How many zombie ideas prowl our minds?
There are many stories about the undead, rising from the grave to threaten us when we thought they’d gone away. All entertaining enough, and darkly comedic too.
But there are other zombies too – zombie ideas. As Australian economist John Quiggin notes, “Some ideas live on because they are useful. Others die and are forgotten. But even when they have proved themselves wrong and dangerous, ideas are very hard to kill. Even after the evidence seems to have killed them, they keep on coming back.”
It’s tempting to believe that all of what you learnt at school still holds true today. This may be correct in most cases. But whatever age you are, so much of what you learnt is out-of-date, yet it re-emerges as a zombie idea later in life.
Zombie ideas in education
As a Geography teacher, I am acutely aware of the need to slay these zombies and to keep up to date with developments in the human and natural world since my own school days. So, for example, the idea that the world is split into a rich ‘north’ and a static, impoverished ‘south’ should be replaced with a more dynamic and complex picture. Similarly, my understanding of why tectonic plates (slabs of the earth’s crust) move has, thanks to educators like Alistair Hamill, moved beyond simplistic models of ‘convection currents’. And whilst many teachers (like me, until recently) like to portray Thomas Malthus as a pessimist who saw population growth forever curtailed by famine and war, he actually had more nuanced views.
In education, teachers have been subjected to several discredited initiatives. These include the notion of ‘learning styles’, which categorises pupils as either ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ learners. Veteran teachers will regale you of lesson plans which needed to address all three styles of learning, or even of pupils wearing badges indicating their status. The ‘zombie idea’ of each pupil having a preferred learning style has since been dismissed, yet it persists in some corners of the system.
Why do we accept certain ideas?
We shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves, as it is very tempting to accept certain ideas. Some of them seem to be ‘common sense’, and therefore they appeal to us, as we often default to the simplest explanations. Other ideas remain with us because we are wary of challenging them, as we were introduced to them by a figure of authority, such as a teacher or a parent.
Some ideas become accepted because they are repeated so many times, and in so many places, that we find it hard to believe that so many people can be wrong. One of these ideas, Quiggin writes, is ‘trickle-down economics’: the idea that policies that benefit the wealthy will ultimately help everybody. This idea had its heyday in the Reaganite and Thatcherite 1980s and 1990s, and this zombie was briefly resurrected by Liz Truss, despite being rejected by most economists.
Often, though, ideas persist because there is no reason to challenge them: they don’t seem to interfere with our daily lives, and so we just carry on living with them. But it is important to continually reassess our ideas, to see which ones are zombies, and which ones deserve to live on. This is especially applicable to the most persistent zombie ideas – those that are still with us because it takes a lot of time and effort, and a readjustment of our worldviews, to believe otherwise.
Slaying the ‘It’s natural!’ zombie idea
One such persistent zombie idea is that contemporary climate change is natural and that we are powerless to act. Most of us now accept the ‘inconvenient truth’ that human activity has caused the recent extremely rapid rise in air temperature and the number of extreme weather events. However, hardly a week passes when a columnist, letter writer, blogger, or ‘professional contrarian’ like Julia Hartley-Brewer resurrects the zombie idea of natural factors being behind recent changes in our climate.
Yes, our climate has changed significantly through the ages, but the pace of change in recent years is unprecedented. It is incredible to still be writing this in 2022, but the climate science is clear: humans are behind the most recent period of warming – according to the IPCC, “Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities” – and excess carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere mean that rises in temperature are baked into the atmosphere for decades to come, threatening civilisation and the biosphere alike.
Whenever and wherever you see the zombie idea of ‘natural climate change’ raise its ugly head, ask yourself why it is being expressed. Is it to achieve notoriety and payment for expressing outrageous views? Is it to protect vested interests in a certain way of life? Or is it because insufficient time has been spend critically examining the idea?
This autumn, let’s launch this zombie onto the bonfire and reset our conversation towards two more urgent aims: how can we control our emissions before we get to an irretrievably awful climatic situation, and how can we ensure that all parts of the world can adequately adapt to the changes that are already underway, and that will be with us in the future?