Internet denizens are familiar with Poe's Law: namely, that when it comes to the Web, it's pretty much impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody — someone, somewhere, will mistake the parody for the real thing.
Consider a letter to the editor featured recently at the New York Times, penned by Seth Lloyd, director of MIT's Center for Extreme Quantum Information.
Lloyd was responding to an article by Dennis Overbye on the quest for dark energy, and offered his own alternative explanation for what this mysterious substance might be: aliens. You heard me: aliens. To wit:
Okay, that last paragraph kinda gives the game away — that and the use of the phrase "modest proposal", a reference to the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, whose essay "A Modest Proposal" suggested that one could solve the potato famine in Ireland if the Irish simply began consuming their own offspring. Lots of people thought he was serious, so Poe's Law actually predates the Internet.
Lloyd's use of the phrase was a wink to the reader, a hint not to take his comments too seriously. But not everyone is familiar with that Swiftian satire, it seems. Two different people forwarded me the link to Lloyd's letter, indignant that such nonsense had appeared in the Gray Lady.
Part of the problem is that modern cosmology is filled with crazy-sounding ideas: our universe is much, much weirder than scientists once believed as recently as 100 years ago. The very notion of dark matter and dark energy is bizarre, although both are backed by solid observational data.
Dark energy is invoked to explain the discovery, in 1998, that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating, based on data gleaned from supernovae.
The strongest support to date for dark matter is the Bullet Cluster (pictured top): two colliding galaxy clusters 3 billion light years away. Per many scientists, overlaying images taken of the cluster in optical, x-ray and infrared regimes show clouds of dark matter separating from normal visible matter as a result of the collision.
Still, there are several perfectly respectable scientists out there who take issue with the prevailing theories, insisting that it is possible to modify gravitational theories to explain the observational data — including the evidence for dark matter provided by the Bullet Cluster images.
For instance, John Moffat at Canada's University of Waterloo argued in 2007 that a version of modified gravity in which the strength of gravity changes with distance — as opposed to being constant — can explain the data without resorting to dark matter. And in June 2010, scientists at Durham University argued that new satellite data could indicate that dark matter may not exist.
If theories of modified gravity don't float your boat, there's always the bona fide crazy: in 2000, a man named Don DeYoung concluded – in that bastion of scientific rigor known as the Creation Research Society Quarterly — that "the hand of god was responsible for holding rapidly spinning galaxies and larger systems together."
Or could it be…. aliens??? I mean, if you're going to make up your own reality to conform to your pre-existing beliefs, why not go big?
When in doubt, it's best to go straight to the source. I emailed Lloyd, who confirmed that his letter to the editor was written with tongue (firmly) in cheek, although "Given that we don't know what the dark matter is, we shouldn't rule out the possibility of it having rich structure, supporting life, etc."
He originally sent the letter as an email to Overbye, who found it amusing and suggested Lloyd submit it as a letter to the editor. And it was accepted: "Apparently the editor has a sense of humor." Not so much the New York Times readers, "a substantial fraction" of whom took Lloyd's modest proposal seriously; there were several outraged responses. "Irony is dead," Lloyd concluded. "Or at least enfeebled." That is the essence of Poe's Law.