Follow TV Tropes


What We Now Know to Be True

Go To

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk."
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 and then have one of the characters dismiss it as an outdated misconception.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 Acceptable Breaks from Reality (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.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Sam & Max had a joke in both the comic and the animated series where Sam and Max breathe fine in space and it turns out "those wussy astronauts just never thought to try taking their helmets off."

    Films — Live-Action 

  • 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:
  • 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" by Poul Anderson, in which Jupiter turns out to have a solid surface.
  • Matthew Joseph Harrington uses this gag a few times in the stories he wrote for the Known Space 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 is set on a futuristic submarine where vacuum tubes are a plot element. A named but unspecified 'effect' is used to justify their not having been replaced by transistors.
  • Parodied in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. 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.
  • According to the Bernice Summerfield novel Down, feathered dinosaurs do not exist, with archaeopteryx being proved to be a hoax in the 22nd century (and other examples not being mentioned because the book was written in 1997.)
  • The Manchurian Candidate mentions "that old wives' tale" that hypnotized people can't be forced to do things that are against their natures.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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?
    Parsons: Yes.
    The Doctor: What? And quantum theory?
    Parsons: Yes.
    The Doctor: What? And Planck?
    Parsons: Yes.
    The Doctor: What? And Newton?
    Parsons: Yes.
    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 one of the 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.
  • Red Dwarf: In "Holoship", a crewmember of the titular ship reveals to Rimmer that a few centuries after his own time humanity outlawed parents when scientists finally realised all our neuroses and hangups are caused by them. Rimmer, who has spent his entire life and post-life blaming his parents first and foremost for his inability to succeed (before everyone and anything that's not him), is overjoyed to hear this.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • 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.

  • Bleak Expectations: A Running Gag is things being proclaimed a "true fact of Victorian science", such as how Isaac Newton invented gravity (not proved it existed; he literally invented it, causing an explosion of fall-related deaths), lightning being a modern panacea, and men being unable to sit on a cushion another man has sat on. Also done the other way around when Sir Phillip Bin describes his sister and brother in-law going to marriage counselling, which is not as advanced at it is from the time he's narrating. Therapy consists of the psychiatrist yelling at both parties, including telling Pippa that science proves as a woman she cannot think.


    Western Animation 
  • Often played for laughs on Futurama:
  • 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".