Superseded theories in science

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

This list catalogs well-accepted theories in science and pre-scientific natural philosophy and natural history which have since been superseded by scientific theories. Many discarded explanations were once supported by a scientific consensus, but replaced after more empirical information became available that identified flaws and prompted new theories which better explain the available data. Pre-modern explanations originated before the scientific method, with varying degrees of empirical support.

Some theories are discarded in their entirety, such as the replacement of the phlogiston theory by energy and thermodynamics. Some theories known to be incomplete or in some ways incorrect are still used. For example, Newtonian classical mechanics is accurate enough for practical calculations at everyday distances and velocities, and it is still taught in schools. The more complicated relativistic mechanics must be used for long distances and velocities nearing the speed of light, and quantum mechanics for very small distances and objects.

Some aspects of discarded theories are reused in modern explanations. For example, miasma theory proposed that all diseases were transmitted by "bad air". The modern germ theory of disease has found that diseases are caused by microorganisms, which can be transmitted by a variety of routes, including touching a contaminated object, blood, and contaminated water. Malaria was discovered to be a mosquito-borne disease, explaining why avoiding the "bad air" near swamps prevented it. Increasing ventilation of fresh air, one of the remedies proposed by miasma theory, does remain useful in some circumstances to expel germs spread by airborne transmission, such as COVID-19.[1]

Some theories originate in, or are perpetuated by, pseudoscience, which claims to be both scientific and factual, but fails to follow the scientific method. Scientific theories are testable and make falsifiable predictions.[2] Thus, it can be a mark of good science if a discipline has a growing list of superseded theories, and conversely, a lack of superseded theories can indicate problems in following the use of the scientific method. Fringe science includes theories that are not currently supported by a consensus in the mainstream scientific community, either because they never had sufficient empirical support, because they were previously mainstream but later disproven, or because they are preliminary theories also known as protoscience which go on to become mainstream after empirical confirmation. Some theories, such as Lysenkoism, have been generated for political rather than empirical reasons and promoted by force.

Discarded theories[edit]



  • 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. ^ Melanie A. Kiechle (2021-04-21). "Revisiting a 19th century medical idea could help address covid-19". Washington Post.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  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. ^ Glacial Theory
  13. ^ Crain, Stephen and Diane C. Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  14. ^ Steven Novella, MD. "Psychomotor Patterning". Retrieved October 16, 2014.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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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