I'm looking for idioms/expressions similar to these but different (see below):

  • "rearranging chairs on the Titanic" is paying too much mind to the details on something that's doomed to fail anyway

  • "dead end" is a path/option that you might pursue only to find out it doesn't lead anywhere promising - a let down

  • "bikeshedding" comes from software development to mean working on an inconsequential side project rather than the main thing

  • "You guys clearly backed the wrong conceptual horse" from Rick & Morty

I'm thinking of situations when people create an intricate system of reasoning which might be convincing and make sense internally, but falls apart when forced to reconcile with more objective realities. Taking false premises and running with them. Over-thinking in a vacuum without enough data.

Or another way of looking at it: a system which seems to operate happily within its own territory despite unknowingly being surrounded by a larger and more advanced system.


  • Movies: The Village (2004), The Matrix (1999).
  • An animal species which continues to survive in an isolated pocket of land but would be out-competed if they came in contact with the more deadly world at large.
  • Indigenous native tribes living unaware of imperial civilization.
  • When relatively ineffective Tai Chi style martial artists are pitted against highly evolved MMA fighters. In essence a development gap due to isolation.
  • 1
    That's not what bikeshedding means. It's used primarily to describe mundane details that take up meeting time because those are the only things those present are qualified to weigh in on, e.g., what color to paint the bike shed (because no one is competent to discuss the issues of the nuclear reactor to which it is an adjunct).
    – Robusto
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:04
  • Oh my I love 'rearranging chairs on the Titanic'
    – Unrelated
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:48
  • The idea here seems to be something like, "Under controlled conditions, you can build a miniature city out of pure magnesium—but you can't expose it to the open air." Unfortunately, that's not an idiom.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 22:14
  • Sven Yargs: It's brilliant though - and the sentiment is in the right neighborhood of what I was thinking.
    – Dustin
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 0:17

6 Answers 6


I think the phrase in a bubble might work for you. From Oxford Dictionaries:

  1. Used to refer to a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.
    ‘we both lived in a bubble, the kind provided by occupying a privileged pied-à-terre in Greenwich Village’

Recently, the term has been extended to the kind of intellectual and knowledge isolation that can happen through certain kinds of web filtering. From Wikipedia (citations omitted; bolding in original, italics added):

A filter bubble is a state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past click-behavior and search history. As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.

I think the bubble concept would work well for the kind of situation you describe, especially with an appropriate adjective. When talking to someone engaging in the behavior in your bolded paragraph, you could say something like

You've created this theory in an intellectual bubble

To take a couple of your other examples:

  • The Villagers (and perhaps the indigenous tribe) were protected in their bubble of anachronism.

  • The fighter was unprepared once he left his Tai Chi bubble and encountered the wider competitive fighting world.

And so forth.

A similar concept is the ivory tower (also ODO):

A state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.
‘the ivory tower of academia’

but that is typically used for people specifically in an academic bubble, as suggested by the first example.


"Big fish in a little pond" is the best that I could think of although "hermetic system" or "hermetic philosophy" might fit the bill as another metaphor. Alchemy to chemistry and all that.

  • 1
    I think "big fish" is definitely on the right track, but your answer would benefit tremendously from some explanation of how this phrase fits the OP's situation.
    – 1006a
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 22:02

Is it possible your answer may be as simple as,

In theory

As in, "In theory, that's a great idea, but in reality, we would need think about how the joints fit together, and how the manufacturing would get handled."

See: https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/in+theory

This fits what you're thinking of (from your bolded text). But doesn't fit with your below paragraph, which appears to be asking for something different.

  • "In theory" is very close because it implies some correctness despite a fundamental flaw, but it doesn't do much to illustrate it.
    – Dustin
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 1:12

The project was doomed from the start.

Granted, the above sentence is a bit vague and would likely need to be followed by additional information (e.g., because there was no money to finish the project; because there was a lack of personnel to tackle the project; because the project did not have the approval of the people who control the purse strings; or because the project was not sufficiently thought out before it commenced).

Nevertheless, doomed sounds quite apt to me.

A seventy-five-cent word is Sisyphean, meaning

endlessly laborious or futile: "The jumble of wet pans and platters ... made him weary; to dry them seemed a task as Sisyphean as to repair the things wrong with his parents' house" (Jonathan Franzen).

Let us not overlook the word used in the definition of Sisyphean: futile, meaning

Having no useful result; ineffectual: a futile attempt to renegotiate the contract.

Finally, there is the oft-quoted phrase, which is based on the Scottish expression. First, the Scottish wording:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” (Robert Burns).

The above phrase, but in plainer, more contemporary English:

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

John Steinbeck co-opted the four words "of mice and men" for the title of his work of fiction.


"reinventing the wheel" - an essentially pointless exercise, putting a lot of thought and effort into doing something which has already been adequately done.

Also "to carry coals to Newcastle" - to put effort into doing the unnecessary

And "Tilting at Windmills" - another futile exercise attacking imaginary enemies.


Your question makes me think of expressions that would exemplify the Coherence Theory of Truth without taking into account the Correspondence Theory of Truth.

  • I like the idea of "coherence" because it's similar to the concept in psychology of "integration". You have a mental model of how the world works until you witness surprising new data and you're thrown into chaos until it can be brought to terms. The more consequential and conflicting the data, the larger the disruption, to the point where strong emotions can generate separate pathways or personalities.
    – Dustin
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 2:13
  • As interesting as the content of this answer is, it is unfortunately not a true answer as it doesn't address any of OP's question. This could have just as easily been a comment.
    – psosuna
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 1:28

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