Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.


Beware Good Theories

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 1, 2011 6:22 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The ancient Greeks had a lovely theory. Certain places on the earth (caves, mostly) were, they thought, gateways to the underworld. Plants growing near these places could absorb the deadly essence of Hades and became poisonous.


Snakes and other venemous creatures got their poison by consuming these plants. And stinging insects got their little doses of poison by feeding off dead snakes.

Isn't that a great narrative? It explains everything, in a nice logical progression. OK, it presupposes what we would call a "supernatural" force as the ultimate origin of poison, but other than that, it's an entirely "scientific" account. In accordance with Occam's Razor, it proposes a single unified process underlying diverse phenomena.

It is, in other words, a perfect scientific theory. It's completely wrong, on every point, but we only know that because we now understand atoms, molecules, chemistry and biochemistry, which the Greeks had no way of knowing. At the time, the Hades theory was surely the best possible theory about where poison came from.

The moral of this story is, beware nice theories based on incomplete data.

Reference: Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs, which I'm currently reading, all about chemical and biological weapons.

    3 Free Articles Left

    Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

    Want unlimited access?

    Subscribe today and save 70%


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In