The most difficult part about being a fake scientist is telling people what you do for a living. It’s hard enough with friends, family members, and Internal Revenue Service auditors, but small talk is even rockier terrain. One summer on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, I found myself stammering in my airplane seat when the subject of occupations came up. Five-hour flights can create some awkward situations, but this one seemed particularly perilous. I had to admit I was a fake scientist. And I was sitting next to a real one.
Since 2010, I’ve been running a blog called Fake Science. It presents made-up science facts in the form of colorful educational posters. If you think the name is too on-the-nose, it is. But there are still a lot of people who think even my dumbest fake facts are real.
As the blog grew popular, educators, scientists, and eventually publishers took interest. I wrote a 272-page beast of a textbook called Fake Science 101, which covers all the scientific disciplines. It’s available for back-to-school season, just like a real textbook with pictures, footnotes, and even chapter quizzes. The book became a full-time gig, and it involved a lot of talking about science without being burdened by the facts. As an English and history major (in college I took Physics in the Arts and got a B), I was surprised to find myself a self-proclaimed expert. I wasn’t used to talking about science at all.
Occasionally, though, I found myself doing just that at parties, wedding receptions, and on airplanes. My seatmate on the flight out West was a government entomologist. Our conversation covered a range of topics, from her airplane reading about long-distance running to my plans for my trip. Bees were her area of expertise, and I was familiar with the year’s most popular bee news. I’d heard quite a few breathless reports about the phenomenon of “disappearing bees” around the world, and I wanted to hear her take. I fantasized about dark forces and apocalyptic scenarios. Without bees, where would we find the honey to put in our tea? Would parents have to sit their kids down for serious sexuality talks about only “the birds?”
What I didn’t tell her was that I had jokes in my textbook about her field, and a few of those jokes centered on the fact that bugs are icky. When I was holed up in my apartment, it seemed funny to write about bees and bears making honey together or to show a bee holding a protest sign, but it felt very awkward to mention them to somebody who had dedicated her career to the study of insects. Instead of elaborating on my work, I listened as she told me about urban beekeeping.
Though actual science has remained opaque to me during my tenure as a fake scientist, I have learned a bit about real scientists. When I started encountering them, I took an anthropological pleasure in analyzing their quirks and humor. (I’m so nonscientific that even when I’m pretending to be a scientist, it’s a social scientist.) I should note that my data on this group isn’t statistically significant or peer reviewed—I am, after all, the type of scholar who spends most of his time Photoshopping babies drinking from beakers. Still, I’ve gleaned a bit about scientists from having conversations, responding to Facebook comments, and reading enthusiastic tweets.
I learned quickly that real scientists—the people I’d satirized with crisp lab coats and serious lab-goggle-covered faces—could be incredibly silly. I should have known that from my friends in scientific fields, but it remained shocking to see lauded pros act gleefully absurd. When I created a fake gossip magazine about scientists, I never anticipated that Mike Brown would tweet back. (He’s an astronomer whose Twitter name, @plutokiller, should give you an idea how he feels about his role in declassifying Pluto as a planet.) That silliness drew scientists to my site, and their intelligence only enhanced it.