Monday, May 27, 2019

Metaphor for bad science

What is the best metaphor for bad science? Usually, when someone wants to mock some idea as bad science, they compare it to flat Earth theory, geocentrism, or aether theory.

The trouble is that none of these comparisons work. The ancient Greeks understood that the Earth was round, and it is not true that Columbus was needed to disprove the flat Earthers.

Geocentrism is not really wrong, as relativity teaches that any frame of reference can be used. Aether theory is not really wrong either, as there are several physics concepts that can be legitimately presented as a modern aether.

Ancients said that everything was composed of earth, water, air, and fire. This is a gross oversimplification, but not necessarily an error. A combustible substance called phlogiston was also just an oversimplification.

The alchemist desire to turn lead into gold was fruitless, but it was not an error to speculate that lead and gold were made of the same ingredients. They are. We can't blame them for not knowing how large the nuclear forces are.

Aristotle is mocked for saying that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, but he didn't really say that. Also, denser objects do fall faster if air resistance is significant.

Celestial epicycles are cited as a methodological error, but it is very hard to justify that view.

So what example should we be using for bad or erroneous science? Any suggestions?


  1. Roger,
    epicycles use a model that presents orbits as perfect circles. They simply aren't. If you are using a model where the physical reality isn't what the model proclaims, I really don't give a fig how good or 'useful' your numbers are, as it misleads those who use it into even more complications down the road when they build their own theories based on something that simply isn't so.

    This is the reason modern day physics is in such trouble, countless theories and models and billions in research funding built upon erroneous previous models which has backed them into a corner where they can't account for almost 98 percent of the universe without ridiculous fudges like 'dark matter/energy' (we can't locate it, but it has to be there since our math can't be wrong!!)

  2. As for your example of erroneous science, try the atom. The Rutherford model is still used to explain almost all chemistry and atomic structures to students, despite it being outright wrong theoretically and structurally. For griefs sake, most people actually think electrons are magical, as they can do almost anything desired from 'electron bonding' to orbiting in shells. This is very damaging to science because the wrong model leads to wrong assumptions and conclusions such as strong/weak nuclear forces etc. These are just black box/place holder kludges to prop up a model's inability to explain contradictions of contemporary atomic theory.

  3. Broadly speaking, anything that makes a categorical mistake.

    (i) The Mind-Body Dichotomy, with a body-primary position: Regarding living beings as purely material things. Examples: Regarding conscisousness as nothing more than a chemical process. Same error of denying the mind, but in a different form: Describing the universe solely in the mechanistic terms, and thinking that the description is complete.

    (ii) The Mind-Body Dichotomy, with a mind-primary position: Regarding all material things (or their actions) as if they were a manifestation of a more fundamental mental/spiritual phenomenon. More broadly, the error of extending the attributes of living beings proper, to non-living beings as well. For instance, the theory that angels are needed to keep planets pushing in their orbits. Another one would be: spontaneous life. BTW, is Intelligent Design regarded as extending to the orderly motion of the planets as well? Also, the theory that external bad spirits are primarily responsible for those diseases that are in fact caused by germs (or other causes). Indeed, the theory that there was a creator to the universe.

    (iii) More tough to understand are certain methodological errors. Again, they may be regarded as MBD, though the issues here are more abstract. For instance: Regarding the universe to be literally infinite in extent. Imagining as if physical laws derived at a certain scale apply without any alteration to any other scale. The fallacy of the large numbers. Assuming that randomness physically exists. Etc.

    (iv) Lesser ones. They are not bad theories because they are not so much theories. They are just bad explanations: Spontaneous combustion (of people). Spontaneous generation (of life). Etc.

    No, I don't agree with all the positions taken by skeptics. But guess, visiting their Web-sites, one could get a more comprehensive list of things gone wrong.

    That's my off-hand answer.