What Fake Science Can Teach Us About Real Books

Inspired by Edwards' popular Tumblr, Fake Science, his recent book Fake Science 101 follows in the ever-growing trend of parodies and blogs-to-books. "Science is the beginning of a conversation," he writes. We talked to him to find out what the fake stuff can teach us about the real—in science, of course, but also in the broader book world.

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Phil Edwards is the author of Fake Science 101, a recently published textbook about "fake science." The book is stamped with the words fake and less than factual, and Edwards freely admits he's an English and history major who got a B in his college's "Physics in the Arts" class—it's not a science book, in actuality, but a humor one, in which he is free to make up facts and stories as his heart desires. For instance, also on the cover: "Biology answers big questions. The chicken or the egg: which tastes better?" Then there are the, shall we say, avant-garde book blurbs, like this one:

"For the last time, I am not the physicist Stephen Hawking. I'm Steve Hawking and I'm a business administrator in Ohio. I will not read your book."

—Stephen Hawking, Says He's Not The Physicist, But Who Knows?

It's a pretty obvious parody, but nonetheless, recently educators in Texas were expressly prohibited from purchasing the book over fears that it would poorly reflect upon their school district even if used as an "alternative textbook." (You've got to get kids into science somehow, right?) Per a memo reportedly sent by the district to its teachers, "We cannot have our district ridiculed as a non-scientific one (see many Westinghouse/Intel awardees)." On the plus side, for our fake scientist author: When people are trying to ban what you've written, you know you've made it!

Inspired by Edwards' popular Tumblr, Fake Science, the book follows in the ever-growing trend of meme-ready blogs-to-books, and was published in August by Adams Media. It begins, "The world is full of questions, and science provides every answer. Once you learn these answers, you're guaranteed to half-remember them for the rest of your life." While there's plenty of fun and games and charts and tongue-in-cheekiness, the book snazzily packaged in keeping with today's viral needs, as Edwards wrote in Slate in August, it's not always so easy being a fake scientist. People don't exactly get it, for one—especially if they're real scientists you happen to be seated next to, say, on airplanes, with whom you're expected to make small talk. (And, what, exactly, is the science of small talk? We would like to know that.) But Edwards says he learned a lot about real scientists in the process of writing the book, and, as he wrote for Slate, "Science is the beginning of a conversation." We continued that conversation, speaking to Edwards to find out what the fake stuff can teach us about the real—in science, of course, but also in the broader book world.

Jen Doll: How did you come to write a fake science book? Tell us about the process of writing it.
Phil Edwards: I started the blog that Fake Science 101 is based on because a friend and I had a running joke: He and I would explain various phenomena by simply saying the word science. I realized that I didn't understand everything from cell-phone towers to frog reproduction, so I decided to remedy that without the burden of learning the facts.

Though the blog is image based, the textbook I wrote is like any traditional textbook, chock full of footnotes, quizzes, and even scientific quotes. That process involved my learning about real science so I could figure out the best way to teach the fake stuff.

How did you do that?
I admit this at my own peril, but Wikipedia was a huge resource for me. Because the book is structured like a traditional textbook, I needed to still "teach" the reader about astronomy, biology, and other disciplines, even if the facts were false. So Wikipedia helped me figure out a structure for the book that was pedagogically sound (disclaimer for pedagogues: it is only sound enough to get you fired).

Chapters that I half-remembered facts about already were easier: I misremember enough about astronomy that I can mock the things that we all pretend to know. Physics, however, was more difficult—so much has been appropriated by sci-fi, and so much is just plain weird, that I had to do a little more research. In some ways, it was more freeing, however. In the astronomy chapter, I could only say so much about the moon, but the weirdest of the physics chapter let me invent a lot of stuff about Newton (his obsession with apples, physical laws for houseguests, and descent into senility).

What was your goal in writing the book?
There's a long tradition of parody textbooks, and I tried to make a book that echoed their virtues: something intricate, alternately smart and silly, and packed full of secret jokes that reward rereading. Plus, if people don't see the cover, they might think you're actually learning when you're reading it.

That's what the Texas school district was worried about, I guess! But do fake and real science ever converge?
I think fake science and real science do converge a lot—just ask Jonah Lehrer. I think when real science is appropriated to end a debate, it becomes close to fake. Real science has a skeptical, data driven, and argumentative spirit that most "A Study Has Shown" articles lack. That said, all this is rather heavy pontificating for a guy who primarily Photoshops babies drinking from beakers.

Fake science is definitely more reassuring, clear, and comforting than real science. It gives you easy answers without confusing equivocation or counterarguments. Plus, when would real science give you a scientist who wears their lab coat without any pants?

What can we learn from fake science? 
I think that fake science can be a useful prompt for teachers to work their way through to real science. Though the science in the book has varying degrees of plausibility, I think that the skepticism humor encourages is a good way to introduce students to science. That's what teachers tell me, at least. I just like giggling at the pictures of chimpanzees in spacesuits.

What are your favorite real and fake items of science trivia?
I think anything about physics takes the cake for me, both in fake and real life. They converge with this bit of trivia about Einstein: He married his cousin, Elsa Einstein (true), and subsequently developed his Theory of Relatives, e=mc2, which states that Einstein could marry his cousin as long as she was also his second cousin (less true).

Does the publishing of fake textbooks say anything about the book industry overall, in your opinion? 
I think that if my book demonstrates any broader trend, it's that publishers increasingly seek authors with pre-existing audiences or concepts.

What other fake books do we need, and why?
I think Fake History could be a lot of fun, especially since I have a bit of Ben Franklin in Fake Science 101 and he's always amazing. I also wouldn't mind a fake pop science book. Possible title: Imagine Moonwalking While You're Blinking. I'm not certain what projects will be next for Fake Science, but I plan to keep the site going and explore more. There's a lot of fertile ground yet, and if I don't make it up, I don't know who will.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.