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Surely the most extreme example is the existence of a force of gravity.
November 24, 2010 3:19 PM   Subscribe

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?
posted by griphus (85 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think it's wrong to characterize these ideas as "scientific" beliefs. They predated science.

And are there even any non-religious depictions of the earth as flat? We've known that it's round since the ancient Greeks. Archimedes, at least.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:25 PM on November 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


Surely the most extreme example is the existence of a force of gravity.

And this is a little silly. It's definitely a force in some frames. The only dispute to this is semantic.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:29 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


My favorite superseded theory is the lumineferous aether.

Mainly because I just like the way it sounds.

Also, phlogiston.
posted by empath at 3:31 PM on November 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


I think it's wrong to characterize these ideas as "scientific" beliefs. They predated science.

This might be contentious, but I don't think anything predates science because I think the "scientific method" of discovering truth by experiment is innate.

The first three that come to mind are ether, Newton's laws, and the conservation of energy (the last two had to be modified for relativistic physics.)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:31 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of course it would help if I spelled it right.
posted by empath at 3:32 PM on November 24, 2010


The homunculus theory is pretty great, particularly the notion that the homunculus has to have an even smaller homunculus contained within it, and so on into infinity.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:33 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is Many Worlds in or out these days?
posted by Artw at 3:33 PM on November 24, 2010


And are there even any non-religious depictions of the earth as flat?

Let Thomas L. Friedman blow your his own mind.
posted by TrialByMedia at 3:34 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I vote for Miasma.
posted by Omon Ra at 3:35 PM on November 24, 2010


The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs

I still think the world is pretty geocentric.
posted by mrnutty at 3:36 PM on November 24, 2010 [17 favorites]


previously on the green
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:37 PM on November 24, 2010


The homunculus theory is pretty great, particularly the notion that the homunculus has to have an even smaller homunculus contained within it, and so on into infinity.

Ted Chiang has an awesome short story, Seventy Two Letters, based on that. In fact he's got a neat line in short storys where he extrapolates what life would be like in universes where discredited beleif systems are actually real. Hell Is the Absence of God, set in a Christian fundamentalist universe, is fantastic.
posted by Artw at 3:39 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" is great, too. Especially when it gets to the frontier families on the Tower who have never lived on the Earth.
posted by griphus at 3:41 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The mischaracterizations of past beliefs in this article are really disappointing. Charles Simonyi's response is definitely the best.

CÉSAR A. HIDALGO
Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab; Faculty Associate, Harvard Center for International Development

The age of the earth... which was believed to be only a few thousand years old, due to biblical calculations, until Charles Lyell (who was a good friend of Darwin) begun to come up with estimates of millions of years based on erosion.... the advanced age of the world was heavily refuted by scientists, particularly by Lord Kelvin, who made calculations of the rate at which earth must have cooled down and concluded that this could have only happened in a few thousand years... he did not know about the radioactive decay taking place at the earth's core...


That's not true. See Martin Rudwick's incredible book Bursting the Limits of Time for a fantastic (and very long) explanation of how much more complicated the modern history of the old-earth theory is. It's disappointing to see an academic put forth these kinds of ideas--and the stupid ellipses really don't help.
posted by nasreddin at 3:41 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Another good example is the various theories of light (particle and wave), and looking on wikipedia, many more.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:42 PM on November 24, 2010


Horace Rumpole: "The homunculus theory is pretty great, particularly the notion that the homunculus has to have an even smaller homunculus contained within it, and so on into infinity"

So it's homunculi all the way down?
posted by Splunge at 3:43 PM on November 24, 2010


Homeopathic "medicine"
Scientology
The Force
Lamarckian evolution
posted by chavenet at 3:43 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Since phlogiston is already mentioned, I'll go with Le Sage's theory of gravitation.
posted by simen at 3:45 PM on November 24, 2010


Aristotle's concept of Earth, Water, Wind and Fire being the constituent elements.

