Five Instances of Bad Science That People Actually Believed

July 30, 2021
Hebba Gouda

You know that feeling you get when you watch reality TV and think to yourself, “This is ridiculous. Absurd. Absolute lunacy. I can’t wait to watch another episode.” Now ask yourself: Where else can I get my fix? Where else is there an archive of logic trainwrecks and brain bloopers to hold me over until the next episode of Love Island? It may surprise you to hear that the answer is “science”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science. Studying science didn’t get me bombarded with party invitations in college, but there are other merits. You know, curing disease and stuff. I’ve found that those are sufficiently satisfying, and the music is generally a more reasonable volume. That being said, we must beware of bad science. We often take for granted the legitimacy or illegitimacy of science based factors such as sources or our own personal biases, so it’s important to try to be objective and thorough when reading up on that latest study.

Now, what do I mean by bad science? I’m not talking about science wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses while riding off on a Harley. Bad science can be straight-up misinformation, mistranslation, omission, wastefulness or inconsistencies in the study. In the past, there were some pretty prominent, pretty widely-accepted examples of said bad science (can I get a “flat earth”?) but there are also some frighteningly recent examples of bad science. From doom-crusted tortilla chips to frost-forward Nazis, here are five examples of bad science throughout history that would give any episode of Jersey Shore a run for its money.

  1. Let There Be Life!

Aristotle’s theory of the spontaneous generation of life is fairly straightforward — it is not a reference to the kids these days being a particularly spontaneous, wild generation. Odd as it sounds, Aristotle did not, in fact, theorize that.

His theory was the idea that life could and did form spontaneously from non-living matter. Which sounds...weird? The concept of a phoenix rising from the ashes is all well and good in terms of theatrics, but science? That’s bad science. Aristotle’s idea included claims like scallops being generated from sand and maggots from dead flesh. I guess because that’s where people saw them emerge without ever seeing them being created?

Following that logic, am I then generated from Trader Joe’s at the height of pumpkin spice season? Is it encouraging for the lay people of the world? Perhaps a little! Given that it was originally developed by Aristotle, it serves as proof that even the greatest minds have brain farts. Pobody’s nerfect. But, it also illustrates the dangerous longevity of incorrect information, seeing as It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Louis Pasteur disproved it, that the theory stopped being accepted. Now, Luis can hang his hat on being one of the few people that can justifiably tell Aristotle to suck it. That’s impressive, sure, but to me he’ll always live on as the reason we can have milk and cookies without acute danger. Well, danger to us, at least. The cookies have the world to fear. That being said, it means the theory persisted for over 2,000 years! Scary to think of how something that we now see is pretty impossible was so accepted for so long.

  1. Lobotomies. Just Everything About Lobotomies.

In a nutshell, a lobotomy is a brain surgery that involves inserting a small surgical rod with a retractable wire loop into the brain. That rod is then used to form cavities in areas of white matter. These operations could actually fundamentally alter somebody’s personality or disposition, and that’s actually the reason for quite a few of them throughout history 一 they were supposedly a “cure” for things like homosexuality and women having any sexual thoughts whatsoever 一 I know, how dispicable! Worth the risk of losing your brain function? Apparently, people thought so.

But this is about bad science, and boy, was there bad science here. Frankly, the goals of this procedure were completely unfair, and the surgeries were sometimes unsuccessful –– resulting in death or vegetative states. You know, little risks you take when you shove a rod into your skull. And, in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a vast majority of lobotomies were performed on people that might not have wanted them, or even had the ability to make the decision at all. Plus, the elderly, female, queer, and Black communities were disproportionately targeted and a needlessly high number of patients were subjected to this increasingly barbaric practice.

What?! Increasingly barbaric?! Surely brain surgery must be done in highly regulated, sterilized environments! Not so, my sweet, naive kittens. Take Walter Freeman, who personally performed a whopping 3,500 lobotomies. That’s 7 to 9% of all lobotomies done in America at that time. I’d love to say that these numbers were possible because he was an efficient, talented surgeon but in reality, none of that was true. That’s right, Freeman wasn’t even a surgeon.

He took a practice that was already dangerous at best and did away with the unnecessary parts like sanitation, record-keeping, anesthetics, or, oh yeah, CONSENT. He was all about cranking out those lobotomies 一 making it the Fast and Furious franchise of the neurosurgery world. If I tripped and busted my head open on a rock, this guy would probably say “Wow, what a great, efficient method for a lobotomy!” I’m actually reluctant to call this bad science, because that would give it the satisfaction of anyone deeming it actual science.

