The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

65 Contributors:Neil Shubin [2], Garrett Lisi [3], Peter Schwartz [4], David Deutsch [5], Haim Harari [6], Alun Anderson [7], Irene Pepperberg [8], John Holland [9], Derek Lowe [10], Charles Simonyi [11], Nathan Myhrvold [12], Lawrence Krauss [13], Steven Strogatz [14], Cesar Hidalgo [15], Eric Topol [16], Christian Keysers [17], Simona Morini [18], Ross Anderson [19], James Croak [20], Rob Kurzban [21], Lewis Wolpert [22], Howard Gardner [23], Ed Regis [24], Robert Trivers [25], Frank Tipler [26], Joan Chaio, [27] Jeremy Bernstein [28], Matthew Ritchie [29], Clay Shirky [30], Roger Schank [31], Gary Klein [32], Gregory Cochran [33], Eric Weinstein [34], Geoffrey Carr [35], James O'Donnell [36], Lane Greene [37], Jonathan Haidt [38], Juan Enriquez [39], Scott Atran [40], Rupert Sheldrake [41], Emanuel Derman [42],Charles Seife [43], Milford H. Wolpoff [44], Robert Shapiro [45], Judith Harris [46], Jordan Pollack [47], Sue Blackmore [48], Nicholas G. Carr [49], Lee Smolin [50], Marti Hearst [51], Gino Segre [52], Gregory Paul [53]Alison Gopnik [54], George Dyson [55], Mark Pagel [56], Timothy Taylor [57], David Berreby [58], Zenon Pylyshyn [59], Michael Shermer [60], George Lakoff [61], Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán [62], Garniss Curtis [63], Marcel Kinsbourne [64], Paul Kedrosky [65]



David Berreby on November 27, 2010

If you were a sophisticated and up-to-the-minute science buff in 17th century Europe, you knew that there was only one properly scientific way to explain anything: "the direct contact-action of matter pushing on matter," (as Peter Dear puts it The Intelligibility of Nature). Superstitious hayseeds thought that one object could influence another without a chain of physical contact, but that was so last century by 1680. Medieval physics had been rife with such notions; modern thought had cast those demons out. To you, then, Newton's theory of gravity looked like a step backwards. It held that the sun influenced the Earth without touching it, even via other objects. At the time, that just sounded less "sciencey" than the theories it eventually replaced.

This came to mind the other day because, over at [67], Richard H. Thaler asked people to nominate examples of "wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods." He also asked us to suggest a reason that our nominee held sway for too long. ...

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November 24, 2010



By Andrew C. Revkin

There's a fascinating list of scientific ideas that endured for a long time, but were wrong, over at [67], the Web site created by the agent and intellectual impresario John Brockman.

The cautionary tale of the fight over the cause of stomach ulcers, listed by quite a few contributors there, is the kind of saga that gives science journalists (appropriately) sleepless nights. One of my favorites in the list is the offering of Carl Zimmer [69], the author and science journalist, who discusses some durable misconceptions about the stuff inside our skulls:

"This laxe pithe or marrow in man's head shows no more capacity for thought than a Cake of Sewet or a Bowl of Curds."

This wonderful statement was made in 1652 by Henry More, a prominent seventeenth-century British philosopher. More could not believe that the brain was the source of thought. These were not the ravings of a medieval quack, but the argument of a brilliant scholar who was living through the scientific revolution. At the time, the state of science made it was very easy for many people to doubt the capacity of the brain. And if you've ever seen a freshly dissected brain, you can see why. It's just a sack of custard. Yet now, in our brain-centered age, we can't imagine how anyone could think that way.?The list grew out of a query fromRichard Thaler [70], the director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and coauthor, with Cass Sunstein, of " Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness." (He also writes a column for The Times.)

Here's his question:

The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

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November 24, 2010


Maggie Koerth-Baker


Science can contradict itself. And that's OK. It's a fundamental part of how research works. But from what I've seen, it's also one of the hardest parts for the general public to understand. When an old theory dies, it's not because scientists have lied to us and can't be trusted. In fact, exactly the opposite. Those little deaths are casualties of the process of fumbling our way towards Truth*.

Of course, even after the pulse has stopped, the dead can be pretty interesting. Granted, I'm biased. I like dead things enough to have earned a university degree in the sort of anthropology that revolves around exactly that. But I'm not alone. A recent article at the Edge Foundation [67] website asked a broad swath of scientists and thinkers to name their favorite long-held theory, which later turned out to be dead wrong [73]. The responses turn up all sorts of fascinating mistakes of science history—from the supposed stupidity of birds, to the idea that certain, separate parts of the brain controlled nothing but motor and visual skills.

One of my favorites: The idea that complex, urban societies didn't exist in Pre-Columbian Costa Rica, and other areas south of the Maya heartland. In reality, the cities were always there. I took you on a tour of one last January. It's just that the people who lived there built with wood and thatch, rather than stone. The bulk of the structures decayed over time, and what was left was easy to miss, if you were narrowly focused on looking for giant pyramids.

What's your favorite dead theory?

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November 23, 2010



Earlier 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. ...

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