A Brief History of Academics Writing Seriously About Zombies

October 31, 2014

Academics have debunked fears of a zombie outbreak. But that certainly hasn’t stopped them from planning for one.

In 2009 a Canadian research team published a mathematical model for how a zombie virus might spread and what governments would have to do in order to stop it. A few years later, a pair of U.S. researchers expanded on that work and demonstrated how similar modeling techniques could be used to predict the spread of influenza.

This is the context of most zombie-related research: trying to better understand how actual diseases spread. And in a world where people are suggestible to zombie hoaxes any time a scary illness like Ebola is in the news, it makes sense to try to harness that pop-culture fetish in the service of educating people.

But feeding people’s appetite for zombie scenarios can be a tricky science. When serious researchers talk about zombies with anything resembling a straight face, misunderstandings can spread through the public imagination faster than scientists can contain them.

A Zombie 'War of the Worlds'

In 2011 Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, went on a late-night radio show and said he had recently discovered a paper about a mysterious disease, called Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency syndrome, written by a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had died before having the chance to publish it.

According to the paper, "ANSD" destroyed the frontal lobe while leaving the amygdala intact, essentially transforming victims into lurching vessels of unchecked rage—or zombies, if you’d like.

The disease was made up, of course. Dr. Schlozman also writes fiction, and he had invented ANSD for a novel called The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse.

"The novel presents a zombie scenario that (I hope) feels real and plausible despite the fact that it’s clearly made up," the Harvard physician later wrote in The New York Times.

The radio host was in on the joke, he wrote, and they were just having fun discussing the zombie scourge in a faux-serious tone. (In his fake paper, Dr. Schlozman attributes zombies’ constant groaning to constipation.)

But some listeners didn’t get the joke. "Emails showed up in my in-box," wrote Dr. Schlozman, "and I got questions along the lines of: What’s the best medicine to stave off the zombie infection? How do I keep my house safe from the zombie onslaught?"

CDC: Prepare for Zombies

Later that year Ali S. Khan, director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, cited Dr. Schlozman in a blog post he wrote about how people should prepare for a zombie epidemic. The post was titled "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." The blog post was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek way of getting readers to prepare for more-realistic threats, like hurricanes, by prodding the imagination. It was at least halfway successful: Traffic to the CDC blog increased sixtyfold, causing servers to crash.

It’s unclear how many of those visitors read the item with an appropriately large grain of salt, but many hailed the CDC’s experiment as a success.

"We propose continuing these efforts," wrote a team of researchers at the University of California at Irvine in a journal published by the CDC, "building on the popularity of zombies to increase public-health awareness in the general public, and explore additional issues that may have not been considered in the past, such as infection control, mental-health issues, ethics of disease, and bioterrorism potential."

28 Dissertations Later

In philosophy, zombies are confined safely to the theoretical realm. Contemporary philosophers use thought experiments involving zombies to "illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world," according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, whose entry on "zombies" includes priceless passages such as this:

"Suppose a population of tiny people disable your brain and replicate its functions themselves, while keeping the rest of your body in working order (see Block 1980); each homunculus uses a cell phone to perform the signal-receiving and -transmitting functions of an individual neuron. Now, would such a system be conscious? Intuitively one may be inclined to say obviously not. Some, notably functionalists, bite the bullet and answer yes. However, the argument does not depend on assuming that the homunculus-head would not be conscious. It depends only on the assumption that its not being conscious is conceivable—which many people find reasonable. In [the philosopher David] Chalmers’s words, all that matters here is that when we say the system might lack consciousness, ‘a meaningful possibility is being expressed, and it is an open question whether consciousness arises or not’ (1996, p. 97). If he is right, then the system is not conscious. In that case it is already very much like a zombie, the only difference being that it has little people where a zombie has neurons."

And this:

"Suppose I smell roasting coffee beans and say, ‘Mm! Roasting coffee: I love that smell!’. Everyone would rightly assume I was talking about my experience. But now suppose my zombie twin produces the same utterance. He too seems to be talking about an experience, but in fact he isn’t because he’s just a zombie. Is he mistaken? Is he lying? Could his utterance somehow be interpreted as true, or is it totally without truth value? Nigel Thomas (1996) argues that ‘any line that zombiphiles take on these questions will get them into serious trouble.’"

Serious trouble, indeed. In some corners of academe, real zombies are unnecessary: the brains eat themselves.