  1. Appointment Reminder: Dr. Cotton at Tooth-Hurty

On the (very serious and very sadly still misunderstood) topic of mental illness, Dr. Henry Cotton had his own ideas. As a medical director during the early 1900s, Cotton developed a theory that mental illness was due to physical infections, specifically in patients’ teeth. As such, his solution was to simply remove the affected area. Yes. Just, pull the teeth out. With Cotton in charge, 11,000 teeth were extracted from mentally ill patients. I realize that therapy can be like pulling teeth but I doubt this was what people bargained for.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much improvement in patients after Cotton’s treatment. Instead of rethinking his theory from the problematic basis, Cotton shifted to believing that the infection was simply not contained, and that it has spread to other organs! Of course, the solution was then to just remove these. Cotton claimed a success rate of a whopping 80% for treating mental illness. But anyone can claim anything. His mortality rate was actually astronomical. Bad science! Bad, bad, bad science! Go to your corner!

At least he believed in himself, having pulled several of his own teeth as well as those of his wife and children. This does beg the question 一 did he think himself and his family mentally ill as well? While four out of five dentists agree that Dr. Cotton is whack, one out of one Dr. Cottons found dentists to be peculiar. Why? Because they were fixing teeth rather than pulling them out. At least he wasn’t a cardiologist, I guess? I have to assume that this whole scheme runs much deeper than we all see 一 probably some elaborate partnership and money-laundering scheme with Tooth Fairy. Would be great TV, but it’s bad science.

  1. World Ice Doctrine

Before you get too excited, I’m not hinting at a Frozen 3, but rather expertly and seamlessly segueing into Austrian engineer Hans Horbiger’s theory from 1894, where he observed that the moon was shiny and rough. The argument was that it was a lot like ice. Not a whole lot to go off of considering that crinkled tin foil or my personality also fall into those categories.

But since Horbiger did not have either aluminum foil nor the pleasure of my company, it’s conceivable to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until, that is, he justified the development of this theory with a vision 一 yes, a vision 一 wherein he was floating in space, observing a pendulum swinging until the tether broke. The next logical step was to theorize that ice is the fundamental building block of the universe, complete with an icy ether and celestial bodies. Apparently. For a little bit, rationality held off the popularization of the theory, and it didn’t really gain much traction (but ice rarely does) until Horbiger upped his networking game a little bit.

After being dismissed by the scientific community, he focused on marketing directly to the people, a tactic that contributed to the longevity of many pseudoscientific theories. There was also the event of the Nazis coming to power which led to the expulsion of many scientists from Germany, among whom was Einstein and his Nazi-rejected theory of relativity, helped the World Ice Doctrine along as an alternative cosmological model. And yet, defensive driving class enrollment did not reflect the spread of the theory. Despite this, both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, one of the more occult-leaning Nazis, were notable proponents. Dream visions and Adolf Hitler sound like the plot of a movie that absolutely no one should see.

  1. The Milky Way (to Practice Medicine)

This one is a little scary because it was pretty widely believed 一 before the discovery of blood types in 1901, many physicians decided against the risky process of transfusing human blood to patients and instead tried to find a substitute for blood. You’ve heard “better safe than sorry”, but what if I told you that you could be “safe” AND sorry? This brings us to 1854, when Toronto’s Dr. James Bovell and Dr. Edwin Hodder injected a patient with cow’s milk. The OG “Got Milk?” spokespeople, Bovell and Edwin acted with the justification behind the substitution being that the fatty particles in milk would become what we now refer to as white blood cells. Does it sound crazy to us now? I sure hope so. However, milk transfusions were an active, relatively popular research topic for about 30 years.  Kind of makes me shudder 一  emphasis on the “udder”.

Frankly, I don’t think the milkmen of medicine were completely off their rockers in that they did use a bar for measuring success that I’ve since adopted 一 people didn’t die. I don’t want to brag, but by that measure I, too, am very successful. The next logical question, of course, is what if we try with oat milk? It might not work but, damn, will it be trendy. Think of the influencers who will rue the day they wrote their bios to say “oat milk runs through my veins”. It’s okay. Those guys love irony.

As I’ve hopefully illustrated, good science isn’t necessitated by the suffix “Dr.” or the presence of a study. It’s tricky business, this science stuff, but in conclusion:

  • Your seafood alfredo did not just spontaneously appear out of nowhere, so tip your waitstaff.
  • Avoid sticking sharp objects in your brain.
  • Thankfully, the universe is not made of ice.
  • If you're feeling down, don't go to the dentist.
  • If you would like milk, please ingest it orally.
  • Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

That last one wasn’t in the blog It’s just the quintessential reminder of good science.