10 Things We Thought Were True Before the Scientific Method


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Bloodletting as a Legit Medical Cure
Leeches are so old school – or not. © Tony Savino/Corbis

No survey of the crazy things we believed before the scientific method would be complete without some mention of the weird and horrifying practices we once considered medicinal.

Remember all that business about humors (blood, phlegm, black bile and choler, aka yellow bile)? Well, imagine what kind of medical treatments might arise from such a bodily fluid-focused approach, and you have a sense of what humoral medicine was like: diagnoses based solely on the smell of feces, urine, blood or vomit; physicians who prescribe forced vomiting, frequent bloodletting and iffy enemas to balance the body out. What it lacked in effectiveness it made up for in sheer life-threatening danger. Not surprisingly, people stuck to prayer and folk remedies whenever possible [sources: Batchelor; Getz].

As for bleeding hemorrhoids, some doctors viewed them as natural humor-balancers, useful for relieving mania, depression, pleurisy, leprosy and dropsy (edema). Of course, if bleeding got out of hand, it was time to break out the red-hot pokers. It's amazing what people will sit still for [sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encyclopaedia Britannica; DeMaitre].

Author's Note: 10 Things We Thought Were True Before the Scientific Method

All theories rest, to some degree, on assumptions. We try to minimize them, because they make up hidden cracks in science's foundations but, short of actual omniscience, they're pretty much unavoidable.

When a theory falls apart, it's often because an assumption was wrong. Science is always an educated best guess, after all -- it's just that, under modern scientific method, we subject those conjectures to rigorous tests through prediction, observation, repeatable experiments and peer review. Because of this, even when we're off the beam, we aren't far off and, in any case, it's only temporary. Einsteinian physics replaced Newtonian, but Newton's laws still work in every situation we typically encounter in our lives, so we still use them. If, someday, someone supersedes Einstein, it will only be in some limited sense (replacing an underlying assumption or mechanism, likely). Einstein's predictions simply work too well to be wholly wrong.

And in the end, that's the point. Science is what works.

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