I first ran across the phrase “zombie ideas” in Paul Krugman’s writings, either here or here—probably the latter. In the first post from November 2007, Krugman refers to this document from the Health Policy Institute, titled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will Not Die.” That study introduces the following phrase in its text: “These false ideas (or “zombies”) carry with them implicit policy recommendations bearing on some aspect of health care financing” (p. 6). The HPI piece was written in 1998.
Although I have found several other instances, beyond HPI and Krugman, where the phrase appears, the year 1998 seems to mark the first public appearance of the phrase “zombie ideas” in thoughtful public discourse. So much for etymology. Perhaps one of our readers—a historian with a penchant for lexicography and a fetish for the undead (hah!)—can add to this story?
But what does the phrase mean? And what is its epistemology? Addressing the former question, Krugman called them “false stories that refuse to die, and just keep coming back.” The 1998 HPI study correspondingly says they are ideas with a “tendency to re-emerge.” It then indirectly expands the definition of the phrase in several ways:
Yet in the United States the idea that consumer co-payments make good economic (and perhaps moral) sense steadfastly resists permanent burial. Why? The interest in user charges bears the familiar hallmarks of a zombie. First, in spite of its popularity, it is intellectually dead, and second, its overwhelming appeal is a product both of its public resonance, and of the efforts of powerful interest groups to keep it on the agenda (p. 24).
Teasing my concerns from the context of the HPI excerpt, it appears that zombie ideas are (in order of importance):
(1) intellectually dead, or are between death and life currently (hence they arise from the grave);
(2) bad (or evil);
(3) scary (people tremble at the emotional encounter);
(4) kept alive by interest groups (political or otherwise); and
(5) primarily political (or at least zombie ideas recur in this context the most).
I do not mean this list to be exhaustive; consider it a beginning. BTW: In a more humorous vein, it seems the HPI study is THE starting point for understanding zombiology in the realm of ideas.
As for epistemology, what of the science or study of this phenomenon (zombiosis, if you prefer) in the world of ideas? How does this process happen? Perhaps only the specialized historical study of interest groups will reveal changes over time: the peculiar phases, duration, and, most importantly, how zombie ideas are killed once and for all (or are they!)? It seems clear that politicians would benefit from an exhaustive study of these ideas.
I am most curious, speaking somewhat more seriously, of what ideas the historians of U.S. intellectual life feel are zombies? What ideas have recurred the most, or are the most relevant, in the history of the United States? Of course an answer to this question might indict the historians themselves. For the question could be phrased: What ideas have historians resurrected over and over to explain change in U.S. history, particular with regard to its intellectual life? So this could digress into an ad hominem thread that beats up on particular historians. That’s not my goal. Besides, a comparable taxonomy has already been constructed once before by David Hackett Fisher.
What say you? What are the most important, most cited, or most over-used ideas in U.S. intellectual history? Or what have I missed in defining the meaning of zombie ideas? – TL