Big Scientists Pick Big Science's Biggest Mistakes

By Jennifer Welsh | November 23, 2010 6:07 pm

dohEarlier this week Richard H. Thaler posted a question to selected Edge contributors, asking them for their favorite examples of wrong scientific theories that were held for long periods of time. You know, little ideas like “the earth is flat.”

The contributor’s responses came from all different fields and thought processes, but there were a few recurring themes. One of the biggest hits was the theory that ulcers were caused by stress—this was discredited by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who proved that the bacteria H. pylori bring on the ulcers. Gregory Cochran explains:

One favorite is helicobacter pylori as the main cause of stomach ulcers. This was repeatedly discovered and then ignored and forgotten: doctors preferred ‘stress’ as the the cause, not least because it was undefinable. Medicine is particularly prone to such shared mistakes. I would say this is the case because human biology is complex, experiments are not always permitted, and MDs are not trained to be puzzle-solvers—instead, to follow authority.

Another frequent topic of disbelief among Edge responders was theism and its anti-science offshoots—in particular the belief in intelligent design, and the belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. Going by current political discussions in America it may seem that these issues are still under contention and shouldn’t be included on the list, but I’m going to have to say differently, and agree with Milford Wolpoff:

Creationism’s step sister, intelligent design, and allied beliefs have been held true for some time, even as the mountain of evidence supporting an evolutionary explanation for the history and diversity of life continues to grow. Why has this belief persisted? There are political and religious reasons, of course, but history shows than neither politics nor religion require a creationist belief in intelligent design.

Along similar lines, many people still believe in the idea of souls and spirits, though the scientific search for a vital “life force” ended long ago, as Sue Blackmore pointed out:

Of course many people still believe in various versions of this, such as spirits, souls, subtle energy bodies and astral bodies, but scientists long ago gave up the search once they realized that being alive is a process that we can understand and that needs no special force to make it work.

Early scientists didn’t only seek “special forces” in our bodies, but also looked for them in the world around—and so fastened on the idea of “ether.” Clay Shirky liked the ether misconception the best, as it illustrates how hard it is to disprove some ideas:

It was believed to be true by analogy—waves propagate through water, and sound waves propagate through air, so light must propagate through X, and the name of this particular X was ether. It’s also my favorite because it illustrates how hard it is to accumulate evidence for deciding something doesn’t exist. Ether was both required by 19th century theories and undetectable by 19th century apparatus, so it accumulated a raft of negative characteristics: it was odorless, colorless, inert, and so on.

One funny distinction that many responders picked out was Thaler’s misconception that “the world is flat” idea would qualify as a long-held misconception. Confused yet? Geoffrey Carr will sort it out for you:

Believing that people believed the Earth was flat is a good example of a modern myth about ancient scientific belief. Educated people have known it was spherical (and also how big it was) since the time of Eratosthenes. That is pretty close to the beginning of any system of thought that could reasonably merit being called scientific…

So, why do we so often miss the right answer, when it’s often right there in front of us? Thaler asked his respondents to give us a hint. Haim Harari, a physicist, noted that what’s important isn’t the answer, but the question being asked:

Part of the problem is that, in order to find the truth, in all of these cases, you need to ask the right question. This is more important, and often more difficult, than to find the answer. The right questions in the above cases are of different levels of complexity.

Some, like Derek Lowe, think the lack of an alternate idea is the driving factor behind many long-held mistaken ideas:

Finally, there’s the factor that’s kept all sorts of erroneous beliefs alive — lack of a compelling alternative. The idea of strange-looking living creatures too small to see being the cause of infections wouldn’t have gotten much of a hearing, not in the face of more tangible explanations. That last point brings up another reason that error persists — the inability (or unwillingness) to realize that man is not the measure of all things.

Visit the article to view a complete list of the respondents’ answers, and leave a link to your favorite in the comments here.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Science’s Most Spectacular Fails
DISCOVER: The Dr. Who Drank Infectious Broth, Gave Himself an Ulcer, and Solved a Medical Mystery
Discoblog: Crazy Pseudoscience Theory of the Day: Cell Phone Ringtone Can Cure Your Allergies!
Bad Astronomy: New Symphony of Science: Wave of Reason
Bad Astronomy: Uncritical thinking kills
The Intersection: Creationism Disguised as Science

Images: (1) Flickr/striatic (2) Flickr/PinkMoose

  • christheneck

    ‘You know, little ideas like “the earth is flat.”’

    Umm, who told you that? The Ancient Greeks were well aware that it was a globe, as were every civilisation since.

    The idea that Columbus’s sailors thought they’d fall of the edge of the world is an urban myth, which I’m presuming is most people’s reason for thinking this.

    Big Scientific Journalists’ Biggest Mistakes list next please :-)

  • Brian Too

    Had to comment on the sign in the picture.

    “5X stronger rare earth magnetic jewellery”. 5X stronger than what? Than WHAT??

    I never do this, but LOL.

