Ironic Science: The Search for Spoof

Project #: 75
Name: Souder, Lawrence (; 215-895-2730)
Department: Culture and Communication
Academic Area: Anthropology/Communication/English/Philosophy/Science, Technology, and Society/Sociology

Title: Ironic Science: The Search for Spoof

Most scientists will publicly claim that their goal is to discover and report the truth. Most science that is published in peer-review research journals reflects this goal. However, the British Medical Journal has a tradition of publishing an annual Christmas issue that includes one or more research papers in which the authors have their tongue in cheek. No one who’s in the know takes these papers seriously even though they are written in the conventional form and style of a research journal. The authors of such papers are essentially saying one thing but meaning another--the classic literary move known as irony. Certainly scientists are human and should be allowed to exercise a sense of humor. However, for readers who are not in the know, such spoofs of scientific research can be seriously misleading. / / One example of the British Medical Journal’s ironic science had just this effect. In a paper entitled “Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: Randomised controlled trial” the author assumed as a central premise the fact that time at the human level could run backwards, a notion that should have violated the sensibilities of all legitimate scientists. Yet this same research paper was later cited in the very prestigious Cochrane Reports as an authentic piece of scientific research. / / What happened to the irony in this paper? Why did the editors of the Cochrane Report miss it? Was it too subtle? Were the editors too dense? These questions are the basis for this humanities fellowship project. The student who selects this project will help me to explore the conventional content and style of published biomedical research papers and to search for any differences in those published in the British Medical Journal that reveal irony to those in the know. The approach to this exploration will use the literary and rhetorical tools of analysis to examine the figure of speech known as irony.

Associated Independent Study:
I will offer the student the option of a three-credit independent study project on the background materials that undergird the research project. This course will be based on the following learning objectives: / • to describe the conventional content and style of published biomedical research papers / • to explain the nature of the figure of speech known as irony / • to apply the literary and rhetorical tools of analysis for examining irony / / An example of the kind of reading for this course is the following paper: / / Pexman, Penny, M., Whalen, Juanita M., and Green, Jill J. (2010). Understanding verbal irony: Clues from interpretation of direct and indirect ironic remarks. Discourse Processes. 47 (3), 237-261.

Gained Experience:
1. An awareness of the conventional content, form, and style of research publications / 2. A sensitivity to the figure of speech known as irony / 3. An ability to conduct a literary and rhetorical analysis of irony

The goal of this project is to produce a published research paper for one of the journals specializing in the communication of science (e.g., Public Understanding of Science, Science Communication, and Science, Technology, and Human Values). The outcome of my collaboration with a Humanities Fellow in 2011 was the following published research paper: "Ad Hominem Arguments in the Service of Boundary Work among Climate Scientists," with Furrah Qureshi, Journal of Science Communication, Volume 11, Issue 1, January, 2012.

Examine the content, form, and style of biomedical research papers / Collect specimens of research papers that exhibit irony / Analyze the specimens to discover literary and rhetorical patterns in the use of irony

Libraries and seminar rooms on campus

at least one three-hour meeting per week

Interview Availability: March 5, March 6, March 7