4 Obviously Wrong Ideas – That Took Centuries to Debunk

Posted on 2011/11/04 by


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Modern scientific inquiry assumes, as a base assertion, that knowledge about the physical world cannot be usefully attained with thought alone.

You would think that this would go without saying.  However, for many centuries it was the contrary assumption that predominated.  This view of knowledge was so persuasive that it took centuries to discover some easy-to-check ideas were obviously false.

These ideas also persisted due to a general acceptance of an authoritarian approach to knowledge: the willingness to believe something based on the credibility and reputation of the claimant.  This stance is also the easier method for acquiring knowledge.  Authoritarianism and credulity often walk hand in hand.

Our ancestors were blinded by this methodology, their dormancy and the reverence they held for certain authors.  Below, I outline 4 such examples and then conclude with the some remakrs about the role of logic in scientific inquiry.

Men Have Fewer Ribs Than Women

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

The King James Bible – Genesis 2:21-22

Firstly, not that the passage certainly has far too many sentences starting with “And” to get past any modern-day publisher.  It was nevertheless widely read, and read to mean that this clumsy surgery resulted in Adam having one less rib than Eve.

Although the Bible isn’t exactly lacking in immoral or factually inaccurate statements, its readers do have a keen habit of interpreting the more sane sections so to align with the predominant aesthetic.  To that end, many who read the above passages concluded that it meant all men have fewer ribs than all women.

This was widely held to be the case for about one or two thousand years before a Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius decided to check, and then publish drawings of his findings.  An image from his 1543 book “De humani corporis fabricais reproduced below.

“It is commonly believed that men lack a rib on one side, and that men have one rib fewer than women. This is plainly absurd, even if Moses did say in the second chapter of Genesis that Eve was created by God out of Adam’s rib. Granted that perhaps Adam’s bones, had someone articulated them into a skeleton, might have lacked a rib on one side, it does not necessarily follow on that account that all men are lacking a rib as well. Aristotle attributed only eight ribs to humans, and was ready to allow that certain members of the race of the Turduli were born with only seven ribs on each side, provided he established this on the actual testimony of some suitable authority. But as in the latter instance Aristotle was willing to support his opinion only with the testimony of others, it is also not unlikely that in the former instance he ascribed eight ribs to man on hearsay evidence, and in this manner wrongly handed down to us something he had not seen. For if we discover that he was suppositious so many times concerning the fabric of man, what judgement shall we make about the rest of his research into animals?”

Andreas Vesalius, A Translation of De humani corporis fabrica, Bk. I Chapter 19 (1543)

You might have spotted that to reach the conclusion about all men being under-ribbed, an auxiliary assumptions is required.  Why does Adam’s loss of a rib cause all subsequent men to be lacking in the rib department?  This brings us to our next idea.

The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics

This old idea has existed, in various forms, since at least as early as Hippocrates and Aristotle.  Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, another proponent of the theory, rather succinctly describes it as follows:

Second Law: All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young.

Lamarck, J. B. (1914). Zoological Philosophy. London. [Translated from the original 1809 French work]

Lamarck’s works were later studied and adapted in the 1920s by Trofim Lysenko, who, with the endorsement of Stalin made the ideas the official Soviet  position on biology.  [A pertinent point for anyone who maintains that atheism is the cause of the troubles with Stalinism.  Yes, Salin was an atheist, but the woes of Soviet Russia cannot be blamed it having had too much free inquiry.  Compare to Pope Pius XII's wish to make the Big Bang Theory an official Catholic Dogma.]

The modern term for the inheritance of acquired characteristics is called Lysenkoism.  This is not because he was the first, or the best articulator of the idea, but because it caused the most amount of damage.  Just as “Einstein” is now a synonym for genius, “Lysenkoism” is now synonymous with willful distortionary research.  Lysenko’s method, carried with the flag of Stalinism, spread to China where his bogus farming methods contributed to the famine of 1958-1962 that killed an estimated 20 million people.

Why was the theory supported?  Religious literalists often deny inter-species evolution.  As a consequence (or as the initial motivation), they deny our common evolution with apes from an ancestor species.  What they don’t (and can’t) deny is inheritance within a species.  Aside from the family resemblance that gives a slight hint to this truth, I also wouldn’t have time to type this sentencem were it not for artificial selection, and you would have no time to read it.

Granted our technological advances, if selective breeding had not been carried out by our ancestors over the past few millennia, a great majority of us would be too busy farming to do anything else.  If you look at the size of maize as a consequence of natural selection alone, and them compare to the result of selective breeding by humans, it makes denying evolution within a species impossible.

