TOK and zombies

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1607 zombieUntil this very moment I hadn’t realized exactly what’s been missing in my TOK classes.  Zombies! I’ve been missing zombies. For years I’ve introduced terms such as “justification”, “counter-argument” and “refutation”. For years I’ve compared areas of knowledge on the basis of whether their knowledge claims could be tested, and whether and why people in those fields would consider rejecting them. “And so you should,” you might say. After all, that’s core TOK. But don’t you think it lacks a bit of….je ne sais quoi… a bit of colour, perhaps…a bit of personality? Wouldn’t students find refuted ideas much more attractive if presented in terms of zombies?

“Some ideas from the past… are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas. You can try to kill them, but they just won’t die.” This comment in an excellent recent article by Steven Poole in The Guardian put an immediate smile on my face. (“Why bad ideas refuse to die”)

Wouldn’t it add a bit of fun to class to have zombies occasionally shambling metaphorically through? I’ve bumped into the term “zombie ideas” before, but never before considered using it to animate a class with images from the zanier side of popular culture. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, for one, uses the term for ideas that linger on in the popular mind long after they have been discarded by appropriate areas of knowledge: “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead – but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”

I recommend the enjoyable article by Steven Poole for the treatment it gives zombie ideas (“Why bad ideas refuse to die”), dealing with their range and the reasons for which they live on.   And I invite you to join me it using the metaphor “zombie ideas” to engage student imaginations.  Why have I never done this before?  After all, some of the most influential ideas of our current era, such as the continued denial of climate change that clings on persistently in some forums, have zombies lumbering through them, preserved as undead by political and economic interests. We can deal with these in class with abstract terminology and earnestness, assuredly. But we can probably deal with them more effectively when also using vivid images and humour.


Robert Todd Carroll, “zombie idea”, The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Steven Poole, “Why bad ideas refuse to die”, The Guardian, June 28, 2016.