Economist John Quiggin coined term "zombie idea", originally for ideas in economy, which he explained as “Ideas are long-lived. They often outlive their originators, and, even when they have proved themselves wrong and dangerous, they are very hard to kill”.
Ecologist borrowed this, advertised by Dr. Jeremy Fox in his personal blog and also in his papers. The top "zombie ideas" he ranked are the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, r/K selection, species interactions are stronger and more specialized in the tropics, humped diversity-productivity relationships, “neutral” = “dispersal-limited”, and “neutral” = “drift” (see dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/lets-identify-all-the-zombie-ideas-in-ecology/). I personally found the term eye catching, but prefer to not label these ideas "zombie ideas". Although I am not an ecologist, I read all those arguments and found there was not enough evidence to conclude even some of the top ones (i.e. intermediate disturbance hypothesis, r/K selection, humped diversity-productivity relationships) wrong.
It is hard to determine, especially for some hard problems, that whether mixed evidences imply wrong hypothesis. As said by T. Huxley, “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact is the great tragedy of science”. It is probably more often than the opposite that beautiful hypotheses are abandoned even when problems are not even close to fully solved and conclusions are unclear, which I found true for those that were labeled as "zombie ideas". Isn't it a greater tragedy?
I'd rather call ideas that are simple, long lived, inspiring, and sometimes theoretically possible but short of empirical support or with mixed empirical evidence "elf idea", because elves live long and are elegant. As you see, by labeling ideas with different names and in an eye catching way changes people's feeling dramatically. By doing so, I don't mean to use this term as a paper tiger to fight against the other term, but rather, I hope, when a beautiful hypothesis is to be slayed, convincing evidence be shown as well. Moreover, the original hypothesis should be appreciated, even if it is definitely wrong, for its contribution in stimulating studies, new methodologies, new ideas, and for all the progresses made in the field because of it. After all, accidentally killing an elf is a big sin.
Nov 8, 2017
April 's blog