I said in my previous post about knowledge that path dependence can result in certain outcomes that would not have occurred if the path initially chosen had been just slightly different. I want to look at another side of this: zombie ideas.
This post follows up on my previous one and is more question than opinion, let alone an answer to the question.
Martin Wolf wrote a piece in the FT a few days ago, where he listed a number of bad ideas and untruths about Brexit that simply refuse to die. (Ergo, zombie ideas.)
I tweeted a link to his piece thusly:
See that last hashtag? I put it down a bit facetiously as a word that rhymed with "policy". But I've actually been seriously thinking about this for a fair bit and thought today that it was worth a proper post.
We all know that drinking orange juice or ingesting vitamin C in other forms is good for preventing and curing the common cold. We do know this, right?
This was a theory that was brought to mass attention in the 1970s by Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and a superstar of the field of molecular biology. Pauling also believed in the use of vitamin C in cancer therapy. He continues to be regarded as one of the most important scientists of all time for work done earlier in his life. However, his claims about vitamin C have been tested by other scientists since the early 1980s and been found wanting. My understanding is that the medical community at large does not support his claims about vitamin C.
Nevertheless, this idea refuses to die. Post on Facebook that you're coming down with a bad cold and you will invariably receive a few well-meaning exhortations to "Take vitamin C!"
So my question is: why? There is some connection to the idea of path dependence, of course, but that doesn't explain it fully.
Daniel Levitin mentions in this video in an unrelated context that:
[…] by some estimates the amount of scientific information in the world in the last 20 years equals all of the scientific information generated up to that point in history [around the 21:52 mark]
Forget about whether the 20-year estimate is accurate. It seems at least directionally true. The rate of generation of information has sped up dramatically (and there's no reason to suppose that it does not continue to speed up even further). If this is so, why continue to rely on old claims that have subsequently been shown to be incorrect?
Why do things that are known to be false continue to live on as "truths" in people's minds?
- Comfort in the familiar?
- Some other kind of status quo bias?
- Reliance on one's favourite authority?
- Lazy thinking and inappropriate reliance on heuristics?
- Insufficient dissemination of newer or correct information?
- Confusion when faced with claims that contradict each other?
- Siding with the tribe that one identifies with?
- Identification of oneself with a certain pet theory and therefore the unwillingness to call that theory into question because of the harm to one's own ego?
- Lack of critical thinking training being provided in schools?
It is also true that many other claims that have been shown to be untrue have fallen out of favour with the world at large. Such as, say, communism, the idea that an ether permeates the entire universe, that women must not ride bicycles because it would give them "bicycle face", and on and on.
What separates the ideas that do die from zombie ideas?
I'd love to know.