It was believed to be true because Aristotle was a philosophy major who thought reason was superior to experiment. Before Newton came along with his fancy pants orthodoxy about putting theory to test, this is what masqueraded as "science."
posted by three blind mice at 3:50 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


They change dinosaurs every few years just to fuck with you. By the time I'm old I fully expect the T-Rex to have been decalred a mistake, and given current trends in dinosaur feathering for them to all look like peacocks.

Oh, and since the Burgess Shale has already been mentioned today, there's getting hallucigenia upside down.
posted by Artw at 3:51 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, why did they drag in so many stuffed suits and patent trolls without anything interesting to say? They could have just asked the physicists and gotten a much more enlightening selection. (I mean, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures? Really?)
posted by nasreddin at 3:51 PM on November 24, 2010


Spontaneous Generation? I remember reading in high school about a "recipe" for making mice by throwing grain into the corner of a barn.
posted by monkeymadness at 3:51 PM on November 24, 2010


Also, more bullshit:

The first wrong notion that comes to mind, one that lasted centuries, is from Thales of Miletus, regarded as the "father of science" as he rejected mythology in favor of material explanations. He believed everything was water, a substance that in his experience could be viewed in all three forms: liquid, solid, gas. He further speculated that earthquakes were really waves and that the earth must be floating on water because of this.

Thales may or may not have believed everything was made of water. (If anything, it was far more likely that he believed that the entire Earth floated on water "like a log"). We have only a couple of equivocal and tendentious passages from other writers as evidence of his beliefs. The idea that it lasted centuries is likewise bullshit, unless you think that philosophers are transparent reflections of their Zeitgeist or something.
posted by nasreddin at 4:03 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


The theory of relativity or am I in the wrong time.
posted by humanfont at 4:08 PM on November 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Before Newton came along with his fancy pants orthodoxy about putting theory to test, this is what masqueraded as "science."

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians."


Anyway, smart, curious people have always tried to understand the world around them to the best of their abilities and with the tools available. The philosophies behind things like humour theory and astrology were sophisticated in their own right and made perfect internal sense (until they didn't anymore-- hence scientific progress)-- asking this question looking for neatly-wrapped little anecdotes is kind of a dense and weird way to go about the history of science.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:15 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Monogamy
posted by The Devil Tesla at 4:19 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


If we don't start using the concept of Lamarckian Evolution more often, we're bound to lose it.
posted by logicpunk at 4:24 PM on November 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


Before Newton came along with his fancy pants orthodoxy about putting theory to test, this is what masqueraded as "science."

Would you care to explain how Newton experimentally confirmed his theories about gravity?

For my part, I'll stick with Francis Bacon.
posted by kenko at 4:26 PM on November 24, 2010


Another vote for the miasma theory of disease. It's dominance retarded medical science and public health for centuries.
posted by sbutler at 4:26 PM on November 24, 2010


(I mean, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures? Really?)

And he says "eyes evolved ONCE," which is highly debatable, to say the least. I think Wikipedia has a good summary of the question.
posted by frankchess at 4:28 PM on November 24, 2010


Would you care to explain how Newton experimentally confirmed his theories about gravity?

By comparison with the motions of the celestial spheres?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:32 PM on November 24, 2010


The constellations depicted on the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central Station are all backwards, due to confusion arising from a plan facing up on a table, and a ceiling facing down. More of a simple error than an incorrect belief, but it shows the general lack of diligent observation that surrounds us.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:32 PM on November 24, 2010


I'll go with phrenology. But my head bumps are making me do so, frankly.
posted by kyrademon at 4:32 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Phrenology, no question. Reams of paper written on it, tours done across continents demonstrating its scientific accuracy, and so many awesome diagrams of lumpy-ass heads.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:35 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


God damn it, kyrademon, and your fancy fast-typing.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:37 PM on November 24, 2010


