July 18, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Science Can Be Wrong for Decades, Centuries

The history of science shows some wrong theories being accepted by leading scholars for long periods of time.  Ptolemaic astronomy, unquestioned for over 1200 years, is a prime example.  Not all examples are old, though.  In modern times as well, scientists are finding that theories unquestioned for decades, even centuries, were wrong.  That being so, what confidence can we have that today’s scientific beliefs will stand the test of time for the next decade or century?  A recent spate of science articles shows some long-held theories being questioned – others being tossed overboard.

  1. Newt for precedent:  For 250 years, scientists believed there was a limit to how many times an amphibian could regenerate tissues, such as limbs and eyes.  This week, PhysOrg posted a press release with the headline, “Overturning 250 years of scientific theory: Age, repeated injury do not affect newt regeneration.”  Sure enough, “Scientists have been wrong for 250 years about a fundamental aspect of tissue regeneration, according to a University of Dayton biologist who says his recent discovery is good news for humans.”  Dr. Panagiotis Tsonis decided to test the old belief with experiments.  He found that even after 18 times, a newt’s regenerated eye lens was just as good as the first.   “His findings overturn long-accepted theories proposed by regeneration scientists that age and repeated amputation negatively affect regeneration.”  New Scientist also wrote about this scientific upset.
  2. Nuclear winter:  In 1983, Carl Sagan and other scientists proclaimed, with the authority of science, that a nuclear war would cast the planet into decades of darkness and cold.  Sagan scared government officials with the prospect of “the extinction of Homo sapiens”.  This week, Russell Seitz in a letter to Nature claimed, “Nuclear winter was and is debatable.”  He quoted skeptical scientists at the time who “regarded this apocalyptic prediction as an exercise in mythology.”  One from MIT said, “Nuclear winter is the worst example of the misrepresentation of science to the public in my memory.”  The skeptics, though, were outshouted by a media sympathetic to Sagan.  Dramatic visualizations on TV of the last humans freezing to death in the dark clinched the story.

Many today still remember the catchy phrase nuclear winter and assume it has a scientific basis, but Seitz says, “This potential climate disaster, popularized in Science in 1983, rested on the output of a one-dimensional model that was later shown to overestimate the smoke a nuclear holocaust might engender.  More refined estimates, combined with advanced three-dimensional models… have dramatically reduced the extent and severity of the projected cooling”  – so much so, that the worst-case scenario has fallen “to numbers so unseasonably small as to call the very term ‘nuclear winter’ into question.”  This doesn’t mean, of course, that a nuclear bomb wouldn’t ruin your whole day, but it might do in Homo sapiens with fire, not ice.

  1. The reason for sex:  Were you taught in school that the purpose of sexual reproduction is to promote genetic diversity?  Incorrect, says Henry Heng, Ph.D., associate professor at Wayne State University, according to an article in Science Daily.  It’s for maintaining the genome and a species’ identity.  With colleague Root Gorelick, Heng argued in the journal Evolution that previous scientists were dead wrong—for over a century.  “For nearly 130 years, traditional perceptions hold that asexual reproduction generates clone-like offspring and sexual reproduction leads to more diverse offspring,“ the article said, quoting Heng responding, “In reality, however, the relationship is quite the opposite.
  2. Plate tectonics:  How long has plate tectonics been around?  Since the 1960s at least.  Now, PhysOrg is announcing, “New force driving Earth’s tectonic plates discovered.”  California scientists are proposing that a moving mantle plume drove the Indian plate into the Himalayas.  It is doubtful this new model, though, will resolve “long-standing debates about how powerful geological forces shape the planet.”
  3. Racked up about antlers:  How long have hunters prized the racks on their deer?  “Emerging from the heads of most cud-chewing mammals, headgear inspire an almost mystical and certainly majestic aura,” an article on PhysOrg began.  “But, scientists say, we know shockingly little about them.”  Consider the variety of headgear on mammals: longhorn cattle, giraffes, bighorn sheep, moose, reindeer, caribou, pronghorns, mountain goats.  The accessibility of these mammals to science would lead one to think they are well understood, but the article includes videos of Edgar Byrd Davis admitting, “This is one of those things where you’d think we’d know more, but we don’t.” 

