The Attack of Zombie Science

Article by Natalia Pasternak, Carlos Orsi, Aaron F. Mertz, & Stuart Firestein: “When we think about how science is distorted, we usually think about concepts that have ample currency in public discourse, such as pseudoscience and junk science. Practices like astrology and homeopathy come wrapped in scientific concepts and jargon that can’t meet the methodological requirements of actual sciences. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pseudoscience has had a field day. Bleach, anyone? Bear bile? Yet the pandemic has brought a newer, more subtle form of distortion to light. To the philosophy of science, we humbly submit a new concept: “zombie science.”

We think of zombie science as mindless science. It goes through the motions of scientific research without a real research question to answer, it follows all the correct methodology, but it doesn’t aspire to contribute to advance knowledge in the field. Practically all the information about hydroxychloroquine during the pandemic falls into that category, including not just the living dead found in preprint repositories, but also papers published in journals that ought to have been caught by a more discerning eye. Journals, after all, invest their reputation in every piece they choose to publish. And every investment in useless science is a net loss.

From a social and historical stance, it seems almost inevitable that the penchant for productivism in the academic and scientific world would end up encouraging zombie science. If those who do not publish perish, then publishing—even nonsense or irrelevancies—is a matter of life or death. The peer-review process and the criteria for editorial importance are filters, for sure, but they are limited. Not only do they get clogged and overwhelmed due to excess submissions, they have to deal with the weaknesses of the human condition, including feelings of personal loyalty, prejudice, and vanity. Additionally, these filters fail, as the proliferation of predatory journals shows us all too well…(More)”.