In 1974 Robert Kirk wrote about the “zombie idea,” describing the concep that the universe, the circle of life, humanity, and our moment-to-moment existence could all have developed, identically with “particle-for-particle counterparts,” and yet lack feeling and consciousness. The idea is that evolutionally speaking, it is not essential that creatures evolved consciousness or raw feels in order to evolve rules promoting survival and adaptation. Such a world would be a zombie world, acting and reasoning but just not getting it (whatever it is).
I am not writing about Kirk’s idea. (At least, not yet.)
Rather, I’m describing the term in the way it was used in 1998, by four University of Texas Health Science Center doctors, in a paper titled, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will not Die”
(pdf). Here the relevant aspect of the term “zombie” is refusal to die, despite being killed in a reasonable manner. Zombie ideas are discredited concepts that nonetheless continue to be propagated in the culture.
While they (and just today, Paul Krugman) use the term, they don’t explicate it in great detail. I thought it might be fun to explore the extent to which a persistent false concept is similar to a zombie.
- A zombie idea is dead.
For the vast majority of the world, the “world is flat” is a dead idea. For a few, though, the “world is flat” virus has caught hold, and this idea persists even in technologically advanced cultures.
- A zombie idea is contagious.
Some economists are fond of the concept of “binary herd behavior.” The idea is that when most people don’t know about a subject, they tend to accept the view of the person who tells them about it; and they tend to do that in an all-or-nothing manner. Then they pass that ignorant acceptance on to the next person, who accepts it just as strongly. (More about the tyranny of the dichotomy later.) So, when we’re children and our parents belong to Political Party X, we may be for Political Party X all the way, even though we may barely know what a political party actually is.
- A zombie idea is hard to kill.
Some zombie viruses are very persistent. For example, most people still believe that height and weight is a good calculator to determine your appropriate calorie intake. Studies, however, repeatedly show that height and weight being equal, other factors can change the body’s response.Poor gut flora, certain bacteria, and even having been slightly overweight in the past can mean that of two people of the same height and weight, one will eat the daily recommended calories and keep their weight steady, and one will need to consume 15% less in order to maintain the status quo. Yet doctors and nutritionists continue to counsel people to use the national guidelines to determine how much to eat.
- A zombie idea eats your brain.
Zombie ideas, being contagious and false, are probably spreading through binary thinking. A part of the brain takes in the data, marks it as correct, and because it works in that all-or-nothing manner, contradictory or different data has a harder time getting the brain’s attention. It eats up a part of brain’s memory, and by requiring more processing power to correct it, eats up your mental processing time as well.It also steals all the useful information you missed because your brain just routed the data right past your awareness, thinking it knew the answer.
- Zombies are sometimes controlled by a sorcerer, or voodoo bokor.
Being prey to zombie ideas leaves you vulnerable. If you have the wrong information, you are more easily manipulated by the more knowledgeable. Knowledge, says Mr. Bacon, is power.
- Zombies have no higher purpose than to make other zombies.
Closely related to the previous point. Even if you are not being manipulated, your decision-making suffers greatly when you are wrongly informed. You are also passing on your wrong information to everyone you talk to about it. Not being able to fulfill your own purposes, you are simply spreading poor data.
So we see that the tendency to irony is not just useful in and of itself, but useful in helping prevent zombie brain infections. As lunchtime is nearly over, and I can’t think of more similarities, I’m stopping here to get something to eat.
[Exit Alex stage right, slouching, mumbling, “Must…eat…brains.”]