Science textbooks are riddled with errors.
January 14, 2001 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Science textbooks are riddled with errors. It sounds like they've gotten as bad as history textbooks have been for about thirty years. How the heck does any kid learn anything in school anymore? (Answer: a lot of them don't. And no wonder.)
posted by Steven Den Beste (29 comments total)
To expand on this a bit: What the heck does "cultural diversity" and "political correctness" have to do with chemistry and physics? There's no cultural diversity in physics or chemistry; we're talking about physical laws, which are not cultural. Are they ignoring the science and spending more time on "inclusiveness" by concentrating on making sure to emphasize the contributions of non-whites and non-males? Have we come to the point where the primary goal of schooling is simply to make the students feel good about themselves?

Why are they worrying about contributions at all? If a kid can explain the laws of motion to me or describe the characteristics of an electric field, I'm happy even if she can't tell me who developed them. I don't care if she can't name Newton or Maxwell as long as she knows what they discovered. Heck, I don't even know who found the laws of thermodynamics, but I know what they are and that's the important point.

That's the primary problem with the history books that James Loewen found: that the books were concentrating much less on actually teaching history then they were on indoctrinating values. They describe the history of the Union very, very selectively in order to emphasize the uplifting parts and ignore all the horrors and weirdness and mistakes and negative things. Apparently the idea wasn't to really teach, it was to make the student patriotic, and Proud To Be An American. Except that these days I gather the goal is to make the students Proud To Be A Hyphenated American. Wonderful.

It sounds like the science text books may have gone that route, too, and if so it's a tragedy (if not a farce). I don't think that belongs in a serious history textbook, but that's perhaps arguable. It definitely doesn't belong in a science textbook.

When I was in school, history was the subject I hated the most. When I got out of college and started reading real books written by serious authors with no agenda, I discovered that history is fascinating, and 20 years on I still voraciously read books about history. One reason kids hate school and don't learn anything is because the textbooks suck.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:27 PM on January 14, 2001

When I got out of college and started reading real books written by serious authors with no genda, I discovered that history is fascinating

books about history written by authors with no agenda -- it has been my experience that there are VERY few. if any. i don't think it's possible.
posted by palegirl at 10:38 PM on January 14, 2001

May I suggest The Pessimist's Guide to History. No agenda there.
posted by thirteen at 10:47 PM on January 14, 2001

History is written by the victors - Machiavelli

posted by lagado at 11:01 PM on January 14, 2001

Let me see if I can't provide an example of such a book: Angel in the Whirlwind. It's a history of the American Revolution, but it sure doesn't describe the same one I learned about in public school.

The men I studied in school were saints. The men presented in this book are men; they screwed up, they stubbed their toes, they put their pants on one leg at a time. Not one of them was remotely like I was taught that they were.

The book spends an enormous amount of time talking about George Washington, which is not surprising considering how central he was to the events. And again, it seems to be a history of someone much different. He wasn't the icon I was taught about. He wasn't any saint. He was a man, but a most amazing man. After I read this book, I came away far more impressed by him (indeed, I would say I was awestricken) than ever I did in school, for this author did a good job (I thought) of letting me get to know Washington as he really was, warts and all. That made his accomplishments all the more amazing. Saints are expected to be able to perform miracles, so we aren't impressed when they do so. Ordinary men aren't, so when they do anyway it's stunning. He operated under completely unreasonable burdens imposed on him by events, localities and the idiocies of other men; he fought and lost many battles, but he won the last battle and the war. I was taught that he was "the father of our country" and my reaction was "OK, fine, whatever you say." After really understanding what he did, I can honestly say that I truly think he deserves that appellation.

Perhaps this author has an agenda. Since history is an activity of humans and since every human has a bias, it's inevitable that any history book will have such a bias. But equally I think this author tried his best to learn his own bias and to work around and through it. If he had an agenda, it was to try to tell the nitty-gritty truth rather than to make the entire thing into a morality play, which ultimately is how it was presented to me in school.

I was taught that the American rebels were noble upstanding men and that the loathesome, greedy British oppressors tried to keep us (us, mind you) from our (sic) freedom. This book doesn't take sides; the author just presents the events as they took place and presents it as two sides who disagreed and ended up fighting about it, leading ultimately to a victory by one side. I think a Brit could read it without feeling as if his side in the war had been misrepresented. Johnny Burgoyne messed up badly at Saratoga not because he was on the side of the devil, but because he was stupid. That was something I could finally understand.

The point is that I found the book not just fun to read, but extremely revealing and even surprising because it told me so much that I had never heard before, and showed me so much which had been previously misrepresented.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:43 PM on January 14, 2001

Since it's one of my favorites, and it's sort of on topic, I'll slip in a brief plug for A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. Most folks here are already familiar with this work I'm sure.

While I would have to say that his book certainly has an agenda, I think it would bring some much need balance and make an excellent addition to any High School's existing reading list for History or Sociology.
posted by ritualdevice at 12:29 AM on January 15, 2001

All historians have an agenda. On the one hand, they'd describe it as "telling it how it was"; on the other, most would happily admit that they give particular weight to certain pieces of evidence, as opposed to their peers.

