Superseded theories in science

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The obsolete geocentric model places Earth at the centre of the Universe.

In science, a theory is superseded when a scientific consensus once widely accepted it, but current science considers it inadequate, incomplete, or debunked (i.e., wrong). Such labels do not cover protoscientific or fringe science theories that have never had broad support within the scientific community. Furthermore, superseded or obsolete theories exclude theories that were never widely accepted by the scientific community. Some theories that were only supported under specific political authorities, such as Lysenkoism, may also be described as obsolete or superseded.

Some theories have been discovered to be incomplete or not hold precisely, but remain in use as practical approximations. For example, all of Newtonian physics is satisfactory for most purposes, and so is widely used except at velocities that are a significant fraction of the speed of light. It is also simpler than relativistic mechanics and so is usually taught in schools.

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. Occasionally, a discarded theory is later revived, typically in heavily modified or limited form. For example, while Lamarckism was discarded in favor of Mendelian inheritance, there have been proposals for a revival in epigenetics.[1] Similarly, while miasma theory (bad air) was replaced by the germ theory of disease, some of the practices associated with miasma theory, notably ventilation, are applicable to the airborne transmission of germs, and have been revived during the COVID-19 pandemic.[2]

Superseded theories[edit]

Scientific theories are testable and make falsifiable predictions.[3] Thus, it is a mark of good science if a discipline has a growing list of superseded theories, and conversely, a lack of superseded theories can indicate problems in following the use of the scientific method.



  • Caloric theory – the theory that a self-repelling fluid called "caloric" was the substance of heat. Rendered obsolete by the mechanical theory of heat.
  • Classical elements – All matter was once thought composed of various combinations of classical elements (most famously air, earth, fire, and water). Antoine Lavoisier finally refuted this in his 1789 publication, Elements of Chemistry, which contained the first modern list of chemical elements.
  • Electrochemical dualism - the theory that all molecules are salts composed of basic and acidic oxides
  • Phlogiston theory – The theory that combustible goods contain a substance called "phlogiston" that entered air during combustion. Replaced by Lavoisier's work on oxidation
  • Point 2 of Dalton's Atomic Theory was rendered obsolete by discovery of isotopes, and point 3 by discovery of subatomic particles and nuclear reactions.
  • Radical theory - the theory that organic compounds exist as combinations of radicals that can be exchanged in chemical reactions just as chemical elements can be interchanged in inorganic compounds
  • Vitalism – See section on biology.
  • Nascent state refers to the form of a chemical element (or sometimes compound) in the instance of their liberation or formation. Often encountered are atomic oxygen (Onasc) and nascent hydrogen (Hnasc), and chlorine (Clnasc) or bromine (Brnasc).[8]
  • Polywater, a hypothesized polymer form of water, the properties of which actually arose from contaminants such as sweat


Astronomy and cosmology[edit]

Geography and climate[edit]

  • Climatic determinism
  • Topographic determinism
  • Moral geography
  • Cultural Acclimatization




Obsolete branches of enquiry[edit]

Theories now considered incomplete[edit]

These 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 for practical use, the coarser approximation provides good results with much less calculation.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Skinner, Michael K. (2015). "Environmental Epigenetics and a Unified Theory of the Molecular Aspects of Evolution: A Neo-Lamarckian Concept that Facilitates Neo-Darwinian Evolution". Genome Biology and Evolution. 7 (5): 1296–1302. doi:10.1093/gbe/evv073. PMC 4453068. PMID 25917417.
  2. ^ Melanie A. Kiechle (2021-04-21). "Revisiting a 19th century medical idea could help address covid-19". Washington Post.
  3. ^ Popper, Karl (1963), Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, UK. Reprinted in Theodore Schick (ed., 2000), Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, Calif.
  4. ^ Trefil, James S. (2003). The Nature of Science: An A-Z Guide to the Laws and Principles Governing Our Universe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 309. ISBN 0-618-31938-7.
  5. ^ Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association. "scientific racism". AAA Statement on Race. American Anthropological Association. Retrieved 15 December 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  6. ^ "germline theory". Glossary. NCBI.
  7. ^ Lefers, Mark. "germ-line theory". Glossary. Northwestern University. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  8. ^ Jensen, William B. (1990). "Whatever Happened to the Nascent State?" (PDF). Bulletin for the History of Chemistry (5): 26–36. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  9. ^ De Leon, Professor N. "Dalton's Atomic Theory". Chemistry 101 Class Notes. Indiana University Northwest. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  10. ^ Cathcart, Michael (2009). The Water Dreamers: How Water and Silence Shaped Australia. Melbourne: Text Publishing. chapter 7. ISBN 9781921520648.
  11. ^ An inland sea, the Eromanga Sea, did exist there in the Mesozoic, but not during any period of human history
  12. ^ Crain, Stephen and Diane C. Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  13. ^ Steven Novella, MD. "Psychomotor Patterning". Retrieved October 16, 2014.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Orme, Anthony R. (2007). "The Rise and Fall of the Davisian Cycle of Erosion: Prelude, Fugue, Coda, and Sequel". Physical Geography. 28 (6): 474–506. doi:10.2747/0272-3646.28.6.474. S2CID 128907423.

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