(Umm, is 'wrong' really the word to be used here? Isn't it better to say that those models turned out to be less predictively accurate than a later model? Aristotle may be not particularly useful for modern scientific prediction, but it worked for his world perfectly well, making it only less useful for us, and not wrong in an objective sense. Or maybe a theory is 'wrong' when it has a predictive value of zero, I don't know. I just think 'wrong' is the wrong word, is all. Not to be a pedant or thread-derailer or anything...)
posted by Capt. Renault at 4:38 PM on November 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Proteins as the heritable molecule. It makes sense in a way with a 150 amino acid long polymer you've got 22150 possibilities (though they didn't know about all 22) instead of 4150 for a polymer of DNA with the same number of nucleotides. However in 1944 and 1952 the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment and the Hershey-Chase experiment showed conclusively that the transformative factor in the Griffith experiment was indeed DNA. This paradigm shift was ground breaking and sparked a domino effect of many more as Jim Watson and Francis Crick to dropped everything to hunt for the structure of DNA
posted by Blasdelb at 4:50 PM on November 24, 2010


Gah! Surely I must be missing it...

The flat earth is an examples of wrong pseudo-historic beliefs that is still being held.

Columbus was trying to find a short-cut to the Indies - how stupid do you think he was?
posted by wilful at 4:51 PM on November 24, 2010


When I was last browsing on the subject, I found a website -- the credible kind, with the pixelated background and animated gifs -- still advocating the existence of a luminiferous aether. I can't find that one now, but it's not alone.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:52 PM on November 24, 2010


The constellations depicted on the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central Station are all backwards, due to confusion arising from a plan facing up on a table, and a ceiling facing down. More of a simple error than an incorrect belief, but it shows the general lack of diligent observation that surrounds us.

Probably not. Reflected ceiling plans are such a standard drawing, and have been for hundreds of years, that it's quite ridiculous to assume that the ceiling was done incorrectly because the plans were laying on a table instead of being held aloft by the builder. This is as ludicrous a statement as the apocryphal stories circulating college campuses about certain buildings being originally designed as prisons, or being meant to go on a different campus, but the architect mixed up the drawings (and nobody noticed until the building was completely finished!).
posted by LionIndex at 4:52 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah yes, Simonyi said it.

Oh aren't we just such clever smarty-pants these days, so much cleverer than our predecessors (especially when we don't even accurately know what they did believe)
posted by wilful at 4:54 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


By comparison with the motions of the celestial spheres?

Arguably not an experiment. It is observation of the world, of course.
posted by kenko at 4:56 PM on November 24, 2010


The post by "three blind mice" touches on this, but I think I might go with "the nature of matter". Yes, Empedocles and Lucretius put forward a particle-based theory, but (a) they were basically making it up out of thin air (e.g. "salty things taste salty because the atoms are sharp and pointy") and (b) their version of "atomism", which was wrong in any case, was not the popular view for the majority of (Western) history. I would guess Aristotle holds that record, for various historical reasons (such as the Catholic church's embrace of Aristotelean philosophy around the time of Aquinas) as well as because it takes a certain level of technology to figure out that there are things like atoms (in the modern sense), molecules, electrons and what not...let alone quarks.

I think this deserves special mention because it's made things like electronics and cellular biology possible. I'd rather have those things and the wrong understanding of the solar system than vice versa.
posted by uosuaq at 4:58 PM on November 24, 2010


For my part, I'll stick with Francis Bacon.

France is bacon.
posted by Jpfed at 5:01 PM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


My favorite: Aristotle was WRONG about arrows when he said that after being shot from a bow, they kept flying because the air pushed them.

Two questions about this WRONGness spring to mind: 1. When arrows are shot into a strong wind, the air for some reason has to turn 180 degrees to push the arrow. (Empathetic air?) 2. Arrows always slow down as they fly. (Tired air?)

