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August 18, 2005

Intelligent Following

Note: This article has been updated. See the end for a response from The Onion.

The idea that the government would want to promote teaching a theory of "Intelligent Falling" alongside gravity in science classes around the nation—as reported by the Onion this week—is a hilarious commentary on the state of this country. It has also been done before.

An Onion article entitled "Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory" brutally mocks the proponents of Intelligent Design with made-up quotations like this:

"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

All of which bears tremendous resemblance to a comic strip written by D.C. Simpson three months ago (and linked to by BoingBoing). In the strip, a cross-bedecked man says:

All those secular scientist types can't disprove that maybe things just fall if and when God—er I mean an 'Intelligent Faller'— wants them to.

Simpson realizes that he had the same idea as the Onion writers several months before them, but claims he is not upset. "I have two theories," he tells Gelf over email:

1. It's sheer coincidence. And since that means I not only had the same idea as the Onion writers, but had it three months earlier, my skills as a satirist are somewhat validated by this.

2. It's subconscious theft. Like when George Harrison was sued for accidentally stealing the song "He's So Fine" and rewriting it as "My Sweet Lord." [Eds: The Straight Dope] Perhaps someone at The Onion is reading my stuff (I did get a fan letter from a guy who said he was an Onion writer, a few years ago), and his/her brain churned up this idea from May and recycled it. Which would be no less of a compliment.

The Onion publishes several stories every week about a variety of topics, so it's only natural that occasionally the ideas behind the material they use aren't entirely original. (Compare this archived version of an Onion article about Wal-Mart to a an extremely similar one published earlier in The Spoof.)

In other words, Intelligent Following happens. There are only so many funny ideas, and the best satirists occasionally come up with the same ones. Simpson, who says he has been intentionally plagiarized before, does not doubt the Onion's motives. (Gelf called the Onion for comment, and if we hear back from them we'll update the post.) "If it was someone other than the Onion I might be upset," he says. "In either case, I hope I can think of a way to shamelessly milk this, but I'm not much of a marketer. I'm just someone who owns pens."

Who knows? Maybe this experience will help Simpson sell some merchandise.

UPDATE:

Todd Hanson, a member of The Onion's writing staff, tells Gelf what happened.

Dear David,

Well, you caught us—we did, of course, intentionally plagiarize the idea, with deliberate and premeditated criminal intent. We are sorry to have constantly pulled the wool over everyone's eyes this way, but you deserve kudos for finally blowing the lid off this story and exposing our nefarious misdeeds. In fact, as long as the truth is coming out, we should just go ahead and admit right now that we have intentionally plagiarized literally every idea we have ever published. Truth be told, we plagiarized the entire concept of "humor" from an ancient Greek named Aristophanes, (although some feel even he may not have originated it, but been copying from some previous source himself) and the concept of "printing" from Gutenberg. We also stole the idea of putting content on the "internet" from Gelf Magazine. We are sincerely apologetic about this and promise it will never happen again.

sincerely,
Heywood Jablomi*
The Onion Board of Directors

*Note: not an original joke name.

PS: In all seriousness though, we had no idea. The strip you linked to was funny though. And thank you for your compliments…
we appreciate your kind words.







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