Conceptual zombies and vampires

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Lisa Feldman Barrett, "Zombie ideas", Observer 10/2019:

It’s October, a month auspicious for All Hallow’s Eve and everything spooky. Accordingly, our topic for this month is … zombies. Not the charmingly decayed corpses you encounter in movies and books, but zombie ideas. According to the economist Paul Krugman (2013), a zombie idea is a view that’s been thoroughly refuted by a mountain of empirical evidence but nonetheless refuses to die, being continually reanimated by our deeply held beliefs. […]

If you think that formal science training will zombie-proof your mind, you’re out of luck, my friend. Hordes of zombie ideas flourish in science (Brockman, 2015). They also fester in our own field, quietly biding their time in peer-reviewed papers and textbooks, waiting to infect another generation of unsuspecting psychological scientists.

You should read the whole article to see Barrett's list of Zombie Ideas in psychology, several of which have echoes in linguistics, e.g.

Here’s a shocker from APS Fellow Sari van Anders, social neuroendocrinologist: It’s time to bury the idea that “male” and “female” are genetically fixed, nonoverlapping categories (i.e., natural kinds). Evidence from numerous disciplines fundamentally disconfirms this common-sense view (Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate, & van Anders, 2019). For example, a variety of neuroscience findings refute sexual dimorphism of the human brain. Behavioral neuroendocrinology findings similarly challenge the notion that male and female are natural kind categories. Research from developmental and cultural psychology also suggests that our view of these biological categories as fixed and immutable is learned, malleable, and culturally variable. (For additional evidence and cogent analysis, see Dreger, 2000, 2015; Fine, 2010, 2014).

It's ironic that a column featuring the scientific influence of John Brockman should come out shortly after all the stories about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein:

Peter Aldhous, "How Jeffrey Epstein Bought His Way Into An Exclusive Intellectual Boys Club", Buzzfeed 9/26/2019 ("The Edge Foundation runs what has been called the 'world’s smartest website' and held annual 'billionaires’ dinners.' It was also financed by Jeffrey Epstein and gave him access to elite circles in science and tech.")
Elizabeth Lopatto, "Jeffrey Epstein infiltrated science because it was ready to accommodate him", The Verge 9/19/2019 ("What could 'nerd tunnel vision' possibly mean?")
Evgeny Morozov, "Jeffrey Epstein’s Intellectual Enabler", The New Republic 8/22/2019 ("How did Epstein meet so many luminaries in the worlds of science and technology? It all might trace back to literary agent John Brockman.");
Adam Rogers, "Jeffrey Epstein and the Power of Networks", Wired 8/27/2019 ("The billionaire child rapist bought his way into an elite crowd of intellectuals that defined the last three decades of science, tech, and culture.")
Kate Darling, "Jeffrey Epstein's influence in the science world is a symptom of larger problems" The Guardian 8/27/2019 ("I will not be working with the Brockman company on any further books.")
… etc. …

Maybe it's time for a book about vampire ideas.

Zombies are disgustingly decayed, rather slow and stupid, and dangerous only because they're persistent, infectious, and nearly unkillable. In contrast, vampires are strong, charming, lively, and quick — as long as they're not exposed to sunlight.

We've been writing about "zombie (usage) rules" ever since Arnold Zwicky coined the term in 2005, e.g.

"When zombie rules attack", 8/26/2008
"Teaching zombie rules", 2/26/2009
"The factual impenetrability of zombie rules", 4/9/2017

But what are "vampire ideas", in linguistics or elsewhere?

I hesitate to ask, since the question invites playground-level unpleasantness. So try to explore the metaphor rather than just insulting ideas (or people) you dislike.





  1. Mark Meckes said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 7:15 am

    I imagine you already know this, but Paul Krugman is very fond of zombie and vampire analogies in discussing economic policy.

  2. Mark Meckes said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    (Of course Krugman was already cited in the post regarding zombies; my point is that he's identified economic vampires, too.)

    [(myl) Yes — Krugman adopts the easy metaphor of wealth transfer to the rich as blood sucking. What about non-financial forms of metaphorical blood?]

  3. KevinM said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 8:45 am

    I always assumed that Matt Taibbi's 2010 comparison of a major investment bank to a "vampire squid" was just a creative extension of the familiar vampire metaphor, suggesting bloodsucking on a many-tentacled basis (with a nod to Frank Norris's Octopus).

    It turns out there actually is a vampire squid! (Vampyroteuthis infernalis, lit. "vampire squid from Hell") Very disappointing – it achieves a length of about one foot, and feeds not on human blood but organic detritus.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    I don't know enough intellectual history to give any certain answers, and if I did, I'd need to know a little more about vampire ideas. How long can they continue to be undead after being exposed to sunlight—a year, ten years, a lifetime? And how few believers do there have to be before the ideas are officially dead? Does it matter whether the remaining believers are in academia?