Aristotle was WRONG - in an objective sense that's easy to demonstrate with a rock - but influential for several thousand years. Not because people tested his ideas. Unlike the geocentric universe, some of them could be proven WRONG with easy tests. But people didn't test them because of his authoritaaah. "Oh, well, if Ari said it, it -must- be so."
posted by Twang at 5:29 PM on November 24, 2010


And of course Richard Thaler, the guy who asks the question, needs to do some unlearning of his own:
The story about the crews getting upset about sailing off the edge of the earth is probably a myth since they knew better. That Columbus was fighting the false knowledge of the flat earth apparently was invented in the late 1800s in an effort to make him a great American symbol of the progress of science over superstition associated with the 1892 celebrations.
Or did he include the notion just so that smartasses could correct him?
posted by Chuckles at 5:33 PM on November 24, 2010


Aristotle was WRONG - in an objective sense that's easy to demonstrate with a rock - but influential for several thousand years. Not because people tested his ideas. Unlike the geocentric universe, some of them could be proven WRONG with easy tests. But people didn't test them because of his authoritaaah. "Oh, well, if Ari said it, it -must- be so."

Well, except (1) he was only born 2394 years ago, and (2) most of his works were lost to Europeans and virtually unheard of from the destruction of most of the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century until they were reintroduced by Averroes and Aquinas in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So we'll need someone else's authoritaaah to explain that 900-1000 years.
posted by el_lupino at 5:50 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sexual reproduction of yeast?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:58 PM on November 24, 2010


One thing that I wish was true is Orgones. Orgone Accumulator, Hawkwind.
posted by Splunge at 5:59 PM on November 24, 2010


Loving this for Lakoff's critique of Enlightenment rationality and especially his swipe at the Obama Democrats.
posted by grubby at 6:01 PM on November 24, 2010


Lakoff's answer is fantastic

Much of liberal thought uses enlightenment reason, which claims that if you just tell people the facts about their interests, they will reason to the right conclusion, since reason is supposed to universal, logical, and based on self-interest. The Obama administration assumed that in its policy discourse, and that assumption led to the debacle of the 2010 elections. Marketers have a better sense of how reason really works, and Republicans have been better at marketing their ideas. The scientific fallacy of enlightenment reason has thus had major real-world effects.

posted by joedan at 6:05 PM on November 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


three blind mice: ““Aristotle's concept of Earth, Water, Wind and Fire being the constituent elements. It was believed to be true because Aristotle was a philosophy major who thought reason was superior to experiment. Before Newton came along with his fancy pants orthodoxy about putting theory to test, this is what masqueraded as ‘science.’”

Bullshit. Aristotle never made that ridiculous claim, and if you'd actually read Aristotle you'd know that.

People love making these silly and specious arguments. They've been doing it since the enlightenment. The trouble is that Aristotle was more of a scientist than Newton ever was.

Also silly: this oft-repeated bullshit about Aristotle believing that "reason is superior to experiment." If anybody can actually quote one jot of Aristotle that says this I'll pay them a thousand dollars. It's the silliest thing in the world – pure enlightenment propaganda designed to get under the skin of churchmen who were St Thomas Aquinas fanboys, nothing more. Seriously.
posted by koeselitz at 6:32 PM on November 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Twang: “My favorite: Aristotle was WRONG about arrows when he said that after being shot from a bow, they kept flying because the air pushed them.”

Again, bullshit. Is it really this fun to say that people whose books you've never actually read are wrong? I suspect you're just getting a kick out of this because you love repeating neat things you read in your high school textbook.
posted by koeselitz at 6:34 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Lipid Hypothesis - the belief that saturated fat and high cholesterol cause heart disease.

Also, the ideas that vegetable oils are good for you, whole grains are healthy, and refined sugars/fructose don't cause diabetes.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:17 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The homunculus theory is pretty great

Hear, hear!
posted by homunculus at 7:20 PM on November 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


@koeselitz -- I think Aristotle did believe that the most fundamental elements were water, air, earth, and fire (and aether). He didn't have the idea of elements combining in the way we think of it now, though.
Aristotle never said that reason was superior to experiment (as far as I recall) -- we agree on that. But they didn't have the notion of (scientific) experiments then, and although Aristotle was a true genius, he didn't come up with it either. I give him a lot of credit for actually paying attention to the natural world, but it seems like his idea of science was mostly observation and classification.
posted by uosuaq at 7:29 PM on November 24, 2010


