There's a fascinating list of scientific ideas that endured for a long time, but were wrong, over at Edge.org, 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, 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, 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?