Dr. Aragon: Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
So you've got this great idea for a science fiction story. There's just one problem: an element of the story is blatantly contradicted by a piece of actual science, and you don't want it to look like you honestly didn't know this.
But wait! Science Marches On, right? Science is always evolving, and sometimes what we thought was certain turns out to be incomplete or incorrect. So in a story involving people from the future, ahead-of-their-time scientists, or Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, one way of getting around a scientific inaccuracy is to mention the current theory... and then have one of the characters dismiss it as an outdated misconception.
This serves as a quick Lampshade Hanging which acknowledges the departure from the facts, and allows you to get on with the story. This kind of dialogue can also be used when the science itself is in a state of flux at the time of writing—the characters discuss the competing theories, and whichever one "was proven accurate" is the one taken as accurate in the story, whatever happens later in Real Life.
This trope can also be Played for Laughs, especially when the difference from real-world science is ludicrous: "People in the twenty-first century used to think that? They must have been really stupid!"
Compare Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions (for cases involving cultural or religious ideas rather than scientific ones) and Necessary Weasel (for cases where ignoring some inconvenient real-world restriction has become a standard part of a genre). Tends to make a work a softer science fiction.
- In the Mark Crilley's Akiko, (a lighthearted Wizard of Oz-inspired fairy tale in space), Akiko is surprised that she doesn't need a helmet in space. She is informed that Earth's scientists were plain wrong about that, and that you can breathe just fine in outer space, thank you very much.
- A joke similar to the Akiko example also happened twice in Steve Purcell's Sam&Max - Freelance Police, once in the comic and then again in the animated series, where it turns out "those wussy astronauts just never thought to try taking their helmets off."
- Played for Laughs in Woody Allen's Sleeper, as the quote at the top of this article would suggest.
- And ironically, some current nutritional theories do claim that steak (protein) is healthier than wheat germ (complex carbs and gluten).
- Also he's urged to smoke and when he refuses "It's tobacco. It's one of the healthiest things for you."
- The Manchurian Candidate mentions "that old wives' tale" that hypnotized people can't be forced to do things that are against their natures.
- In the cheesy Queen of Outer Space movie, the four astronauts find themselves accidentally on an Earthlike planet; examining its exact gravity level, they determine that they must be on Venus. The junior astronaut says, "What about all those lectures we got about Venus having an unbreathable atmosphere and a horribly high temperature?" The doctor says, "Yes, I formulated most of those theories myself. It seems I was wrong."
- In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Axel expresses concern that the adventuring party will encounter great heat and pressure in the interior of the Earth, which will probably kill them. Professor Lidenbrock argues that the heat will not be great, and they will be able to acclimate to the pressure. He's right. In fact, this was a popular theory in the days of Jules Verne: that the only thing that happened as you get closer to the center of the earth is that pressure continued to increase, until you would eventually get to a point where the pressure was so great that the air itself was forced into solid form, representing the core. It was based on this theory that he wrote the story.
- Isaac Asimov:
- The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr: Dr Asimov wrote forewords to his novels in The '70s, which are now themselves somewhat out of date. But at least he recognized that Science Marches On and wanted to avoid having the readers of his novels get confused.
- Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus:(Written in 1954, before astronomers had a clear idea of what the surface of Venus was like) Lucky mentions that "until the late 1900s astronomers thought Venus had no water. When ships began to land, mankind found that wasn't so." Republishing the book under his own name in 1978, Dr Asimov explained the developments in the 1960s which established the lack of any liquids and almost zero water vapour.
- In a Discworld book, Vetinari comments how centuries ago they thought the Disc was round, but now it's a scientific fact it's a disc on the back of four elephants standing on a giant turtle.
- The advanced aliens in the Uplift universe have nothing but contempt for the Earth concept of the continuum, and thus for any science not based on discrete mathematics. This may be justified, since even some contemporary Earthlings regard the continuum as a useful shortcut that we can forget about once we have sufficient computing power. Except this is just a trap for Galactic races, laid out by founders of this society - they didn't want to be bothered by children, so they limited they scientific abilities to make them unable to reach them.
- Atlas Shrugged: Galt's engine is called out as working on a new principle and proving several laws of physics to be false. Unkind people have suggested it harnesses the power of Plot.
- In one of the Animorphs books, the alien Ax is looking through the other Animorphs' text books and comments, "That's not how gravity works at all." In fairness, modern physics is still working out how gravity works on a quantum level.
- Additionally, the Animorphs are of the age of middle school and high school during the story, so it stands to reason that their school text books would likely cover only the simplified mechanics of gravity as discovered by Newton, instead of Einstein's more accurate spacetime-based formulation, let alone the yet-to-be discovered theory of quantum gravity.
- Many, many, many science fiction stories that have some form of faster than light travel will include some reference to a particular scientist who discovered the theory which superseded Relativity, and thus allowed faster than light travel.
- It has been suggested that relativity allows for "tachyons," particles with negative mass-squared. Applying the relativistic relation between speed, mass, and energy gives a speed greater than light speed. Other results follow as well: energy decreases as speed increases. Since motion is spacelike, a tachyonic spacecraft going from the sun to Sirius in one frame goes from Sirius to the sun in another frame. Relativistic quantum field theory of tachyons predicts an unstable vacuum. A tachyon would cause huge amounts of Cherenkov radiation — going faster in the process, by losing energy.
