Superseded scientific theories

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The obsolete Geocentric model of the universe places the Earth at the centre.

A superseded, or obsolete, scientific theory is a scientific theory that the mainstream scientific community once widely accepted, but now considers an inadequate or incomplete description of reality, or simply false. This label does not cover protoscientific or fringe science theories that have never had broad support in the scientific community. Also, it does not mean theories that were never widely accepted. Some theories that were only supported under specific political authorities, such as Lysenkoism, may also be described as obsolete or superseded. All of Newtonian physics is so satisfactory for most purposes that it is more widely used except at velocities that are a significant fraction of the speed of light, and simpler Newtonian but not relativistic mechanics is usually taught in schools. Another case is the belief that the earth is approximately flat. For centuries, people have known that a flat earth model produces errors in long distance calculations—but considering moderately-sized areas as flat for the purposes of mapping and surveying does not introduce significant errors.

In some cases, a theory or idea is found baseless and is simply discarded. For example, the phlogiston theory was entirely replaced by the quite different concept of energy and related laws. In other cases an existing theory is replaced by a new theory that retains significant elements of the earlier theory; in these cases, the older theory is often still useful for many purposes, and may be more easily understood than the complete theory and lead to simpler calculations. An example of this is the use of Newtonian physics, which differs from the currently accepted relativistic physics by a factor that is negligibly small at velocities much lower than that of light.

Superseded theories[edit]




Astronomy and cosmology[edit]

Geography and climate[edit]

  • Flat Earth theory. On length scales much smaller than the radius of the Earth, a flat map projection gives a quite accurate and practically useful approximation to true distances and sizes, but departures from flatness become increasingly significant over larger distances.
  • Terra Australis
  • Hollow Earth theory
  • The Open Polar Sea, an ice-free sea once supposed to surround the North Pole
  • Rain follows the plow – the theory that human settlement increases rainfall in arid regions (only true to the extent that crop fields evapotranspirate more than barren wilderness)
  • Island of California – the theory that California was not part of mainland North America but rather a large island



  • Pure behaviorist explanations for language acquisition in infancy, falsified by the study of cognitive adaptations for language.[2]


Obsolete branches of enquiry[edit]

Theories now considered incomplete[edit]

Here are theories that are no longer considered the most complete representation of reality, but remain useful in particular domains or under certain conditions. For some theories a more complete model is known, but in practical use the coarser approximation provides good results with much less calculation.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ De Leon, Professor N. "Dalton's Atomic Theory". Chemistry 101 Class Notes. Indiana University Northwest. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Crain, Stephen and Diane C. Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell. 
  3. ^ Hassani, Sadri (2010). From Atoms to Galaxies: A Conceptual Physics Approach to Scientific Awareness (illustrated ed.). CRC Press. p. 387. ISBN 978-1-4398-8284-9.  Extract of page 387
  4. ^ Casimir, H. B. G.; Brugt, Hendrik; Casimir, Gerhard (2010). Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science. Amsterdam University Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-90-8964-200-4.  Extract of page 32
  5. ^ Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development,book by Theodore Von Karman, 1954, Dover Publications, p10 and following pages Detailed discussion of Newton's sine-square law, invalidity in the general case and applicability at high supersonic speeds.

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