Parody in Science

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 28 Jul 1999 10:54:45 -0500

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Date: Wed, 28 Jul 1999 10:54:45 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Parody in Science
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David Hull's 1988 book _Science as a Process_ points out that scientific
disagreements are often marked by surprising rates of parody. My own
impression of this is that much scientific parody is not deliberately
developed with the intention of parody in mind. Rather, parody often seems
to result from the usual human tendency to exaggerate the relative merits
of one's own work, often producing self-delusion about rival works.
Eagerness to distinguish one's work from competing works and theories also
seems to play a part.

In the selection process, it may be that those who absolutely avoid parody
typically fail to distinguish their work sufficiently to achieve wide
acclaim, leaving those who engage in some degree of parody advancing (on
average) to higher prominence and thus becoming more widely imitated.
Working against this, however, is the fact that the higher the level of
parody one exhibits, the more susceptible one becomes to charges of poor
scholarship. Going to the extreme of extensively or systematically
falsifying a colleague's work can damage one's credibility. Such opposing
selection pressures can favor an intermediate level of parody, perhaps
affecting only a small fraction of statements about colleagues' work but
still happening often enough to surpise those who hold an idealistic view
of science.

Awareness of the surprising frequency of parody in science can, however,
lead some to conclude that parody and even extensive falsification are just
the ways one advances in science. This can result in making a large and
abrupt high-side departure from the levels of parody that have been
produced by generations of selection. Individuals who take this cynical
reading of Hull and put it to practice may engage in the kinds of
systematic falsification that can damage their credibility and professional
reputations. Any field of science where the awareness of Hull's work is
more common may even exhibit a discipline-wide loss of credibility in
comparison to other sciences. Hopefully, such an effect will not become a
long-term burden facing memetics. (I should point out that Hull himself
favors greater camaraderie among memeticists.)


Hull, D. 1988. _Science as a Process_. University of Chicago Press.

--Aaron Lynch

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