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My failed “zombie” cognitive research, Part 3: taking pride in real success, quitting anyway

December 24, 2014

It started when I noticed so many journalists (and others) writing that “zombies aren’t real”. I began asking survey participants (recall previous failed survey efforts) to identify which is the “real zombie” from two choices (“Uncertain” was also a third option). The two choices included one fictional answer choice: “A “zombie” is a mindless monster that eats human brains” and that was tested individually against three alternative answer choices (other alternatives were tested in pilot research but these three were used in the controlled version of this experimental design):
– “A “zombie” is an insect controlled by a parasite,”
– “A “zombie” is a computer that has be taken over by malware,” or
– “A “zombie” is a mixed drink made with rum and fruit juice.”

Each of these alternative definitions is something that exists tangibly and has been called a “zombie” by popular press (see for examples ZombieLaw posts tagged: rum-drinks, botnets, and insects). The survey instructions specifically told participants that both of the choices were ways the media had used the word.

The majority of participants responded that the “real zombie” is the “mindless monster that eats human brains”. This was somewhat surprising to me because I would have thought that the other objects were more real. I have frequently argued that zombies are real but not as monsters, as words. These results show that most participants think the fictional zombies are more real.

The cover of last month’s November 2014 National Geographic was Carl Zimmer’s article with cover headline: “Real Zombies”, about parasite-controlled insects. And yet, the majority of my survey participants seem to disagree.

real zombie insects

Another question on the survey asked these same participants whether they believe zombies exist in reality. Most participants respond “No.” but the proportion of “Yes” increases significantly if the order of the questions asks about whether zombies exist after the comparison question. This makes sense because the comparison question answers remind some participants about the existence of an alternative definition. This simple exposure is enough to increase the proportion of participants that will say zombies exist.

Yet many participants who claim that zombies do not exist will still select the fictional definition as the “real zombie”. This means that the participants are willing to label something as “real” even after claiming it doesn’t exist. This suggests that “real” is not a reference to tangible reality, but is perhaps something more about authenticity or essential referent.

This result excited one adjunct professor in my department, so I worked with him to write it up for a Masters degree. After depositing that thesis, I continued to explore the word “real” as related to zombies but continued to fail to intrigue my doctoral advisor. In fact, he claimed I was “harassing” him for trying to get him to read that paper draft too early in the semester. Without any ‘real’ academic support or advisement this process is impossible. Honestly, it’s not entirely my advisor’s, nor the school’s fault. I have been a difficult student and clearly I still don’t get it. My writing is disjointed and poorly styled. I love ideas, but I don’t particularly like the pragmatism of neoliberal institutions nor the insidious mentality of the ivory tower. Grants are all they care about. If the practical applications are not immediately obvious than it’s not science. This is the modern academic system. I should have known better.

My graduate studies have reminded me that I don’t particularly like academia. Like I said, I like ideas but academia is a terrible style. After a decade of trying, I think I’ve learned an important lesson. I’m ok without them. It would be hypocritical of me to keep paying money to a zombie institution that I don’t respect. They want over $4000 a semester just to maintain continuous registration. No credits, just continuous enrollment in supposed “doctoral advisement” except the only advisement I have managed to get is denigration (see Part1 and Part2 of this series of posts on my research failures). I’m done with this crap.

Nevertheless, I conducted one more follow-up study, even though I don’t even care what they think about it anymore. I am sharing it here because I think it’s interesting and you all can decide for yourself. The crumbling zombie Ivy league is an elitist scam and I have wasted enough of my life trying to impress them. Their style works for them, good for them.

real nonfictional

I think this last study is pretty great but I’m sure it still doesn’t explain the cognitive implications. The results show that participants do distinguish between the words “real” and “nonfictional”. This was a controlled study, the participants were randomly assigned by the survey software to either a question asking participants to indentify the “real zombie” (as above) or the “nonfictional zombie”. The answer choice options were the same as the version above (the fictional version tested individually against rum-drink, malware and insects, plus an “uncertain” option). The variable of interest is the one word changed in the question asked (to identify either the “real zombie” or “nonfictional zombie”).

The difference between these groups shows a statistical difference in the understanding of the words. Participants are more likely to select the fictional definition when asked for the “real zombie” than when asked for the “nonfictional zombie”. Hence, the rhetorical “real” is not perceived as synonymous with the “nonfictional”. Therefore, being “real” is different than being “nonfictional”, at least as applied to zombies (and also seems to work on some pilot testing I did with “wizards”, i.e. participants are likely to think “real wizards” are spellcasters as opposed to math, finance, computer, or pinball experts).

Surprisingly, many participants still select the fictional monster definition even when asked for the “nonfictional zombie”. I don’t have a good explanation for that. Perhaps participants don’t know what nonfictional means or perhaps this word also has something more to do with authenticity than it might seem. Still, the main effect is significant, and there is a proportional difference in the interpretation of “real zombie” versus “nonfictional zombie” on all three sets of answer choices tested. Again, as mentioned in the previous post about my other MTurk surveys, some of the samples had inconsistent results, but I didn’t throw out any of the data and summed overall and the effect holds.

I do believe this project was on it’s way to maybe finding some ‘real’ cognitive implications potentially regarding the perception of rhetorical reality. However, without a supportive advisor, I refuse to continue paying for so-called “doctoral advisement” that I am not getting. Honestly, who cares about the letters appended to the end of my name? It’s all so bourgeois-gauche. Sorry mom, but this work ain’t doctoral material. Maybe it could have been… Surely it’s as much my fault as anyone else, this program was a bad fit and I kept trying for way too long. There is an “adjunct crisis“, and still the adjuncts are the only faculty that care at all. Paying any more money to this zombie institution would be psychotic. It’s time to stop being a zombie student and try making a real living…


“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
J.K. Rawling, in the book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

Reality is merely an illusion albeit a very persistent one.”
Albert Einstein (* is this an authentic quote or a persistent attribution?)

“what the art of physics is, is the ability to sniff out which mathematics is relevant for reality and which mathematics isn’t”.
Brian Greene, modern physicist in “The Hidden Reality” (2011)

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Philip K. Dick, science fiction writer

“It’s now reality. It’s not science fiction. It’s real and you can look at it.”
– Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, about a new rail gun weapon system

“It was so real it didn’t seem real.”
– School Police Officer on scene of Newtown school shooting

“It doesn’t have to be understood to be real.”
Peter Lanza, father of Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza.

“I challenge you to make sure all students feel like the ‘realist person on earth'”
Sonia Nieto at the Teachers College 2014 commencement

“too many of them are getting addicted to video games, and we just can’t let them do that, nope, we gotta get out there, and you gotta get them out there, doing real stuff.”
Temple Grandin at the Teachers College 2014 commencement

“Pick any metric you want — America’s resurgence is real.”
President Barack Obama, December 20 2014 weekly address

“that’s how you want to portray the world but we know a different reality.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, December 22 2014 press conference


From → Academics

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