Science is awesome. Take one look at CERN, the awesome stuff we’ve found on Mars, or pictures of that comet we landed on and it’s hard to conclude otherwise. But just occasionally, science could stand to be a little bit awesomer. For every peer-reviewed theory opening up the wonders of the universe, there are about a billion rejected ones that would’ve made our lives 100 percent more amazing.
10Coffee Gives You The Ability To See Dead People
In 2009, UK tabloid The Daily Express ran a story that turned caffeine into an M. Night Shyamalan movie. According to them, scientists had claimed that “too much coffee can make you hallucinate and sense dead people.” By drinking as little as seven cups a day, it was possible to put yourself into a hallucinatory state whereby you could contact dead relatives.
While the Express focused on the supernatural aspect of the study, plenty of more respectable outlets still talked up coffee’s ability to give you an LSD-style head trip. Even the BBC made note of instant coffee’s ability to make you three times more likely to experience hallucinations. Sadly, the data turned out to be total nonsense.
Ben Goldacre of the Bad Science blog noted the researchers’ definition of “hallucination” included some pretty ordinary stuff. Having unrelated thoughts when you’re concentrating on work was included, for example. He also noted that the “three times more likely” part of the findings was unclear from the data and hadn’t been peer-reviewed. Rather than allowing us to live out our Sixth Sense fantasies, the research basically proved nothing.
9Giving Blowjobs Makes Women Happier
In 2012, science handed frat boys their dream pick-up line. A survey of 293 women had revealed that semen had pronounced antidepressant qualities, which news sites helpfully reported under the headline “blowjobs make women happier.” Although the study itself hadn’t focused on oral sex, it still seemed a viable conclusion—one guaranteed to give every man in the land an impossible-to-shake smile.
At least, it did for a short while. Almost no sooner had the story broken than other articles began to appear, utterly debunking it.
The study had focused on unprotected sex rather than oral sex. While women who had unprotected sex were slightly happier than those who didn’t, there were plenty of other interpretations that didn’t rely on semen being a mood-altering drug. More importantly, the original study doctor himself called the results “largely correlational” and said that additional tests would be needed that manipulated the amount of semen a woman received during sex—something ethically impossible. Wonderful as it would be to think that guys hold the secret to happiness in their junk, science sadly disagrees.
8Eating Chocolate Can Win You A Nobel Prize
Everyone loves chocolate, and everyone loves the idea of becoming important while putting in zero effort. In 2012, those two strands collided in a scientific study which claimed that per-capita chocolate consumption was directly linked to how many Nobel Prize winners a country produced. It was such a tempting idea that news sites like ABC ran with the headline “Can eating chocolate be the key to winning the Nobel Peace Prize?” and claimed that chocolate boosted brain power. Sadly, this wasn’t the entire story.
Although it’d be awesome to think candy bars could turn us into geniuses, the original paper didn’t claim this at all. The author even went out of his way to say that the data didn’t prove chocolate caused superior intellectual functioning. Even with these caveats, his research was still shot to bits. Scientific American published a blow-by-blow deconstruction of his claims and concluded that the paper was either a spoof or simply one of the least scientific they’d ever seen. Aside from ignoring other possible correlations, the author had used two data sets that didn’t match. Yet some of the most beloved websites on the Internet were still fooled by the tempting thought that chocolate could make us cleverer.
7Balkan Children Have Magneto Superpowers
Of all the possible movie universes, the X-Men universe could well be the coolest to live in. So it’s no surprise that the press went nuts when two Balkan boys were discovered in 2011 with Magneto-style powers. One boy in Serbia could stick metal cutlery to his chest, while another in Croatia could attract metal objects and claimed to also have Wolverine-style healing powers. For a second, it looked like we might be living in a superpowered future.
One second is all it lasted. Within days of the Croatia story going live, scientists had taken to the Internet to point out its obvious flaws. Chief among them was the fact that the two boys had to lean slightly backward to make sure the metal stayed attached to them, something that clearly wouldn’t be necessary if they were magnetic. Instead, they concluded that the kids’ “powers” were likely the result of their skin being unusually greasy and sticky.
As for the Wolverine-style speed-healing, Discover magazine claimed that this was likely just down to young tissue healing much faster than tissue in adults, which is bad news for those of us hoping to inhabit our very own Marvel universe.
6Neutrinos Can Travel Faster Than Light
Not all awesome debunked theories come from quacks or an over-excited media. In 2011, researchers at the gigantic OPERA laboratory beneath Italy seemed to discover the impossible. After measuring the speed of neutrinos arriving from CERN in Switzerland, they calculated that they had moved faster than light. The consequences of this would’ve been mind-blowing.
Aside from proving Einstein wrong, faster-than-light neutrinos would mean time travel was physically possible. The whole of 20th-century physics would’ve come crashing down around us, and everything from E=MC2 to the birth of the universe would have had to be rewritten. It would’ve been the most exciting time to be alive in the history of science and opened the door to all of us jetting off to the distant past for our holidays.
Unfortunately for those of us who sank our savings into Deloreans the moment the news broke, it later transpired that a loose cable had been responsible for the readings.