  • Louis Burton Lindley

    christheneck, did you even read the whole article? Specifically, this passage:

    One funny distinction that many responders picked out was Thaler’s misconception that “the world is flat” idea would qualify as a long-held misconception. Confused yet? Geoffrey Carr will sort it out for you:
    Believing that people believed the Earth was flat is a good example of a modern myth about ancient scientific belief. Educated people have known it was spherical (and also how big it was) since the time of Eratosthenes. That is pretty close to the beginning of any system of thought that could reasonably merit being called scientific…

  • neuromusic

    wtf? only one contributor mentioned eugenics? and only to say that science was wrong to abandon the premise that genetic variation might make people susceptible to different diseases. He highlights diseases like AIDS and malaria (while omitting the “diseases” cited by eugenicists, like “feeble-mindedness”).

    Managing Director in Excel Medical Ventures; Chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy LLC; Author, As the Future Catches You

    We have acted, with good reason, as if human beings are all alike. And given the history of eugenics this has been a good and rational position and policy. But we are entering an era where we recognize that there are more and differences in how a particular medicine affects particular groups of people. Same of foods, pollutants, viruses, and bacteria.We are beginning to recognize we react, and are at differential risks, of catching diseases like AIDS, malaria, anemias. And just this month we began to get a glimpse of the first thousand human genomes. These will soon number in the hundreds of thousands. Are we ready should these initial gene maps show that there are real and significant differences between groups of human beings?

  • christheneck

    @Louis Burton Lindley

    Of course not.

    Why read something that has an obvious inaccuracy in the opening paragraph?

    It should be there to engage, not alienate. Put an ignorant statement in the 2nd sentence without explanation and people will stop reading immediately.

  • John Merryman

    What? No geocentric cosmology? Those epicycles are feeling ignored.

    I have a possible future addition: That the present moves from past to future. The present is the constant. It’s the events which go future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Time is an effect of motion, not the basis for it.

    Just as we see the sun moving east to west is actually the earth rotating west to east, so to with time we see past events merging into future ones, but it’s the events moving, not the present. That clocks record different times is simply that some have higher “burn rates.” There are no multiworlds because time is a function of future potential collapsing into past circumstance.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @ christheneck you obviously didn’t NEED to read the whole article, since you already knew that little tidbit was wrong. Also, there is a reason it was in quotes… but we couldn’t really introduce the article without the specific example THALER USED in his question.

    I hope the rest of you who don’t already know everything ever got a few good tidbits out of that article, or our summary of it. One of my favorites was the invention of the rolling suitcase from Eric Weinstein:

    @Zephir, many people mentioned Aether in their examples, I especially liked the rest of Clay Shirky’s explanation:
    When Michelson and Morley devised an apparatus sensitive enough to detect characteristic differences in the behavior of light based on the angle through which it traveled through the ether (relative to the earth’s motion), and could detect no such differences, they spent considerable time and energy checking their equipment, so sure were they that ether’s existence-by-analogy operated as something like proof. (Danny Kahneman calls this ‘theory-induced blindness.’)

    @John Marryman: I would say your example is ahead of it’s time, but if time doesn’t exist then your future addition becomes a past addition and had already happened, right?

    Thanks for reading and commenting, all!


  • EK

    @christheneck. Looks like one reason to read something with an obvious inaccuracy in the opening paragraph is so that you don’t make yourself look like an idiot who can’t read when you comment on it.

  • Frank Abernathy

    How about the evolution of DNA superstructure?

  • Jeff

    Substitute “Dark Matter” for ether and it doesn’t sound like such a silly theory anymore…

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @Jeff, Pssshhhh light doesn’t propagate through dark matter!

  • Thomas Murphy

    As for a causative principle, consider the irrepressible impulse to extrapolate from local observations. The ability to generalize about environmental interactions, and hence effectively respond to them, is clearly essential to organic survival and complexification. Yet all observations, including those of the early universe, are locally derived. Even observations taken at different times and in remote places by diverse people remain exceedingly local with respect to the larger spacetime universe.

    Thus we’re perennially at risk of succumbing to myopia induced by instinctive generalization of local observations. This short-sightedness can be counted upon to unduly influence everything from theories of everything to present moment behavior.

    Identification of the first configurations attributable solely to universal phenomena began with the serendipitous discovery of the cosmic microwave background roughly fifty years ago. Its discoverers, Nobel laureates Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, famously took great pains to screen out this signal, which they initially assumed must be noise contamination from either the environment or their apparatus.

    Before that, our local Milky Way galaxy was assumed to be an island universe until technology allowed Edwin Hubble to recognize thousands of such entities in a vast beyond. Before that, our Earth was thought to be the center of the universe. All these hypotheses may be attributed to observations unduly weighted with local interpretations.

    Tom Murphy

  • Matt B.

