WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic
"The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is "I do not know." I do not know what that is, Sir."

Sometimes, in order to establish how special or powerful something is, writers just take the easy way out and say that "science can't explain it!". It can be anything, from magic to ghosts to miracles to superpowers to whatever. One common tie-in statement is that it is made of no known chemical element.

Sadly, when this is done wrong, it seems to imply that science is only for mundane things. It can also feel like a lame excuse to justify illogical or unnatural things occurring.

A note on the most common usage of this: even if magic does not work via our universe's physical laws, in many works it follows its own rules and therefore can be observed, experimented with and theorized about. It might require a new branch of science, but if it can be observed and experimented with, then science can comprehend it. Sometimes magic will be a jerk and break patterns only when someone is actually looking for one, just to invoke this trope. If the scientists persist in offering "scientific" explanations that don't correctly explain the phlebotinum, then this idea has turned into the rather closely related idea that Science Is Wrong. This trope is not related to Evil Cannot Comprehend Good. At all. No Unfortunate Implications and Fridge Horror for you!

Examples of Science Cannot Comprehend Phlebotinum include:


  • In Death Note, after L and Light capture the Death Note in episode 24, Light suggests analyzing it. L replies that the Death Note is the kind of thing that can't be analyzed. He is later confirmed when they do try to analyze it and are unable to determine what it is made of.
    • Averted, however, when Light uses his brain as opposed to gizmos to analyze the Death Note and determines what it can or cannot do. Ryuk wasn't even aware of some of these things.


  • In The Happening, the mass genocide of humans by plants is described by Elliot Moore as something that just "happened", rather than the unprecedented biological phenomena that it actually was.
  • Invoked in Primer, where residue on solid evidence is taken in for some formal analysis and they discover it's Aspergillus Ticor: basically, fungus that accumulates everywhere. The device they built a few days ago was caking with the stuff and they had just been wiping it off every five days or so, unaware that the amount they had wiped off up to this point would have required many years to accumulate to the level that it did. The scientist who identifies the fungus for them thinks this must be a bad joke.


  • The mysterious meteorite in H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space.
    • Well, they only had early 20th century science at their disposal, and the Phlebotinum they took for studying evaporated in a matter of days.
    • As with many Lovecraft stories, they comprehend enough to regret bringing science to the table.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel in Harry Turtledove's The Road Not Taken. So much so that no race that discovers it ever invents anything afterwards, and so simple that most races discover it before inventing gunpowder.
  • Played with in House of Leaves. When material samples from inside the house are analysed, the summary is that they're nothing out of the ordinary, chemically speaking. Oh, and by the way, that's a fascinating range you've got there. The oldest samples must have come from meteorites, because they're older than the solar system. Where did you say you found all these, Antarctica?
  • The Dresden Files plays with this. Magic has a tendency to screw with any kind of mechanical and electrical devices, in particular anything made from WWII onwards, so most methods for documenting magic just don't work, despite Dresden's attempts to go public. None of this stops Butters from trying, and he makes some noticeable strides. Wizard longevity is (probably) due to a lack of telomere shortening, for instance.

Live Action TV

  • One example from House MD has a priest who has lost his faith. His first symptom is a hallucination of a floating Jesus, followed by more life-threatening symptoms. House tries to find a single diagnosis that accounts for everything, but the real disease eventually accounts for everything except the visions. The priest concludes it must have been a genuine miracle which led him to seek House's help.
  • On Stargate SG-1, Tollan technology is so advanced, it contains no apparent circuits, wires, or moving parts. Earth scientists have no hope of reverse-engineering their devices.
    • Not that it matters much, as they have the entirety of Asgard technology and more. The Ancients also had phasing technology, but only Janus was shown using it. Apparently, Ancient, Asgard, and Goa'uld technology is much easier to figure out than that.
      • Which is strange, as the Tollan are human, while the others are alien. You'd think we would have similar thought processes.
    • The only other tech they have trouble with is Wraith biotech. This is because you need a mix of McKay and Beckett.
  • One of the standard pieces of equipment on The Middleman is a B.T.R.S. scanner, which looks for things Beyond the Realm of Science.

Web Original

  • Want to scientifically analyse the world of Tales of MU? "Well, this is where a lot of the unique undead, cursed artifacts, and tainted lands come from. This is how magical abominations are created."
  • Averted by the SCP Foundation. If the Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know doesn't force them to terminate it first, Man's determined to keep poking it until he Knows it anyway.
    • Failing that, Man will just keep poking it with various things and record the effects in Experiment Logs. If it's deadly enough, they dump it with the resident immortal Omnicidal Maniac and see what happens.
  • The point of divergence that makes the world of Fenspace different from our time line is the discovery/invention/release (?) of handwavium, a substance/organism/thing which can "uplift" ordinary technology into ultratech. Although some of its products have been reproduced using "standard" technology, how handwavium operates and just exactly what it is so far have denied analysis.

Western Animation

  • In the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic episode "Feeling Pinkie Keen", Twilight runs herself ragged trying to analyze/disprove Pinkie Pie's "Pinkie Sense". In the end, she gives up and admits that maybe the "Pinkie Sense" can't be analyzed (which turns out to be the "doozy" that Pinkie predicted would happen).
  • In Jackie Chan Adventures, Captain Black insists on trying to fight magic with science. Uncle insists this is impossible, and since he gets more screen time...
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.