5Junk Food Could End Obesity
Most people’s dream would be to eat whatever they wanted without ever getting fat. So when The Atlantic published a scientific article by former professor of statistics David H. Freedman titled “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” the world sat up on its flabby haunches to take note. In the article, Freedman argued that many unprocessed foods are less healthy than processed foods, and that by eating processed foods we can lead a healthy, skinny life.
It was what many of us had been waiting our entire lives to hear. And it was utter nonsense.
In an article for MIT’s KSJ Tracker, Paul Raeburn picked apart Freedman’s piece and showed how the whole thing relied on assumptions and ad hominem attacks. It also cherry-picked data, demonstrating the unhealthy aspects of unprocessed foods by picking the highest-calorie examples while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and soya are pretty darn healthy. There was even one bizarre moment when Freedman advocated vegetables and fiber as a way to stay thin—stuff you’d be better off getting from unprocessed foods.
Awesome as it’d be to live in a world where 20 Big Macs a day made you skinny, it sadly isn’t this one.
4Reading Helps You Lose Weight
The trouble with losing weight is that exercise and dieting are really hard. That’s why any vaguely scientific story that suggests you can get thin without much work will get picked up by every tabloid on Earth. But even the gutter press couldn’t have anticipated the findings of a 2008 study. It declared that obese children could lose weight by reading novels.
Although the headlines suggested that any novel could help you shed pounds, the reality was it had to be one with a positive, weight-loss-oriented message. In the study, researchers had given a group of kids at a health camp a book about an overweight girl who eventually sheds some pounds and finds some friends. They found that the kids who read the book had a BMI decrease of 1 percent more than those who didn’t.
Even these meager findings were quickly challenged. Discover magazine declared the correlation weak at best and said that far too many variables were unaccounted for. Far from being proof of reading’s effectiveness in helping kids lose weight, it was simply just another vaguely suggestive study the media blew out of proportion.
3Ancient Britons Had GPS
The idea of ancient civilizations owning futuristic tech is objectively awesome. Who wouldn’t want to discover a jet pack or spaceship from the third century BC? This desire was taken to extremes in 2010, when newspapers jumped all over research by Tom Brooks that appeared to show that ancient Britons had their own form of GPS. By plotting the locations of prehistoric monuments across the country on a map, Brooks discovered that they linked up to form a grid of isosceles triangles. Had ancient Britons discovered geometry two millennia before the Greeks?
Sadly for Ancient Aliens fans, science quickly answered, and the answer was “no.” In an epic put-down, University of London mathematician Matt Parker applied Brooks’s exact same techniques to the location of Woolworths stores across Britain. He then proved that selective data interpretation could make them line up in the exact same pattern as Brooks’s prehistoric GPS.
Although Parker’s map was clearly a joke, it served a serious point. By discounting most of his own data of 1,500 sites, Brooks could prove anything he wanted to. Still, we can’t be the only ones disappointed that ancient Britain wasn’t some sort of Futurama-esque utopia.
2Pixie Dust Helped A Man Regrow A Finger
A special powder that allows humans to regrow digits or limbs is one of medicine’s holy grails. In 2008, it seemed almost within reach. A man in Ohio who sliced part of his finger off was given a “pixie dust” made from pig bladders that magically regrew his digit. When the story broke, the world’s press went bananas. Everyone from the BBC to CNN leaped on the story, reporting it as a great scientific breakthrough. We were finally entering a world where amputation would no longer be a problem.
Or so it seemed. When real scientists started looking at the story, they realized that it was hokum. The missing bit of finger hadn’t included a joint, the entire nail bed, or anything that wouldn’t grow back of its own accord. It also turned out that the story had already broken twice previously, each time hoisting a generous helping of publicity on the company behind the pixie dust. Finally, the key ingredient in the magical pig bladder formula was apparently an “Extra Cellular Matrix,” something Ben Goldacre claimed could be found in every single living thing on Earth.
1Alien Supercivilizations Are Astro-Engineering Entire Galaxies
In 1960, physicist Freeman Dyson came up with a plausible way of detecting alien civilizations. Reasoning that technological advance would be limited by energy needs, he predicted that aliens would eventually harness the power of their own stars, or even entire galaxies. To do so, they’d have to encase individual stars in a Dyson Sphere—a cosmic mega-structure with effects noticeable from millions of miles away. Since any civilization hoping to traverse galaxies would eventually need to build Dyson Spheres, all we needed to do was find evidence of them to prove aliens exist.
It was an awesome theory, and for decades astrobiologists have been looking out for traces of Dyson Spheres across the galaxies. Unfortunately, a study published in April 2015 analyzed the nearest 100,000 galaxies to ours and found no evidence for them whatsoever.
What makes this especially disappointing is that any galactic empire would leave energy traces which the study would have picked up, even if they didn’t use Dyson Spheres. With the universe already 14 billion years old, it stands to reason that such a civilization should have arisen by now. That this study couldn’t find it seems to suggest that the idea of galaxy-spanning republics might be impossible.
One theory is that any advanced civilization would’ve mastered sustainability long ago. Perhaps instead of going off to explore the universe, our fate is to settle down in a zero-growth society and live in harmony with our surroundings. It’s just a shame that our species won’t get to recreate the Star Wars universe as they do it.
Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students’ lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.
Read More: Urban Ghosts