10 Widely Misunderstood Scientific Theories

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People often misunderstand scientific theories — partly because science can be complicated, but also because many people are confused about what a scientific theory actually is. A theory, in science terms, is not just an extremely good educated guess, nor is it expected to ever reach a higher burden of proof. It is, in fact, a common misconception that a scientific theory can ever become a scientific law. This is because they aren’t really part of a hierarchy of evidence, but separate aspects of understanding and classifying the world around us. A scientific law is something we know, and a theory is a model to explain it that has stood up to repeated testing and research. Now, since people often misunderstand what a theory is, they also often sometimes get the science confused as well. In today’s article, we will go over 10 examples of just that.

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10. “If We Evolved From Monkeys, Why Are There Still Monkeys?”

Something you will often hear from people who deny the theory of evolution is that it is silly to say we evolved from monkeys, because there are still monkeys around today. Now, this shows two major misunderstandings of how evolution works, and also shows that many people are simply arguing from a place of ignorance. To begin with, we didn’t evolve from monkeys (at least not the ones you are thinking of and see today) — we actually evolved from a common ancestor to monkeys, many, many ages ago.

Furthermore, the idea that one species would disappear just because another evolved from it is simply fallacious and shows a complete lack of understanding of how the natural world works. A new species evolving from an old one doesn’t necessarily mean the old species is obsolete, nor that it will suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. There is also the matter of how more genetic diversity is created. When a group from a species ends up isolated from other members of its species, different forms tend to emerge due to the different environments or habits of the group. There are many, many different forms of monkeys today, which makes perfect sense with the theory of evolution — we are just the smartest kind. And yes, we are still basically monkeys, as far as the term can be loosely used with regard to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

9. Time Is One Of The Most Misunderstood Ideas In All Of Science

Time is something we take for granted, but in the physics community, its nature and existence is a source of constant research and debate. Some people aren’t even sure it is even really a thing… at least not the way we tend to think of it. Experiments with a unit of a measure even smaller than an atom, on something called the Planck Scale — which is a scale for incredibly small measurements — have found that time seems to cease when you get down to a small enough level. Some physicists think that this could indicate that at the very basic level of the universe, time doesn’t exist, which would mean what we think we are seeing is just a macroscopic effect of something else.

This can be quite confusing even to a trained physicist, and there really is no one truly defined explanation accepted by the majority of the community. Some are trying all sorts of equations and ideas in attempts to come up with some kind of overall rational, but have thus far not quite succeeded. The problem is that time has already recently thrown physicists for a loop, when Einstein proved that it was at least relative. Now, we have to figure out if it exists at the most base level of the universe, and if it does, in what form, and what it actually is. For now though, just accept the illusion, as your job will still expect you to show up on time.  

8. The “Law Of Averages” Doesn’t Really Even Exist — It’s A Fallacy

Some people will talk about something called the “law of averages,” whereby they claim that over a given amount of time, things will basically even out in terms of odds. Usually, this is applied to some sort of competition, or even gambling. The thing is, though, there really is no such thing as the law of averages — it’s just a fallacy. The law of averages generally assumes that because something is statistically likely, that it’s going to happen soon. This fallacy can be part of the gambler’s fallacy, where people lose a lot of money, continuing to bet because the “law of averages” says it should happen “imminently.”

The problem is that these people have a poor understanding of probability. If we are talking about truly random chance, just because something is likely to happen doesn’t mean it will — there’s just a level of probability that it will happen. Calculating probability can be quite complicated, and the number usually ends up lower than you would expect. There is a real concept that people might be getting things confused with called the Law of Large Numbers. This simply posits that if you do something an incredible amount of times, the average should be close to the expected value. For example, if you roll a six-sided die hundreds of thousands of times, the average should be about 3.5, as that is the average value of the die. Some people get confused thinking that in a specific gambling run, or perhaps a game of Risk, that luck will even out. This is unlikely — the sample size is too small and you are falling prey to the gambler’s fallacy.

7. Gender And Sex Are Constantly Confused, But They Are Not The Same Thing

Today, there’s a lot of talk about various different genders, such as pansexual, demisexual, and so on. On top of that, there’s increased awareness and tolerance for those who are transgender; however, just because people are talking about these things more doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily understands the concepts. Some people get very confused about the difference between gender and sex, and the difference is important.

We aren’t here to weigh in on how many genders there should be, or how you should feel about people who feel they were born a different sex. We just want to get the science accurate. When it comes to sex, there really can only be two. You simply cannot make up any more than that, because sex consists of the physiological characteristics such as the actual differences in organs and the different hormones that naturally affect you. However, gender has always been an entirely sociological construct to begin with, and is perfectly open to create as many as you want, as it has nothing to do with physical characteristics. Gender is really about how you feel, what attracts you, and other nebulous factors that can’t be properly physiologically measured.

6. The Artificial Intelligence Scientists Are Creating Is Not What You Think

Artificial intelligence is probably one of the most misunderstood basic theories in science, but we don’t suggest that most people misunderstand this because they aren’t intelligent. Rather, movies have done an incredibly good job of twisting people’s understanding of this one, and unless you’ve studied computer science you may not realize how silly and wrong most movies have this.

