Zombie Ideas

Zombie Ideas

One theme that we’ll be exploring in different ways through the Humanitas Centre is the process of integrating information from a variety of sources into one’s view and experience of the world. For example, how does knowledge from science, philosophy, history, theology, etc., fit together? What are the best practices for handling tensions or disagreements when one source seems to conflict with another? Steven Poole’s Guardian article “Why Bad Ideas Refuse to Die” addresses an aspect of this process through the concept of “zombie ideas.”

Many ideas have been brilliantly upgraded or repurposed for the modern age, and their revival seems newly compelling. Some ideas from the past, on the other hand, are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas. You can try to kill them, but they just won’t die.

Poole makes some interesting observations about the appeal of zombie ideas and the conspiracy theories that often support them. For example, if lots of people believing a zombie idea benefits an influential group of people, then it is likely to survive because people with power will help it survive. Also, adopting a conspiracy theory can provide perceived psychological benefits to the person holding it: as sense of superiority that comes with having ‘secret knowledge.’ Poole also discusses the scientific ‘marketplace of ideas’ including noting some problems and limitations within the common practice of peer review, where before a journal vets research results by established experts before publishing the results.

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