Superseded scientific theories

Superseded scientific theories

A superseded, or obsolete, scientific theory is a scientific theory that was once commonly accepted but that is no longer considered the most complete description of reality by a mainstream scientific consensus, or a theory which has been shown to be false. This label does not cover protoscientific or fringe science theories with limited support in the scientific community, nor does it describe theories that were never widely accepted. Some theories which were only supported under specific political authorities, such as Lysenkoism, may also be described as obsolete or superseded.

In some cases a theory or idea is found to be 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 which retains elements of the earlier theory; in these cases, the older theory is often still useful because it provides a description that is "good enough" for many purposes, is more easily understood than the complete theory, and may 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 which is negligibly small at velocities much lower than that of light. Newtonian physics is so satisfactory for most purposes that many secondary educational systems teach it, but not the "correct", but more complex, relativity. Another case is the theory that the earth is approximately flat; while clearly wrong for long distances, viewing a landscape as flat is still sufficient for some local maps and surveying.

Karl Popper suggested that a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it can in principle be falsified by experiment; any idea not susceptible to falsification does not belong to science.

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


Superseded theories




  • All of classical physics, while useful in practice, is in principle superseded by relativistic physics and quantum physics, to which classical physics is often a close approximation.

Astronomy and cosmology

Geography and climate

  • 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.
  • 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)



  • Pure behaviorist explanations for language acquisition in infancy, falsified by the study of cognitive adaptations for language.[1]
  • The blank slate theory of socialization, disproven by research on cross-cultural universals[citation needed].


Obsolete branches of enquiry

Theories now considered to be incomplete

Here are theories that are no longer considered the most complete representation of reality, but are still 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.

  • Atomic theory initially proposed that atoms were indivisible, but now it is known that they are composed of subatomic particles.
  • Atomic nuclei disintegrate at high energy.
  • Newtonian mechanics was extended by the theory of relativity and by quantum mechanics. Relativistic corrections to Newtonian mechanics are unmeasurably small at velocities not approaching the speed of light, and quantum corrections are usually negligible at atomic or larger scales; Newtonian mechanics is totally satisfactory in engineering and physics under most circumstances.
  • Classical electrodynamics approximates quantum electrodynamics.
  • Bohr model of the atom was extended by the quantum mechanical model of the atom.
  • Newton's sine-square law for the force of a fluid on a body[citation needed] is no longer considered useful at low speeds, though it has found application in hypersonic flow.


  1. ^ Crain, Stephen and Diane C. Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell. 

See also


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