironic science" might go viral. Soon after my book was published, I wrote an essay for The New York Times about the proliferation of ironic science, which "advances hypotheses that, while often profound and provocative, should not be considered literally true."
As examples, I cited the string theorizing of Edward Witten, multiverse proposals of Andrei Linde and Sidney Coleman, quantum hypotheses of John Wheeler, musings on consciousness of Roger Penrose and Marvin Minksy, and chaotic models of Ilya Prigogine. The Times illustrated my essay with a drawing that, as I recall--I can't find it online—showed the periodic table with the element "Ironium" highlighted.
I ended the essay this way: "Why, if scientists can achieve real truth, do they indulge in ironic science? Because conventional science, as far as it has come, has left many mysteries unresolved. Are quarks and electrons made of smaller particles, which are in turn made of still smaller particles, ad infinitum? Is our universe just one of many universes? Was the evolution of conscious, intelligent beings inevitable or a fluke of nature?
"Lurking behind all these questions is the biggest question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? Unfortunately, scientists have even less hope of solving this riddle than literary critics have of deciding, once and for all, what Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' really means.
"I do not mean to imply that ironic science has no value. Far from it. At its best, ironic science, like great literature or philosophy or, yes, literary criticism, induces wonder. By addressing unanswerable questions and imagining realms beyond the reach of true science, ironic science helps insure that we remain forever awe-struck before the mystery of the universe. But ironic science cannot give us the truth."
Lately, references to my version of ironic science have been few and far between, so I'd like to thank Ronagh and Souder for giving me an excuse to re-assert my dismal meme. Their timing is terrific, since this spring Basic Books is publishing a new edition of The End of Science, with a new introduction by me.
I've often been asked if The End of Science was a joke, meant to be taken ironically. My answer is no. There's lots of irony in my book, but my claim that many fields of science are bumping up against fundamental limits was, and is, deadly serious.
Postscript: After I emailed him this column, Lawrence Souder, co-author of "The Ethics of Ironic Science In Its Search for Spoof," replied: "Thanks for your interest in my paper. I am aware of The End of Science, but I think that the concept, if not the exact expression, of ironic science goes back to at least Mulkay and Gilbert's (1982) 'Joking apart: Some recommendations concerning the analysis of scientific culture,' in which they describe and analyze those times when scientists speak ironically, as for example, 'When scientists use ironic forms to communicate with their colleagues, the combination of divergent perspectives is largely hidden from view' (p. 600). You will find other perspectives on the concept in the methods section of our paper."