The Thinking 

Zombie Science

December 11, 2012


THIS 2008 article by Bruce Charlton is relevant to the recent discussion here of social science studies. The article concerns the scientific world at large, which Charlton describes as rife with “zombie science.” He defines zombie science as the “sinister consequence of evaluating scientific theories purely on the basis of enlightened self-interest.” He writes:

In the real world it looks more like most scientists are quite willing to pursue wrong ideas for so long as they are rewarded with a better chance of achieving more grants, publications and status. The classic account has it that bogus theories should readily be demolished by sceptical (or jealous) competitor scientists. However, in practice even the most conclusive ‘hatchet jobs’ may fail to kill, or even weaken, phoney hypotheses when they are backed-up with sufficient economic muscle in the form of lavish and sustained funding. And when a branch of science based on phoney theories serves a useful but non-scientific purpose, it may be kept-going indefinitely by continuous transfusions of cash from those whose interests it serves. If this happens, real science expires and a ‘zombie science’ evolves. Zombie science is science that is dead but will not lie down. It keeps twitching and lumbering around so that (from a distance, and with your eyes half-closed) zombie science looks much like the real thing. But in fact the zombie has no life of its own; it is animated and moved only by the incessant pumping of funds. If zombie science is not scientifically-useable – what is its function? In a nutshell, zombie science is supported because it is useful propaganda to be deployed in arenas such as political rhetoric, public administration, management, public relations, marketing and the mass media generally. It persuades, it constructs taboos, it buttresses some kind of rhetorical attempt to shape mass opinion. Indeed, zombie science often comes across in the mass media as being more plausible than real science; and it is precisely the superficial face-plausibility which is the sole and sufficient purpose of zombie science. [cont.]

Also, in this 2010 post at his blog, Charlton wrote:

I find that I now cannot trust the medical research literature _at all. I trust a few individual individuals but I do not trust journals, not fields, not funding agencies, not scholarly societies (like the Royal Society, universities, or the NAS) not citations, not prizes (Nobel etc) – in my opinion, none of these are trustworthy indices of scientific validity – not even ‘on average’.

The system is so corrupt that finding useful and valid science (and, of course, there is some) is like finding a needle in a haystack.

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