    Thaler was asking for erroneous scientific theories. Flat-earthism, geocentrism, creationism (old and new), and vitalism were not scientific. I have had to point out things like this when people claim that “every scientific theory has been overturned, so the theories they have now will be overturned eventually.” Of course that contains a contradiction anyway (if current theories haven’t been overturned yet, then not all scientific theories have been overturned). I argued with a guy in college who thought everything Isaac Newton came up with was wrong. I pointed out that Newton’s theories were typically refined, not overturned. They are still valid (and used) for most purposes.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @Matt B.

    I wouldn’t completely agree with you there about the geocentrism comment, as per Charles Simonyi’s response to Thayler’s question (though I do agree about the others):

    “With the geocentric world it is a different matter — geocentrism was indeed scientifically held (with Ptolemy being the best proponent) and it is indeed false — but not to the same extent as the Peripatetic Mechanics. The real issue was precision of prediction — and the complicated system of Ptolemy gave excellent results, indeed better results than Copernicus (which made the breakthrough idea of Copernicus a difficult sell — just put yourself into the shoes of someone in his time.)

    Real improvement in precision came only with Kepler and the elliptical orbits which were arrived at in part by scientific genius, by being a stickler for accuracy, and in part by mad superstition (music of the spheres, etc.) From his point of view, putting the coordinate system around the sun simplified his calculations. The final significance of putting the sun into the center was to be able to associate a physical effect — gravitation — with the cause of that effect, namely with the sun. But this did not really matter before Newton.”

  • Michael

    Based on the article’s prejudices about what’s been proven and what hasn’t, I’d say one of the most-forgotten errors of science, along with the cause of ulcers, remains forgetting that today’s scientific certainty is tomorrow’s scientific error, so staying humble about what you “know” is the best position.

  • pspealman

    @ Matt. B
    I don’t think you do justice to the difficulty that exists in defining “science”.

    Many philosophers of science have spilled a lot of ink trying to find a airtight system of criteria for which to determine science – and all have, at best, limited success. You don’t actually have to go too far in the modern sciences to see this problem as alive and vital as ever; the physicists think they are hard science and biology is soft. The biologists think at least they are science and that economists aren’t. Etc Etc.

    If you considered your own examples I am sure you would encounter some problems in saying saying why they aren’t science. As Jennifer Welsh pointed out geocentrism has some of the criteria we think of as “scientific” and I know enough to say that vitalism was held by respected authorities (and, if we include the idea of spontaneous generation as a associated or corollary system to vitalism, then some of those respected authorities held professorial positions even).

    Instead of urging you to try to wrestle with criteria for your claim – allow me to urge you to reconsider what you think you are loosing. Science does present theories and then tries to disprove them – that is one of our tenets and is, if anything, something we can be proud of. In the course of dreaming up explanations and testing them some will be proved wrong – it is how things go. In this light you can say “Newton’s explanation of gravity as attraction at a distance fell out of favor when Einstein proposed that gravity was really a distortion in the fabric of space and time which acted upon masses.” Your audience will appreciate the maturity with which you handle the situation and you won’t look like a fool the next day when science changes its mind about Einstein’s theories in favor of something even better like string theory.

  • John Merryman

    I’m not saying time doesn’t exist, only that it’s an effect of motion, not the basis for it. Similar to temperature, which is the scalar level of activity, time is the sequencing of change wrought by motion.
    Temperature isn’t considered “real” at the level of individual molecular or atomic motion, but as an emergent effect. Of course if I were to put my hand on a hot stove, it would be very real.

  • Tailspin

    Has anyone read the Edge contributions this article is about? They’re fascinating.

  • cdmsr

    I was surprised that none of the respondents named homeopathy, a dangerously wrong scientific belief that still has a multitude of adherents and practitioners.

  • Science Warrior

    The world is flat in Eulerian Dimensions. pi.

  • Matt B.

    Jennifer Welsh is right. I’d forgotten that someone did the math on geocentrism and that the model was refined over time. But as for the other ideas, I absolutely think that simply believing the first explanation you come up with isn’t scientific.

    A good example of an overturn would be phlogiston.

  • H. J.

    Amusing. The one thing I haven’t seen mentioned here is ego. Not that the concept of ego is a scientific fail but that ego plays a role in why incorrect concepts take so long to to be overturned. If you are a smart guy and are the chair of some academic department or professor of something or other of course you know the “right” answer. All of the the professors of geology knew that the continents didn’t move. When Wegner pointed it out, well he was a weather researcher, what did he know about geology? The incorrect ideas about the formation of coulees was held for years, even when challenged by other geologists because the wise-men knew the answer. And they knew they knew so anything else had to be wrong.

    Scientists, like politicians, like everyone else, are loath to admit they are or were wrong.

    Here is a question. What will be the next big scientific fail?

    My guess. Global Warming AKA Climate Change.

  • Paulvs

    I vote for the HIV=AIDS hypothesis, which has been ruling for 30 years now, and for which enormous amounts have been spent in vain, and big campaigns have been organized to disinform and scare people.
    I do not understand why the whole world did not wake up in a shock when this interview was published with dr. Luc Montagnier, who won the NobelPrize for the discovery of HIV.


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