Posted : October 2013
Author : Kate
Nowadays, with our speedy communications and the whole of human knowledge at the press of a button, it’s tempting to think that we have the monopoly on ideas. That everything we believe is infallible and it’s only people in the past that had these crazy theories. But let’s not get too smug – after all, the “crazy theories” of the past were, at the time, widely accepted as credible and, in their own way, “proven”. So, in 100 years’ time, future people may look back at our non-flying cars and finger-operated internet devices (while using their own iPads through the power of their minds) and laugh. But if we’re going to be mocked in the future, we might as well look at some of the commonly-accepted ideas of the past and be glad that things have moved on…
As future humans share galacto-coffee with their alien friends, they will laugh at those of us in the 21st century who didn’t believe in life on other planets. Who thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. But at least we don’t literally believe that Earth is the center of the universe, as the Ancient Greeks did. According to the most notable thinkers of the time – Aristotle and Ptomely among others – all the stars and heavenly bodies that we can see at night are all circling the Earth. As is the sun during the day. This idea was commonly accepted until the 16th century, when it was first suggested that maybe we circled the sun instead….and as for all those other planets, that’s a different story. But there are few people who would subscribe to the geocentric view now.
9. Smoking is Good for your Throat
This one seems almost unbelievable, given that smoking has been linked to a host of throat and mouth-related cancers but there was a time when smoking was considered not only benign but actually beneficial. Hence the advert that until recently was still visible on a building in South London – “For your throat’s sake, smoke”. The advertisers were Craven-A, who had developed a special cork filter to protect your throat while smoking. Another advert ran “So cool-so smooth to the throat” and one featured in the Montreal Gazette said “My throat is safe with Craven-A”. Needless to say those kind of ads probably wouldn’t get approved now. And no, smoking is not good for your throat.
8. Spoiled Babies Become Socialist Babies
For years, parents lived in fear of “spoiling” their babies. Too much attention would make it needy, too many cuddles would make it clingy…the baby must be separated as much and as early as possible in order to prevent those kind of problems. But one child expert, Walter W. Sackett Jnr, took this approach even further and gave American parents a cast-iron reason not to spoil their babies in his 1962 book “Bringing up Babies”. If you spoil your baby, it will become a socialist. In his words “If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we must admit the possibility that we are sowing the seeds of socialism”. At the height of the Cold War, this was a worrying prospect indeed and parents took the advice on board. Stop cuddling that baby! It’s unpatriotic!
7. You Can Inherit Traits From Your Mother’s Previous Partners
Now this model of thinking – known as telegony – is so illogical it defies belief. The theory is that if your mother has had a previous partner, you could inherit genetic traits from them rather than from your father. How? Well no-one really explains that, but it was avidly adopted by racists everywhere – the Nazis, for example, believed that once a woman had a non-Aryan partner, her children could never be considered Aryan. An article from Pravda explains that people used phrases like “polluting the chromosome chain”, which is the kind of pseudo-science speak you’d expect from ignorant racists. One of the examples often cited when it comes to telegony is “Lord Morton’s Mare” – a 19th century horse that was born to two white horses, who emerged with stripy legs. The legs were attributed to the mare’s previous breeding with a quagga, an now-extinct type of zebra (above). This isn’t a particularly compelling piece of “evidence” and was later explained by the theory of recessive genes. Looks like telegony has very little basis then!
6. The Earth is Hollow
Theories about the Earth have kept people busy for centuries. And the theory that the Earth is hollow is one for has persisted, with some people even believing it today. It’s been the basis of science-fiction novels (e.g. “Journey to the Center of the Earth”) and there are said to be all manner of things in there – from subterranean civilizations to the Garden of Eden. If this all seems ridiculous, then take a look at the beliefs of Scientologists and you’ll realize that weird beliefs are pretty widespread. The Hollow Earth theory may be persistent but it hasn’t been generally accepted since around the 18th Century, when knowledge about planet formation disproved the theory.
5. The Best Way of Soothing a Baby is Morphine
Another shining example of old-fashioned parenting next, with the use of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” for all those niggling childhood illnesses. Now, any parent will tell you that teething is a long and painful process for all involved, and no doubt many would be tempted to lace their child’s medicine with morphine. But no-one would actually do it, would they? In the 19th century, however, things were different and the soothing syrup produced by Mrs Winslow did, in fact, contain 5mg of morphine. No doubt the adverts were true when they said that it would “relieve the poor sufferers immediately” but they weren’t quite so true when they said it was “perfectly harmless”. Mrs Winslow’s syrup was American, but there were many British equivalents that contained similar ingredients. No wonder Victorian London had a problem with opiate addicts – they were brought up on the stuff!
4. You Can Poison Your Baby With “Angry Breastmilk”
On the subject of babies, there have been some interesting theories put out about the ancient and mystifying art of breastfeeding. A common one around the start of the twentieth century was that if a mother was angry, it would turn her breastmilk sour. Luckily that isn’t the case, given how many breastfeeding mothers are also dealing with stubborn 3-year-olds that would make even Gandhi swear. It is true that extreme stress can affect a mother’s supply, but nowadays, no-one pays attention to books like the 1916 parenting guide by the Sadlers that said that colic was caused by mothers thinking angry thoughts. As one government website puts it “Feelings cannot change the composition of human milk.” So there.
3. Leeches Can Cure Everything
Another theory that has some modern supporters, leeches were once seen as a cure for all ills. The practice is said to have started 2,500 years ago in India as a way of bloodletting but the Ancient Greeks were also keen pioneers of the technique, believing that the “four humors” of the body (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile) needed to be in balance in order to ensure good health. If they were out of balance, you became ill. So letting blood was a way to balance that and leeches are very good at blood-sucking. It’s more than likely that this whole idea completely freaks you out but if it doesn’t, you can still see leech therapists today (pictured above.)
2. Thalidomide is Good for Pregnant Women
And yet more suspect medical advice here, which led to an international tragedy. In 1957, a new wonder drug called Thalidomide was launched onto the market. Initially intended to treat insomnia and headaches, it quickly became apparent that it was also good at curing morning sickness. So doctors started prescribing it widely to pregnant women, with no idea that it would cause hideous defects in their unborn children. The effect was devastating – thousands of babies died and thousands more were born without limbs. Eventually, it was traced back to Thalidomide and the drug was withdrawn. It still remains on the market, for very specific medical uses, but there is a clear warning about using it while pregnant. What’s terrifying about this scandal is how happily everyone accepted their doctor’s advice without questioning. The only positive side to the whole affair is that regulation has subsequently become much tighter, especially when prescribing for pregnancy.
1. The Earth is Flat
Remember I mentioned earlier that some people persist in beliefs that others gave up a long time ago? Well, this is the definitive example. The Flat Earth Society still believes what everyone believed pre-Columbus – that the Earth is a flat disc, with the North Pole in the Middle and Antarctica spread around the edge. Apparently, this is taken form literal translations of the Bible (e.g. Psalm 75:3 “When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars”, which implies that the Earth is on pillars). The only problem with taking the Bible literally is that it was written by people who only had access to the understanding of their time, and pictures from space have shown us quite conclusively that the Earth is round. Still, the Flat Earthers may consider that all part of the conspiracy…you make your own mind up!