This isn't the hard sciences, but how about the work of late 19th century scholars who realized that the long accepted understanding that the Hebrew bible was written by a single person (Moses) was not true and that one could detect the work of many authors. I think you can argue that as an intellectual exercise that challenged the status quo, this rivaled Einstein on greatness.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 8:04 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:27 PM on November 24, 2010


My favorite is Spontaneous generation, the idea that life just continuously sprouts from everything.
posted by heathkit at 8:28 PM on November 24, 2010


Wikipedia has this covered with the article on Superseded scientific theories
posted by WhackyparseThis at 9:18 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


You read this thing about how we temporarily lost the cure for scurvy, right?
posted by novalis_dt at 9:37 PM on November 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Because someone has to say it, preferably aloud: Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogony.

(Also known as the Meckel-Serres Law of Recapitulation, but how fun is that to say?)
posted by ormondsacker at 9:41 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aristotelian elements and the quintessence.
posted by warbaby at 9:47 PM on November 24, 2010


The trouble is that Aristotle was more of a scientist than Newton ever was.

What?

Newton invented calculus, revolutionized much of mathematics, discovered the laws of classical physics, discovered the laws of optics, and built the first reflecting telescope, among other things. He accomplished these incredible feats through observation, experimentation, and creativity backed up by mathematical rigor.

Aristotle taught us that there were five elements, all animals were arranged in a Great Chain of Being with man at the top, and that the heart is the organ of thought. This is the guy who insisted that sperm was the source of new human life, and the mother's body provided only nourishment to the young. His beliefs seem to be based on guesses, intuition, and a small amount of observation. Euclid was ten times the scientist Aristotle was.
posted by Xezlec at 10:14 PM on November 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Trepanning & Phrenology come to mind.
posted by Neale at 10:15 PM on November 24, 2010


Why'd y'all keep going on about the study of Walt's asshole?
posted by khaibit at 10:36 PM on November 24, 2010


My favourite mistaken scientific belief is that the Sun is a mass of incandescent gas.

The belief has since been recanted, but doesn't have nearly the same punch to it.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:58 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


That article about scurvy is fascinating - I've just read Shackleton's account of the "Endurance" expedition, and wondered why the Endurance party didn't suffer from scurvy, while the Aurora party laying supplies on the other side of the pole lost one man and nearly others (including the leader of the party). Shackleton, Worsley and company may not have had much to eat, but it was pretty well all fresh (apart from the odd aberration like making fake champagne out of methylated spirits and sugar to toast the King's health at Christmas).
posted by nja at 12:15 AM on November 25, 2010


Xezlec: “Aristotle taught us that there were five elements, all animals were arranged in a Great Chain of Being with man at the top, and that the heart is the organ of thought. This is the guy who insisted that sperm was the source of new human life, and the mother's body provided only nourishment to the young.”

Nothing in this paragraph is true.
posted by koeselitz at 12:25 AM on November 25, 2010


It's strange that nobody has mentioned "scientific" racism so far. Western science, from 1850 onwards, took for granted that mankind was neatly organised in races of varying and well-defined intellectual and physical capacities, with the "whites" on top (at least for intellectual performances). This belief guided and justified private and public policies for more than a century (and still do in some parts of the world).
posted by elgilito at 1:05 AM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Flat Earth wasn't a scientific theory. In the middle ages, scholars knew the Earth was round.
posted by snookums at 1:38 AM on November 25, 2010


It is unreasonable to say that Newton's laws were wrong. They just turned out to be approximations - incredibly useful approximations that still work extremely well in non-relativistic situations, i.e. the vast majority of situations that most of us actually experience and have to deal with.
posted by Decani at 3:05 AM on November 25, 2010


So it's homunculi all the way down?

