Last month, a group of mathematicians grabbed headlines with their mathematical model of the zombie apocalypse. But as one science journalist notes, such studies are more than amusing academic anecdotes; they can actually serve a very legitimate social interest.
Patrick J. Kiger, a journalist and blogger for the Science Channel, has been criticized for focusing on technologies in his column Is This a Good Idea? that currently exist only in the realm of speculative fiction. To answer those critics, Kiger looks at the recent study by mathematicians in Ottawa as to the best response to a zombie outbreak. What good, Kiger asks, is it to study a phenomenon that we know does not actually exist?
Kiger spends some time contemplating whether or not we might actually have to fear attacks from the flesh-eating undead, but ultimately, his point is that the possibility of a literal zombie attack is irrelevant to the value of such studies. Studying zombie attacks is valuable, he argues, precisely because they represent a level of crisis that we do not have any experience with, and our ability to logically respond to such a crisis:
But whether real or imagined, a zombie attack is a potent metaphor. Think of the undead not as klutzy cannibals but as the X factor, the Rumsfeldian "unknown unknown," the totally unexpected menace that suddenly confronts us. (The Canadian researchers' mathematical modeling of zombie attacks maybe seem like an elaborate joke, but in actuality it was led by a mathematician whose expertise is in studying the spread of actual epidemics such as malaria and West Nile Virus, and its underlying purpose was to demonstrate the progression of a rapidly spreading, unfamiliar public health threat.) In recent experience we've been confronted increasingly with such X factors, ranging from AIDS to terrorism to climate change. And time and again, we've been exposed as dangerously unprepared to deal with such paradigm-shattering threats. I'm not talking about stocking up on bottled water and Spam, having a battery-powered radio, a shotgun and the ingredients for Molotov cocktails. I'm talking about our societal tendency to do exactly what most of the characters in the Romero movies do when confronted with a zombie attack - i.e., to become hysterical and fight among themselves for control of the group, which ultimately leads to them squandering resources and opportunities for survival, and undermining each others' efforts. I think we need to find a way to tone down the cable TV news-induced histrionics and learn to cooperate towards a common objective, before some real menace arrives to do us in.