Homeopathy: for those who have never learned the details, claims that the potency of a treatment can be increased by repeatedly diluting it. There are many scales — the C-scale is “how many times has this been diluted by a factor of 100”, the X-scale “…by a factor of 10”. I’d say “clearly nonsense”, but I fell for it when I was a teenager.
Fermi paradox: there are so many stars in the observable universe — tens of sextillions (short scale) — that even fairly pessimistic assumptions imply we should be surrounded by noisy aliens… so why can’t we see any?
One of the most common resolutions to the Fermi paradox is that there are one or more “great filters” which make it entirely unlikely that any of those stars have produced intergalactic expansionist civilisations. There are good reasons to expect direct intergalactic expansion rather than starting with ‘mere’ interstellar expansion, and (rather more surprisingly) good reasons to think we’re within spitting distance of the technology required, but that only makes the non-technological problems all the more severe. There are a lot of unknowns here, obviously we’ve only got ourselves as an example, so the space between “where we are now” and “owning the universe” is filled entirely with underpants gnomes, and that’s where homeopathy fits in, in two separate ways.
First, as a categorical example. Homeopathy represents an archaic way of thinking, yet it’s very popular. It’s simple, it’s friendly, it is a viral meme. There are many of these, some of them are quite destructive, and while it’s nice to think nature is in a balance — especially when we’re thinking of something we’re really proud of such as our own minds — the truth is nature (including humans) often goes off the deep end and only sometimes recovers. It’s very easy for me to believe that an anti-rational meme such as homeopathy can either destroy a civilisation entirely, or prevent it developing into a proper space-faring civilisation.
Second, as an analogy. Dilution. It’s not the first dilution of a homeopathic preparation which removes all atoms of active ingredients from the result, but the repeated dilution. If there are, say, twenty things which have an independent 50% chance of holding back or wiping out a civilisation out before it can set up a colony — AI; bioweapons; cyber-warfare; global climate change (doesn’t matter if artificial warming or natural ice age); cascade agricultural collapse; mineral resource exhaustion; grey goo; global thermonuclear war; cosmic threats collectively from noisy stars whose CMEs make electricity impractical to asteroids and gamma ray bursts; anti-intellectualism movements, whether deliberate or not; feedback between cheap genetic engineering and genetically-defined super-stimulus making all the citizens a biologically vulnerable monoculture … — twenty items each with a 50% chance adds up to million-to-one odds (million-ish, but if you care about the difference you’re taking the wrong lesson from this).
Yes, one-million-to-one is almost irrelevant compared to ten sextillion. Odds of (100e9)^2-to-one would require 73 such events, not 20, but this combines with the previous Fermi estimates, it doesn’t replace them. 20 such events reduces the overall problem by a factor of a million, no matter what your previous estimate was, and both 20 events and 50% chances are just round numbers, not a real ones. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many small-filters we might face: as the Great Recession was starting, someone said that no two recessions are the same because we learn from all our mistakes and so each mistake has to be a new one. Sadly it’s worse even than that, as humanity as a whole does repeat even its economic mistakes, so even if we weren’t re-rolling some of our previously-successful dice because we keep thinking “we’re too big to fail“, humans don’t know all the ways we can fail to survive.
The Great Filter doesn’t have to be something that civilisations encounter exactly once and in much the same way a sentence encounters a full stop — it can be the death of a thousand paper-cuts.
If we do finally reach the stars, we may find the universe is much more interesting than it currently seems. Instead of Vulcans and warp drive, we might find hippy space-elves communing with their trees via mind-warping drugs… and if we don’t, instead of wiping ourselves out, we might become the hippy space-elves that some sentient octopus discovers while going boldly where no sentient octopus has gone before.