One of the most important movies of the horror genre is undoubtedly the classic Night of the Living Dead. It delivers social cultural commentary — and tells a horrifying tale involving the rising of dead people, who proceed to attack the living. It also marks the beginning of modern zombie movies. It is fair to say that all zombie stories of the last few decades owe a share of debt to this movie.
Zombies are of course an important element in the story. From the introduction of the term on Wikipedia:
A zombie (Haitian French: zombi, Haitian Creole: zonbi) is a mythological undead corporeal revenant created through the reanimation of a corpse. Zombies are most commonly found in horror and fantasy genre works. The term comes from Haitian folklore, in which a zombie is a dead body reanimated through various methods, most commonly magical practices in religions like Vodou. Modern media depictions of the reanimation of the dead often do not involve magic but rather science fictional methods such as carriers, fungi, radiation, mental diseases, vectors, pathogens, parasites, scientific accidents, etc.Wikipedia, retrieved June 11, 2023.
Here is an image of the original movie poster. The poster highlights in all-capital letters the essential horror: They won’t stay dead!
They just keep coming.
Recently I came across the term zombie ideas.
Perhaps coined by the Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, Zombie ideas are ideas, concepts or beliefs that refuse to die, even if they have been well refuted by empirical evidence, often repeatedly and resoundingly so. People keep them alive.
Typically, the idea has been disproven. It might be outdated. Perhaps it used to be, what people generally believed — until new knowledge emerged that provided better explanations. Experts in the field now agree the idea is false and they have empirical reasons that backs up their opinion. The idea continues to get traction, despite it all, perhaps even because of it all — if supporters of the idea also harbor a distrust against the experts, the establishment.
And perhaps the idea simplifies and overly relies on emotions – “I just know what I know! It feels right!” – or someone would simply really like it to be true.
There are many, many occurrences of this phenomenon. They are out there, often woven into the fabric of discourse, as such in relative plain sight. Here are just a few examples.
Climate change denial
Skepticism can be an important part of the scientific process. Unlike skepticism, flat-out denial here typically dismisses, regardless of the evidence. In this case, climate change denial refers to the denial or the unwarranted doubt of the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its causes or the scope of its possible impact. It hardly seems to matter what evidence is presented, the denier will not change their mind on their belief.
To this day, there continue to be people (apparently from around the world), who are convinced that the Earth is flat, despite there obviously being a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Fake moon landing
The Apollo program succeeded in landing the first humans on the moon. There are many inventive conspiracy theories that make claims doubting important portions of the program or even flat-out denying that the moon landing ever happened.
Vaccinations causing autism
Established medical consensus is that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. Numerous large-scale studies have been conducted and confirmed that there is no link. And yet, the belief seems to persist in the minds of some people: There must be a connection! Perhaps it is distrust of pharmaceutical companies or government agencies and probably over-reliance on anecdotal evidence or unduly simplified explanations for complex phenomena.
There is well-documented danger here. Anti-vaccination movements have contributed to the slowing of disease management and eradication efforts as well as the reemergence of diseases.
I do not think any particular field is immune to bad ideas. The older and more established an area of discourse, the more its history is likely littered with dead ends or pathways containing many twists and turns. Sometimes, a bad idea just will not die.
Do you know the zombie ideas in your field(s)?
How about some of the ideas you assume to be true, the obvious that you do not question in the day-to-day? Assumptions can bias you. Could you be missing something? Have you asked, how you might be wrong?
Does it matter?
Zombies carry disease and clear potential of harm. Zombie ideas bring their own share of problems.
We live in a reality-based world. Great decisions are often the result of clear thinking. Clear thinking benefits from a clear view of reality. Zombie ideas obstruct or distort that view.
If work is based on ultimately wrong assumptions or misguided goals, the resources invested do not deliver anything useful. Whether that involves taxpayer money, a company’s resources or an individual’s time and money – resources spent on the wrong thing are ultimately wasted.
Zombie ideas are distracting. By definition they were already disproven, so the continued space they occupy in a group’s discourse reduce attention on more productive areas of focus. They are a kind of noise. Worse yet, progress may be fully derailed, taking us on misguided paths or stuck in metaphorical dead ends.
The potential for abuse, even weaponization is obvious.
The term zombie evokes images of campy movies, perhaps gruesome stories. Maybe you associate danger, or perhaps it has you laughing. I think it is an appropriate, effective label, because hopefully it causes you to look up, when you see it used.
Beware the zombie ideas.
Imagine the stench.