Many questions about these fastest-growing bones come to mind: their nature, their development, their evolutionary origins.  It isn’t for lack of trying.  “Among assumptions only recently overturned was the idea that pronghorn antelope were related to antler-wearing deer or horned cattle, goats and sheep,”  the article pointed out.  Davis took science’s claims to knowledge further into left field, saying, “Scientists get a lot of press coverage for dark matter or the Higgs boson because they are among deep mysteries that we are still unlocking. A lot of people assume that most of biology is understood, yet something as fundamental as the age-old question ‘how did the cow get its horns?’ is still not well understood.

  1. Pi throwing contest:  What could be more sacred in science than pi, that famous constant we memorized as 3.1416?  Believe it or not, some mathematians want to toss it.  They want two pi, claiming that a new constant named tau, equal to 6.28, would be more useful.  Read about it on PhysOrg, “Math wars: Debate sparks anti-pi day.”  It is true that 2 pi shows up in many equations.  Pi day (March 14) would be replaced by Tau Day (June 28) if US mathematicians Bob Palais and Michael Hartl get their way.  A critic feels this is not a question of error,  just preference: “It’s not a question of right or wrong, but a matter of opinion,” said Patrick Speissegger from McMaster University in Canada. “Philosophically speaking, changing the constant from pi to tau makes no difference.”  The dispute does show, however, that some concepts we assume are out there in the world may actually be in our heads.
  2. Health myths:  Arguably, scientists are not to blame for old wives’ tales, unless they promoted them.  Medical Xpress announced, “New book by Indiana University physicians slays health myths we all thought were true.”  Scientists can’t make a clean escape, though.  “The authors admit that even they believed some myths prior to investigating the science, or lack of science, behind them.”  Myths debunked by pediatricians Aaron Carroll  and Rachel Vreeman include: (1) that vitamin C mitigates cold symptoms (advocated by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling), (2) that stretching before running is a good idea, (3) that hydrogen peroxide is a good disinfectant for wounds, (4) that air dryers clean your hands better than paper towels, (5) that eggs are bad for your heart because of high cholesterol, (6) that uncovering a wound at night helps it heal, and others.  (The tale that chicken soup helps you feel better when you have a cold, though, escaped the debunking tests, showing that myths can have a scientific basis).  Readers may want to investigate which myths had been promoted by scientists in the name of science. 
  3. Debunking a debunker:  This episode might be called Morton’s Revenge.  The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, made a big deal out of alleged data fudging by 19th century physician Samuel Morton, claiming that his cranial measurements were unconsciously biased to support Victorian values.  In a Nature editorial last month, the editors discussed a new re-evaluation of both scientists’ claims that gives the edge to the debunked rather than the debunker.  While they may agree with Gould’s politically-correct conclusions, the editors could not endorse his methods.  “At a minimum, Gould's staunch opposition to racism, and desire to make an example of Morton, may have biased his interpretation of Morton’s data, opening Gould to charges of hypocrisy.”  Let the debunker beware.  The editors shook their heads; “it is remarkable that it has taken more than 30 years for a research group to check Gould’s claims thoroughly.”

Scientists are only human.  They cannot know everything.  Writing a scientific paper requires a literature search; it is tempting to cite a previous paper as authoritative.  After all, who has the time to independently check every detail?  This is one way that wrong ideas can be perpetuated by the scientific community.  Wrong ideas are especially dangerous when they match the political, philosophical or cultural prejudices of those involved (e.g., Freud, 10/15/2009).  As shown here, it may take centuries for someone to check out an idea and find it false.  What could be next?

See also 03/17/2006, “Can Scientific Journals Perpetuate False Ideas?” and 01/09/2006, “Peer Review: Can You Trust a Scientific Journal?” and 06/23/2011, “Wrong Again: Planetologists Embarrassed.”

Speaking of citing prior works uncritically and perpetuating wrong ideas, our research in these papers has frequently shown evolutionists citing Darwin’s Origin as reference #1 in their papers.  Don’t respect science because it is published in a peer-reviewed journal; respect evidence.  Don’t respect scientists merely because they are scientists; respect evidence.  Don’t follow paradigms; follow evidence.  And don’t follow your perceptions of what constitutes evidence.  Follow evidence that is evidence indeed.

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