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zombie idea

According to Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, a zombie idea is "a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both." Examples include the idea of a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, and a geocentric universe. Further examples include belief in homeopathy and various forms of energy medicine that involve claims about a vital force or subtle energy that is somehow related to health and disease. (Krugman says that he first saw the phrase 'zombie idea' in the context of myths about Canadian health care.)

According to Krugman, an economist, the "classic zombie idea in U.S. political discourse is the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves." Another zombie idea, on its way to becoming a classic in U.S. political discourse, is the notion that climate change is a hoax.

Astrology is one of the oldest zombie ideas. Our ancient ancestors had to be observors of patterns in the sky, as those patterns were one of the few guides they had for knowing when the seasons were changing, the herds were migrating, and the like. It was natural to connect patterns in the sky with what happened on Earth and to think that the patterns in the sky caused the actions down below. We know better now, but "in 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was 'not at all scientific,' whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983."* About one of every five adult Americans believes that patterns in the sky influence events and personalities down below on our planet.*

Two recent zombie ideas seem to gain stregth as more evidence against them is gathered: the belief that vaccinations cause autism and the believe that cell phones cause brain tumors.

Classic zombie ideas in religion include young Earth creationism, intelligent design, and the idea that the existence of Abraham's god is implied by the intelligent order and beauty of the universe. We can be confident that there will always be an audience for faith healers and miracle workers, despite the mountains of evidence that faith never healed anybody and miracles (violations of the laws of nature) don't really happen.

Other zombie ideas include beliefs in sorcerers, witches, dowsers, ghosts, mediums, and psychics with paranormal powers such as clairvoyance, precognition, or the ability to solve crimes or find missing persons.

No matter how many times these ideas have been buried beneath logical analysis and the evidence, somebody manages to dig up their graves, prop them up with new sticks and strings, and invent a vocabulary that resonates in the amygdalae of zombie-idea lovers everywhere.

Zombie ideas are sometimes referred to as unsinkable rubber duckies (James Randi) and whack-a-mole ideas. Like many zombie-ideas, some rubber duckies are unsinkable because people want to believe in things like faith healing, miracles, and infinite energy supplies. Some zombie ideas are impossible to kill forever because our brains are hardwired for magical thinking. It is unnatural to trust science, logic, and critical thinking. Our instincts are on the side of the zombie-idea advocates.

Last updated 08-Apr-2014

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