No. All the way in.
posted by No-sword at 3:59 AM on November 25, 2010


elgilito: isn't the very concept of race itself now understood to be a purely social construct, with no scientific basis?
posted by ixohoxi at 5:59 AM on November 25, 2010


isn't the very concept of race itself now understood to be a purely social construct, with no scientific basis?

Yes, that's why I'm surprised that it wasn't mentioned. (Pseudo-)science-based definitions of human races were a big thing from Gobineau to the end of Western colonisation of Africa and Asia and were part of the ideological package used to justify the conquest and sometimes the killing of entire populations. It's one of the most damaging misguided scientific beliefs ever. I have a textbook from 1925 that shows how human intelligence could be measured by the facial angle (with black people shown next to monkeys).
posted by elgilito at 6:49 AM on November 25, 2010


My favourite is the sulfur-mercury theory in alchemy and early chemistry. It's a way of explaining the formation of metals and it had a suprisingly long run both in the Arabic world and the west.
posted by severiina at 7:38 AM on November 25, 2010


Xezlec: “Aristotle taught us that there were five elements, all animals were arranged in a Great Chain of Being with man at the top, and that the heart is the organ of thought. This is the guy who insisted that sperm was the source of new human life, and the mother's body provided only nourishment to the young.”

Nothing in this paragraph is true.


You seem very certain of that. But every reputable source I can find on the internet seems to think they are. Can you produce some evidence for your claims? I would be interested in reading your sources.

Regarding the elements, Aristotle rarely said anything cleanly and simply, but he refers to the 4 classical elements a lot, and you can see them all mentioned at once in "Physics," book 2, part 1, first paragraph. He has his own fundamental principles, of course, namely "potentiality and actuality," but he seems to accept the idea of the classical elements as well.

Regarding the Great Chain of Being, Aristotle's scala natura is well-known as the source of this idea. Once again, I can't find a nice, tidy quote, but if you read "The History of Animals" and "On the Soul," you will see that there can be little doubt what Aristotle believed about this.

Regarding the heart, in "On The Motion of Animals," part 10, Aristotle far-too-verbosely-to-quote summarizes the case that the whole book has been building up to, which is that the heart is the seat of the soul and the origin of movement in animals. He even says that we can tell this because of the way it beats, because expanding and contracting are the principal characteristics of spirit. He then refers to this conclusion briefly in the following short-enough-to-quote segment from part 11 of that book:
In the case of the heart the cause is plain, for the heart is the seat of the senses, while an indication that the generative organ too is vital is that there flows from it the seminal potency, itself a kind of organism.
It is referenced again in "On Youth and Old Age, On Life and Death, On Breathing," in part 3, third paragraph:
Certainly, however, all saguineous animals have the supreme organ of the sensefaculties in the heart, for it is here that we must look for the common sensorium belonging to all the sense-organs. These in two cases, taste and touch, can be clearly seen to extend to the heart, and hence the others also must lead to it, for in it the other organs may possibly initiate changes, whereas with the upper region of the body taste and touch have no connexion.
And in "On The Generation of Animals," book 4, in the last paragraph of part 1, Aristotle helpfully explains the roles of the male and female in reproduction:
But the semen of the male differs from the corresponding secretion of the female in that it contains a principle within itself of such a kind as to set up movements also in the embryo and to concoct thoroughly the ultimate nourishment, whereas the secretion of the female contains material alone.
That theme is also echoed throughout the rest of the work, as you will quickly notice. In fact, if you actually read Aristotle, I think your respect for the man will quickly slip down a notch. He says a huge number of silly things. I've only scratched the surface.
posted by Xezlec at 9:07 AM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


This interesting thread reminded me of a fascinating interview I'd read a few months ago in Discover magazine. Until Dr. Barry Marshall came along with his experiment in the early 1980's, mainstream medical science and popular belief had adhered to the idea that stomach ulcers result primarily from "too much stress." He theorized that ulcers are primarily caused by an overpopulation of stomach bacteria ... and -- because the idea was so medically radical to his colleagues that it was considered unethical to test the theory on patients -- proved he could use antibiotics to cure an ulcer by giving himself one.
posted by NetizenKen at 9:16 AM on November 25, 2010


Here's a theory that I always thought was neat --

So, you have a body, which is a material entity made of matter. This is obvious -- you can touch it and see it and so forth.