    Candidates: All of mathematics, or just number theory, could be built up from a few axioms to a proof of every true statement. Refuted by Gödel in 1931.

    Spontaneous generation. Refuted by Pasteur and (Wikipedia says) John Tyndall in the 1860s.

    I was going to suggest that vitalism in chemistry was refuted by Wöhler's synthesis of urea in 1828, but Wikipedia says I was the victim of a zombie idea in the history of science. "It took until 1845 when Kolbe repeated an inorganic – organic conversion of carbon disulfide to acetic acid before vitalism started to lose support.[5]" The footnote is to Ramberg, Peter, "Myth 7. That Friedrich Wöhler’s Synthesis of Urea in 1828 Destroyed Vitalism and Gave Rise to Organic Chemistry" eds. Numbers, Ronald L., and Kostas Kampourakis, Newton's apple and other myths about science.

    (ObLanguage: That combination of "It took until" and "before" isn't grammatical for me.)

  5. Jeb said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 10:09 am

    "What about non-financial forms of metaphorical blood?"

    The development of physical anthropology in the enlightenment. i.e Rousseau

    C. Frayling & and Robert Wokler, From the orang-utan to the vampire: towards an anthropology of Rousseau.

  6. SlideSF said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

    @Jerry Friedman-
    How about the whole of Astrology?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

    SlideSF: I was thinking that dying immediately in the sunlight was an essential characteristic of vampire ideas. Astrology certainly seems strong and charming to me. (I'm not sure whether it does any metaphorical blood-sucking, maybe distracting people from better ways of making decisions.) But plenty of sunlight has been shone on it and it's still shambling along, so in that way it resembles a zombie.

    Possibly we need a whole classification: ghost ideas, wraith ideas, werewolf ideas, lich ideas…

  8. Chandra said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

    How about something like the flat-earth theory, believed to have been good and dead for years, that has suddenly found a dismaying resurgence? I feel like that needs a stronger word than zombie. Maybe a revenant idea?

  9. Chandra said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

    As for vampire ideas related to language, the first thing that comes to mind is political parties' usage of euphemistic or dog-whistle words, and/or the co-opting of language from the other side of the spectrum which is then misapplied to other concepts with the intent to mislead voters. It's vampiric in that they are intentional deceptions meant to drain support from their opponents, and once they're brought to light they lose much of their power.

  10. The Other Mark P said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 6:45 pm

    Astrology. Homeopathy. The Labour Theory of Value. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Teachers should teach differently for different "Learning Styles".

    Every field has ideas that simply cannot be defeated.

  11. Phil H said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 10:57 pm

    These are not exactly academic ideas, but I think they infest the academy and suck the life out of many debates, so:
    1) The decline of the youth. The current incarnation being their softness and inability to listen to inimical ideas.
    (1b: An important corollary to this ideas is the importance of shaping the youth. Professors and university officials do no such lowly work as teaching their subject (that’s for adjuncts, perhaps); nay, they transform the young, who, being weak snowflakes, are in acute need of transformation.)
    2) Being critical is good, so being self-critical is extra-good. The media loves a self-lacerating academic. 99% Of Published Psychology Research Is Wrong! Peer Review Is Failing! The idea that pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge is hard, and publication is supposed to invite criticism and refutation is often forgotten. IMO, a little bit of self-criticism goes a long way; in reality, public science is one of the most powerful meta-institutions ever created.

  12. swapnil singh said,

    October 2, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    Astrology certainly seems strong and charming to me It's vampiric in that they are intentional deceptions meant to drain support from their opponents

  13. Chandra said,

    October 2, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

    I think we've just witnessed an example of a shapeshifter idea

  14. Alex Boulton said,

    October 3, 2019 @ 5:39 am

    There's a book by Jonathan Wells called "Zombie Science". There are certainly imperfections in evolutionary theory, but his agenda is to promote creationism (aka "design"). Was there ever a more unkillable zombie?

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 3, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    Chandra: No doubt about the shapeshifting.

  16. Sean M said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 5:33 am

    In ancient history and philology, a lot of current research takes the form "this widely accepted view associated with someone at a British or American university is a re-skinning of a view published in French or German before 1914 built on assumptions which we know are wrong." The other common form is when field A holds a theory, unaware that one of the planks has been undermined by work in field B because academe is so big now and people are discouraged from reading and judging works outside their field.

  17. Lope said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    Exiting the Vampire's Castle is about zombie ideas among political reactionaries

  18. John Ahearn said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    Learning styles–we're still trying to stamp those out on my campus, but our tutoring center won't hear of it. The Myers-Briggs Personality Test. Chomskyan linguistics (outside of computer science). Clifton StrengthsFinder. Microaggressions. White supremacy. It's a long list.

  19. Freedom Hai6 said,

    October 12, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

    Meyer – Briggs.

    Real psychologists class it along with astrology.

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