In movies artificial intelligence reaches some level of consciousness, and people are quite used to this image of AI. To make matters worse, the news will get quick clicks with headlines about famous scientists being worried about the rise of AI, and then people start worrying about Terminators. Now, there is some reason to be worried about AI, but no researcher expects it to reach actual consciousness, because that’s just not how it works. Rather, the goal of AI research is to make it better at doing tasks and organizing the flow of various goings-on without much human intervention. The fear of experts is AI making bad decisions after being given control of important infrastructure, not because they have transcended to the level of conscious beings and are being malicious, but because they could make stupid mistakes due to lacking context, and not seeing the entire picture that a human would — or just thinking in an unpredictable way.



5. Survival Of The Fittest Isn’t About Strength Or Immunity, But Characteristics

A lot of people are taught about the theory of natural selection, but many of them come away with little memory of it except “survival of the fittest,” which many take to mean that if you are the strongest and toughest, you are more likely to survive. However, this is really only true if the environment you live in requires physical strength and toughness as the best way to not only live, but pass on your genes to a new generation.

This is because the whole point of natural selection is that those with the best characteristics for the environment they live in will be more likely to pass on viable offspring, not that strength and machismo will always rule the day. Species not only tend to naturally select over time for the better traits, but also will drop things over time that they don’t need anymore. A good example of this is wisdom teeth, which some humans are already being born without.

4. Everything You Know About Pavlov’s Experiments And Theories Is Probably Wrong

Ivan Pavlov is famous for his experiments with dogs, where he taught them to salivate at the sound of a buzzer by making them associate it with food. Most people think that Pavlov’s whole deal from the get-go was studying psychology by using dogs, and that no dogs were harmed in his experiments.

However, the truth is that the real story behind Pavlov is kind of horrifying if you like dogs. So, if you really, really love dogs and hearing about awful things done to them makes you upset, you might want to skip to the next entry. You’ve been warned.

Pavlov was not really interested early on in his career in psychology — that came much later after he had already won a Nobel Prize and reached his peak. Rather, Pavlov was interested in physiology, especially when it comes to the digestive system. He would do something called “sham feeding” where he would make a hole in the dog’s throat called a fistula, so that the food would drop out and never reach the dog’s stomach. By continuing to make lower holes on various dogs, he was able to measure excretions at various levels and his comprehensive picture of the digestive system won him a Nobel Prize in 1904 in Physiology or Medicine. While in his later years he did do a little bit of psychological research with dogs, a bell was almost never one of the sounds he used to trigger dogs’ association.

3. Freud’s Most Disturbing Theories About Sexuality Were Never Taken That Seriously

Many people today think of most of Freud’s absurd theories about young children or infants having unconscious sexual thoughts and not only scoff, but wonder what the medical community was thinking, taking such nonsense so seriously. However, the truth was that Freud had one of the most complex careers, and also has one of the most complex legacies, when it comes to his work. While people were interested in his ideas on psychoanalysis, the importance of dreams, and his general belief in a subconscious, it is important to understand that even during his time, his more radical ideas about unconscious sexual thoughts in children was not really accepted by most in the medical or burgeoning psychological community.

Also, it is important to understand that today, the psychological community thinks of most of Freud’s theories as a joke, and they don’t really teach him seriously in classes. But that doesn’t mean you throw out the baby with the bathwater, either. Freud may not be a huge influence today, but psychologists believe it is important to study him from a historical perspective because of the huge influence he had on early psychology, and also to understand which of his ideas did turn out to be correct. Now, while psychology doesn’t exactly believe in the breakdown of the subconscious quite the way Freud described it, a subsconscious is a widely accepted idea and we have Freud to thank for that one. And while his practice of psychoanalysis, which is the talk therapy where you try to understand the unconscious thoughts, is not that popular among psychologists anymore, there are those who practice it and some who incorporate elements into their therapy repertoire.

2. Black Holes Are Accepted By Most, But Their Nature And Existence Is Controversial

Black holes are something most of us understand very well. You can’t see them, but you know they are there because they are dragging light and matter into them like… well, like a black hole. However, back in the 1980s Stephen Hawking shocked the scientific community when he used the quantum laws of physics to prove that black holes were actually emitting particles — something now known as Hawking radiation. Now, this is where things get really tricky, because we still don’t fully understand black holes.

Hawking’s research contends that since the black hole is losing heat and matter, it will eventually dissolve like an aspirin in a glass of water, instead of continuing to just suck up light and matter without pause. However, this leads to the question of where the information that was sucked up goes to when the black hole dissolves. Some physicists contend that according to our knowledge of the laws of the universe, no information can be lost forever, but Hawking disagreed, wagering that the information would be lost. At this point, physicists can only scratch their heads, as we really have absolutely no way of knowing — we have never been able to yet witness a black hole dissolving to find out.

1. You May Have Seen Some Confusing Claims That Electrons Can Go Faster Than Light

This has been passed around the internet and even confused some kids in science classes when well meaning teachers didn’t explain it properly. People heard claims that electrons can go faster than light, and everyone got all excited about how we had allegedly cracked the speed of light barrier. However, the unfortunate truth was that no such thing has occurred. Electrons can move faster than light when they are sped up enough, but only in a medium that already slows down the speed of light moving through it.

This is a known phenomenon seen at nuclear reactors, that creates a really cool looking blue glow effect, and is known as Cherenkov Radiation. While in this context it’s easy for a flashy news media headline to confuse people into thinking scientists somehow found some amazing breakthrough and managed to exceed the speed of light, there has not yet been any situation where this has actually occurred. It is important to read the fine print, as in this case, going faster than light makes you think something special has happened, but faster than light and faster than the speed of light are not the same thing at all.


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