And you have a soul, an entirely nonmaterial creation made of thought. This is also obvious -- you have conscious thoughts, which are clearly not physical.

So how is it possible for these two things to communicate with each other? A nonmaterial soul cannot interact directly with a material body. How would it? Something nonmaterial can't touch a material object, and a material object cannot sense something completely nonmaterial.

That's why there has to be a third thing -- the spirit.

Most people now have forgotten how the body/soul/spirit division was supposed to work. A lot of people have heard of it, but don't now know how the spirit was supposed to differ from the soul, because the theory that made it necessary is no longer extant.

Your spirit is made of matter, and suffuses you body. But it is made of very delicate, tenuous, etherial matter, and -- this is important -- highly impressionable, reflective matter. When you perceive something with one of your senses, it creates an impression on your spirit, a reflection of the real world.

Now, your nonmaterial soul cannot directly be affected by a material object ... but it *can* interact with a reflection, because a reflection is nomaterial! So your soul reads the reflection, and sends its own reflection back, which is then translated into a physical response in the material spirit, and transmitted to your material body.

One thing I like about this theory is that, wrong as it is, it's a nice demonstration that the people coming up with these ideas weren't stupid. They were genuinely trying to think through the logical implications of their theories and come up with ways to account for problems. They didn't have science as we know it, but they did have interesting ideas, and they were trying to answer the hard questions -- why do we think, and how?

Or at least, their souls could come up with these interesting ideas, and transmit a reflection of them through the spirit to the body.
posted by kyrademon at 4:57 PM on November 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was surprised to learn recently from a geologist friend that the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift has only been around since 1960 or so, and wasn't really adopted until the mid-70s.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:53 PM on November 25, 2010


And you have a soul, an entirely nonmaterial creation made of thought. This is also obvious -- you have conscious thoughts, which are clearly not physical.

What the fuck? That's not clear to me at all. And that's an idea that was explicitly dealt with in the linked article. Hardly any scientists believe that.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:32 PM on November 25, 2010


What the fuck? That's not clear to me at all. And that's an idea that was explicitly dealt with in the linked article. Hardly any scientists believe that.

Finish reading the comment: "One thing I like about this theory is that, wrong as it is, it's a nice demonstration that the people coming up with these ideas weren't stupid. They were genuinely trying to think through the logical implications of their theories and come up with ways to account for problems." (emphasis added)
posted by jedicus at 7:00 PM on November 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess it's a sign of how far the idea has passed out of public consciousness that there was no mention of the supposed canals (or if you prefer, "channels") on Mars that were "discovered" by Schiaparelli and lived on in conventional wisdom for decades. He also bears the distinction for having wrongly worked out that Mercury always faces the Sun. However, he bears no responsibility for the whole "planet Vulcan" debacle.
posted by xigxag at 6:41 PM on November 27, 2010


Retrograde motion in orbits. The best part is, it was completely backed up with experimentation, beautiful data, all accurate to the limitations of their instruments. Kinda underscores the importance of novel methods driving science.
posted by Tikirific at 7:14 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Probably not.

Reflected ceiling plans are such a standard drawing, and have been for hundreds of years, that it's quite ridiculous to assume that the ceiling was done incorrectly because the plans were laying on a table instead of being held aloft by the builder. This is as ludicrous a statement
posted by LionIndex


From LionIndex's link:

"eagle-eyed visitors will notice that the zodiac on the ceiling is depicted backwards. Some have speculated that this was a mistake by the artist, Paul Helleu. The real reason, however, is that the painter was inspired by a medieval manuscript that showed the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere."

Well, I would hope that my publicist could come up with damage control at least that good.

At any rate, the notion that "the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere" could be realized by simply flipping them is right up there with a flat earth.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:13 PM on November 29, 2010


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