Climate scientist Marshall Shepherd has given a recent Ted talk on how climate change denial is kept alive by ‘zombie theories’ – theories that science has refuted again and again yet thrive outside the scientific establishment. Invisible underwater volcanoes are proposed as the primary emitters of greenhouse gases, despite it being pointed out that volcanoes don’t emit methane or nitrous oxide, and that the chemical signatures in the oceans such volcanoes would leave are not there. The sunspot cycle is still cited as a cause of climate change, despite painstaking explanations that this would primarily heat the stratosphere, and the stratosphere is not warming. The earth is cooling, people continue to say, despite the fact that there’s been the BEST study and others. The earth hasn’t warmed since the 1990’s… except this is irrelevant to the long term trend (and apparently wrong anyway now as data for recent years comes in).
The notion of ‘zombie theory’ was also used by John Quiggin, in his book Zombie Economics. This is a book about a body of economic theories that proved the impossibility of the 2008 crisis (and the current catastrophe in the Eurozone). Such theories, about as refuted as a theory can be, are still eagerly embraced and used to defend policies. Ideas about rational expectations and efficient markets that were used to build models according to which extreme business cycles were impossible are now used to show how austerity will produce growth.
Zombie theories are theories that were ‘killed’, that is, refuted, but remain undead insofar as people still believe in them and defend them. One thing that makes these theories like zombies is that they destroy people’s brains. Also they’ll probably bring about an apocalypse.
But in some ways they’re more like Tinkerbell; they are kept alive by sheer strength of belief and stupefied applause. Maybe we should rename them Tinkerbell theories. Climate change deniers and neoclassical economists often like to think of themselves as macho, hard-headed renegades, saving the softy left-wing establishment from itself, like Sergeant Riggs standing up to the bureaucratic, by-the-book chief, or Clint Eastwood grimacing at an empty chair. They might like being associated with zombies, who have more brawn than brains. I bet they won’t like being associated with a fairy, though. ‘Fairy’ used to be a derogatory term for a homosexual man, and homosexual men are effeminate and unnatural, according to zombie anthropology. Also, Tinkerbell’s best friends are little boys who never grew up, as are most climate change deniers and hardline market fundamentalists.
The comparison isn’t perfect, of course. Tinkerbell is nice, or at least harmless. Tinkerbell theories are not nice. Also, the idea of killing Tinkerbell isn’t appealing in the way that the idea of giving zombies the double-tap is. Maybe the theories should be Tinkerbell when their macho supporters are going all googly with applause for them and then turn into zombies when sensible people come to smash up their heads. Or maybe they should be zombie Tinkerbells – winged little putrefying mini-gorgons that fly into your ears and gobble your brains while you try to run a country. Whatever they are, I wish they would go away.