Phil Edwards believes that, contrary to popular belief, the tomato isn’t actually a vegetable—it’s a type of nut. He explains how Moore’s law states that every two years, we double the amount of time wasted on computers, notes that Einstein used the The Theory of Relatives to prove he was his own grandpa and strongly advocates the purchase of accidental-eyebrow-removal insurance before embarking on a career in chemistry.
To complex scientific phenomena that others approach with rigorous experiments and a steadfast belief in the reliability of the scientific method, he parachutes in with a disregard for data and a love for the absurd. In other words, unlike most of the people mentioned on this blog, Edwards isn’t a real scientist. He’s a fake scientist.
Since 2010, he has produced the blog Fake Science, a “less-than-factual” site crammed with “scientifically-flavored information” that is best consumed “when the facts are too confusing.” Earlier this month, following in the traditions of the long-beloved Journal of Irreproducible Results and Science Made Stupid, he published Fake Science 101: A Less-Than-Factual Guide to Our Amazing World. We spoke with the Edwards to discuss why he started churning out such absurd science facts and how fake science can actually provide real educational value.
How did you first get into this?
I had a running joke with a friend, where he and I would walk around and explain various phenomena that we didn’t understand—anything from the weather to the reason that we weren’t getting good cell phone reception—by saying that some sort of “science” must be involved.
I realized that, even if I understood one thing very well, the world is so confusing that there are always other things that I would only have a superficial knowledge of. And I realized that this is true for experts, too—if you took James Watson, who is obviously an expert in biology, and asked him to explain, say, Skype, he probably would not have a good idea of how it works. So I thought about how this is fairly universal, and that there might be a place for fake science, where I could explain everything but not have the burden of actual knowledge to slow me down.
What’s your science background, or lack thereof?
I definitely would never have predicted I’d be so immersed in fake science! I studied history and English in college, so I feel a little chagrin at that, and I also had a few mandatory science classes. As far as my current science reading, I definitely skew towards the pop science end of the spectrum.
Do you ever encounter people who take your science seriously?
Yeah, definitely. It mostly happens when one of my blog posts diffuses out past my readers, who know that it’s a joke, and it gets off the site and maybe doesn’t have the label “fake science” plastered on the top of it. So sometimes the stupidest things will be interpreted as real. Anytime I do a cat joke, because people on the internet love cats so much, I’ll get really angry cat people writing in, saying “That’s not how cats work! What are you talking about?” So it seems like the more popular the actual topic, the more likely it is to be interpreted as real.
Why do you think people like fake science?
Science is good for satire because, to outsiders, it seems like such an authoritative source, so it lends itself to being satirized. Real scientists are not necessarily like that, but the public image of science is that it has such a stiff upper lip.
Have you ever written fake science facts that turned out to be true?
I once wrote about birds laying different color eggs for Easter, and it wasn’t even a very good joke, and then to add insult to injury, I found out that there are a lot of birds—like robins, and even chickens in South America—that lay colored eggs. I got some feedback, and I realized, “well, my science isn’t fake anymore.”
I always tread very carefully when it comes to physics, because I do not want my lack of knowledge to come back to bite me. It’s such a difficult field for someone to joke about, because the most counterintuitive-seeming ideas can end up being true.
Do you think fake science can have any real actual educational value?
Well for me, I’ve been writing the blog for two years, and now the book, so I’ve been immersed in science for two years straight—and that’s forced me to think about science all that time. I wanted the book to resemble a real textbook, so I had to look at, for example, astronomy, and learn what the most important elements of astronomy are. So ironically, I got a bit of a remedial education in all of these subject areas, just because I had to learn how to subject the parody.
Also, I’ve already gotten a few responses from teachers who are considering using the book in their curriculum, which was really cool. One teacher who wrote me, she was a high school teacher, and I think she was considering using it in an English class, but there have been lots of science teachers who have written me, saying that they might use the book to spark discussion among students—the idea that they’ll take my fake explanation to spark interest, and then ask the class to postulate possible real explanations.
Update: Since this interview, Fake Science 101 was banned by the Houston Independent School District because it “would reflect poorly on the district.” Edwards’ response? A double ban!
We have decided the ban on Fake Science 101 should be banned. Double ban! fakescience.tumblr.com/post/303186970…
— Fake Science (@FakeScience) August 27, 2012