● Greed and sloth: There is a ready supply of dupes waiting to be robbed, dreaming of enormous rewards for little or no work. Bernie Madoff was no different than Charles Ponzi, and yet people lined up to hand him money by the billions.
● Institutional mandates: In academia, whatever the dominant paradigm of the moment is tends to drive jobs, tenure, even entire careers. Publish or perish leads to a repetition of “accepted” ideas, while outside-the-box research often finds getting published to be a challenge.
● Status quo: Powerful forces are comfortable with how profitable things are, and they exert tremendous force to keep them that way. Think tanks, academia and corporate consultants create a ready constituency for old, bad ideas on their behalf.
● Narratives persuade more than data: A good story is far more persuasive than data. Zombie ideas are modern fairy tales. Comprehending a data series is challenging, requiring skill, intelligence and hard work. A compelling story, on the other hand, can be understood by a child.
● Incompetency: Skilled people have a greater understanding of their limitations for a given task; unskilled people do not. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it tells us that the worse we are at any given talent, the weaker our own meta-cognition about it is.
● Bias: Bad ideas often conform to our erroneous world views. Consider the impact of selective perception and confirmation bias — they assuage our egos and are made to fit our prejudices. Bad ideas hang around in part because we seek them out and embrace them.
●Darwinism works slowly: As a reader suggested, it often takes a while for reality to catch up with bad ideas. Consider the divine right of kings, communism and the designated hitter as bad ideas that took centuries to fall.
These zombie ideas remain a stable of academia, economics and investing. We should not be surprised at this. Recall what Max Planck — who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1918 for originating quantum theory — famously said: “Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time.”
Investing and economics should be so lucky . . .
Ritholtz is chief executive of FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. On Twitter: @Ritholtz.