However, we need to determine how this inheritance is communicated.  A man who has his arm lost in battle does not father babies with missing arms.  Yet, Lamarck would contest that two parents, both missing their right arm, would produce children with the same disability.  Crops that were cared for, according to Lysenco, would produce stronger crops.

It is wishful thinking that farming can be so easily improved, and is falsified by the simplest of observations.

Women Have Fewer Teeth Than Men

Vesalius did warn us about the credibility of Aristotle’s sources on when it comes to biology.

“Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made: but the more teeth they have the more long-lived are they, as a rule, while those are short-lived in proportion that have teeth fewer in number and thinly set.”
AristotleHistory of Animals, 2.3  (c. 350 B.C.E)

The 20th century logician, Bertrand Russell, gives a damning critique of Aristotle’s biology with this brief review:

“Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”
Bertrand RussellImpact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1

Heavier Objects Fall Faster Than Slower Objects

It took a while longer (a few decades) for people to figure out Aristotle’s physics was just as poorly researched as his biology.

“…the downward movement of a mass of gold or lead, or of any other body endowed with weight, is quicker in proportion to its size.”

Aristotle, On The Heavens, 4.2 (c. 350 B.C.E)

Galileo, in his work “Discourse on Two New Sciences” () has one of is interlocutors say the following about Arisitole:

I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true that two stones, one weighing ten times as much as the other, if allowed to fall, at the same instant, from a height of, say, 100 cubits, would so differ in speed that when the heavier had reached the ground, the other would not have fallen more than 10 cubits.

Galileo (1638) Discourse on Two New Sciences p.62 [translated from the original Italian]

Having said that, Galileo, doesn’t seem to have provided an experiment to disprove Aristotle, contrary to the myth of his Piza experiment.  There is no written account from Galileo of this experiment, and he was not of a character to hold back his own achievements.

Rather, Galileo provided an ingenious refutation of Aristotle’s idea, by finding it to be logically inconsistent.  It can be summarized as follows:

Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption is false.

When Galielo did experiment, it was to answer a more sophisticated question.  Assuming all objects fall in the same way, what does their speed depend upon?  With his inclined plane experiments, he found that the speed increases depending on time.  Objects all experience the same acceleration due to gravity.


We often heap praise upon the Ancient Greek philosophers Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus for their invention of the idea of the ‘atom’.  However, they were only correct by accident.  They did achieve a great deal in pointing out the inconsistencies of other ideas, and carefully constructed their ideas with rigorous logic.  But, as Gershwin worte, “it ain’t necissairly so.”  Feynman put it another way:

“it doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess it, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, who made the guess, or what is name is – if it disagrees with experiement, it’s wrong.”

This method, using just logic alone, is often called ‘reason’.  This is a rather unhelpful way of putting it.  Firstly, it is a euphemism - often employed rather loosely by some atheists to mean the correct way of thinking about something.  You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had someone proclaim “I use reason and evidence…”.  Secondly, the term doesn’t make a proper distinction between this faulty method and scientific inquiry.

It relies on the misunderstanding that logic can add content to an argument.  Is it not the value of a deductively valid argument that it adds nothing to the assumptions that are being asserted?  If it did add any content, then the argument would be invalid.  Thus, anything surprising conclusion is just due to the fact that we hadn’t realized that is just another way of stating that which was already there in the assumptions.  A conclusion is only surprising because we lack logical omniscience.

Scientific inquiry utilizes logic, but not to prove or derive an assertion about the real world.  It is used to combined our best guesses, to spot inconsistencies, and to determine what a theory predicts in specific situations.  The new ideas are guessed and then tested.

As well as the Ancient Greeks, cleric from all around the world were convinced of logic as a sound way to acquire new knowledge.  At the birth of modern science during the renaissance,  scientific questions were wrestled from the grasp of the Catholic Church.  It is now widely accepted, by secularists at least, that religion has nothing to add to scientific inquiry.

Yet, most of us still operate under the same faulty assumption when it comes to moral inquiry.  Indeed, many people still don’t recognize ”moral inquiry” as a legitimate idea, believing that questions such as “is it always wrong to kill” can be answered with logic alone.  Sure, it can be shown that someone holds self contradictory assumptions, but how can logic determine moral truth?  If right actions depend on the well-being of people, then should we not study what that means with experiment?

Our decedents will perhaps compile a similar list of moral assertions that, to them, are obviously false.