- This very fact is riffed in, of all places, a Donald Duck comic, where Gyro Gearloose has built an FTL-capable spaceship. (Something which happens somewhat regularly.) When asked how it works, he replies that it transforms the ship's particles into tachyons for the journey... prompting Hewey to mention that he thought the existence of tachyons to be merely theoretical. "Oh, they didn't exist until I invented them." was Gearloose's reply.
- An Alcubierre drive is also theoretically possible, since it wouldn't accelerate the ship past light speed, rather warping space around them. So far of course the latter hasn't been figured out, but science fiction would naturally not be restricted that way. Numerous science fiction works since Alcubierre published his theory have of course utilized it.
- Oddly enough, this sort of reasoning is sometimes used in actual science textbooks (usually when the writer themselves hasn't checked the facts and is just repeating the popular view). A good example is in biology where this trope is that Pasteur "disproved" the theory of spontaneous generation. Technically, he only disproved that any form of life was spontaneously generating from non-life in his time. No one can really scientifically "prove" or "disprove" that it ever has happened, since the statistically infinitesimal odds of abiogenesis occurring make it strictly a one-shot event that can't be replicated to be observed and studied, much like the Big Bang. Various hypotheses about the origin of life from non-life are still explored, though so far none have been confirmed. What he did disprove however is that spontaneous generation happens regularly, as used to be held, especially regarding animals like fish (who were once commonly thought of as simply regenerating in the water before their reproduction was discovered).
- Done in Call Me Joe, where Jupiter turns out to have a solid surface.
- Matthew Joseph Harrington uses this gag a few times in the stories he wrote for the Man-Kzin Wars series: lung cancer was discovered to be caused by a virus, not smoking, and the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hit Iceland, not the Yucatan.
- In The Giants Trilogy, we discover that conservation of energy isn't entirely true - there are ways to produce free energy.
- Something similar is briefly mentioned in There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson: The protagonist, a young man who possesses the power to travel through time, is fully aware that everything humanity thinks we know about the laws of physics say that his ability is utterly impossible: His best guess for an explanation is that there are loopholes in the Law of Conservation of Energy that we haven't figured out yet.
- The Frank Herbert novel The Dragon in the Sea was set on a futuristic submarine where vacuum tubes were a plot element. A named but unspecified 'effect' was used to justify their not having been replace by transistors.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Parodied. After an explanation on the nature of Magratheea, and how its inhabitants routinely made planets, the Guide finishes this explanation with: "Of course, in these enlightened days, no-one believes a word of it."
- In the Skylark of Space stories by E. E. "Doc" Smith, the titular spaceship travels faster than the speed of light, and does it without any special phlebotinum for the purpose; it just accelerates until it's going faster than light. The crew is surprised that they can do this, and conclude that, gosh darn it, Einstein was simply wrong.
- The Tollans, an advanced human civilization in Stargate SG-1, have studied quantum physics... "among other misconceptions of elementary science". In the early days of quantum mechanics, many scientists (including the likes of Einstein) were convinced that, to put it simply, there had to be a logical explanation behind the mess that is quantum. Bell's theorem proved them wrong. Kinda.
- Doctor Who, "Shada":
The Doctor: What? Do you understand Einstein?
The Doctor: What? And quantum theory?
The Doctor: What? And Planck?
The Doctor: What? And Newton?
The Doctor: What? And Schoenberg?
Parsons: Of course.
The Doctor: You've got a lot to unlearn.
- Blake's 7 pulls a two-for-one example in the pilot episode, when the cast discover that their newly acquired spacecraft goes really, really fast:
Blake: You mean we crossed the antimatter interface? That's impossible.
Avon: That's what they said about the light barrier.
- In an episode of The Outer Limits (1995), some visitors from the future arrive and meet some present-day scientists. When the one of present-day researchers mentions time-dilation to a visitor she's chatting with, he winces a bit, although he doesn't correct her assumptions because he can't afford to change history by telling her where her ideas are wrong.
- Monty: In one storyline, Monty spends the night in an old mansion and asks time-travelling Doc to accompany him. In the house, Monty reveals this is supposed to be a Haunted House but "As a man of science, [Doc] doesn't believe in ghosts, right?". Doc replies that ghost were actually proven to exist in 2078, at which point blood starts leaking from the nearest door.
- Often played for laughs on Futurama:
- In "Mars University", Professor Farnsworth produces a hyperintelligent monkey:
Fry: Is he genetically engineered?
Professor: Oh please, that's preposterous science-fiction mumbo-jumbo. Guenther's intelligence actually lies in his electronium hat, which harnesses the power of sunspots to produce cognitive radiation.
- Another episode reveals that old people are used to create energy, just like in The Matrix. Bender and Fry point out the various reasons that doesn't make sense, with Leela just saying that no, it really works.
Cubert: That's impossible! Nothing can go faster than the speed of light!
- And from the episode where we first saw the old people storage:
Farnsworth: Yes, that's why scientists changed the speed of light in 2208.
- In "Mars University", Professor Farnsworth produces a hyperintelligent monkey:
- Time Squad is set in a future where there's no more war, no more pollution, humans have cracked time travel and bacon is good for your heart.
- Lilo & Stitch: The Series: As revealed in "Spike", you don't want Jumba on your trivia team precisely because of his knowledge of advanced alien science, which often contradicts Earth wisdom. For instance, he gives the distance between Earth and Jupiter as fourteen feet because of "subspace folding".