I think, though, that histories of the US are skewed by the same kind of myth-making that is applied to the Bible. Histories of England, or Britain, or "The Isles", acknowledge thousands of years of messy nation-forming; the French revolution was self-admittedly the equivalent of hacking off someone's head with a craft knife. The US, though, was ostensibly created in imitation of that first Creation: or rather, given new life like Christ Himself.

That said, a certain amount of misrepresentation (or under-representation) has to form part of the syllabus, at least at a secondary level, even in the sciences. Biology classes for A-level in the UK (age 16-18) begin with the admission that the model of the cell taught at GCSE level (11-16) is a blatant simplification; chemistry classes spend a good few weeks re-describing the atomic model. And so on.

Ideally, you want to imbue students with a basic model by about 16, and get them to analyse it from then on: especially in the humanities and social sciences. But from experience, college classes in the US are so circumscribed by time, resources and apathy, and completely driven by textbooks that assume a quasi-biblical authority, that you're not likely to get the chance to read on "all sides" of a historical or social argument unless the teacher makes a real effort to encourage it.
posted by holgate at 1:27 AM on January 15, 2001

(Just to appear less dense: when I say "chemistry", I mean the atomic model as it applies to reactions -- valency and electron levels -- rather than particle physics.)
posted by holgate at 1:29 AM on January 15, 2001

I find that science textbooks have bloated over the years and indulge in side-issues far too much.

When at school I had difficulty learning physics (mass rolling down a slope - what do you do? - WHAT DO YOU DO?) and the modern-day textbooks were no help. There was no vanilla answer- simple things went through several pages and they were menacing bastards at that.

I went to a friend's house and his father had several comic book sized physics text-books from when he was at school. Lovely. I didn't pass of course. I was a lazy sod - but I did better and had a much better grasp of physics.

Sensai Sez #1: If you can sell a comic-sized book for $5, or rabbit on for another 200 pages and sell it for $35 - you will rabbit on for another 200 pages and sell it for $35.

Bloat makes it more difficult to find and fix errors. Yessum.
posted by holloway at 4:05 AM on January 15, 2001

Some of the very best science texts out there are by Larry Gonick, which is surprising because they're book-length cartoons (er, "graphic novels"?). When I read his Cartoon Guide to Physics, I found out why an electric field acts the way it does for the first time in my life, and I finally understood electron tunneling. (Both are caused by the Heisenberg Principle.) And The Cartoon Guide to Genetics is now my standard book I loan to someone who doesn't understand those concepts. Gonick doesn't shy away from tough subjects, but he deals with them so adroitly that you don't notice just how much you're learning.

Science doesn't have to be dull, and it can be interesting without being watered down.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:44 AM on January 15, 2001

I'm not gonna bite on this, I'm not gonna bite. . . OK, I'll bite.

Let me just point out that you may *not* "know the laws of thermodynamics" if you don't understand the debates over their niceties. Thermo is an incredibly problematic area, and one that's been prone to all kinds of simplistic "explanations" over the years. If you don't know how the interpretations of (to name a few) de la Tour, Sadi Carnot, Clausius, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Gibbs, Shannon, and Chaitin have superseded one another over the years, then I submit you don't really "understand" thermodynamics. Maybe you know how to do certain tasks, well enough to get by in your job, which is what technicians do, but you don't know enough to provide novel interpretations in new contexts, which is what scientists do.

And I can tell you from sad experience that many students in engineering at a major university (mine), who in theory 'know' what the second law of thermodynamics says, can't use that to reason about anything and thus can't understand why we can't run the world on solar cells RIGHT NOW. They're technically adept at solving problems that are formally the same as problems they're already met, but they're hopelessly unsophisticated about how science works--and, I would argue, that's a direct result of their being taught as if science is a bunch of "laws" that were just lying around waiting to be "discovered" and "applied."

I would also argue that the historical debate about an issue is an essential fact about that issue--especially with students who feel that "of course" something is true, so why care about the fact? Students who have been brought up watching dinosaurs on TV have no feeling for what an earthshaking discovery they were, or why Darwin was so important. Or that there was an extended, jingoistic debate over who invented calculus that has a lot to do with the way calculus is done (and taught) today? Why was Galileo condemned and Copernicus largely ignored until Kepler? If that's important, it has to be taught.

Students need context. If they're ever going to *do* science, they have to have a feel for how science is done--and it's not the neat, rational process of hypothesis and experiment that's sometimes portrayed in textbooks. Telling this story isn't "watering down" science any more than Larry Gonick is watering it down.
posted by rodii at 9:30 AM on January 15, 2001

Students need context. If they're ever going to *do* science, they have to have a feel for how science is done

True enough. But 99% of students will never "do" science. The closest some of them will come is sleeping with their chemistry professor...

The best real-world reason to teach science with all the historical and social context is that this instills a healthy skepticism (toward many things: the fallibility of man chief among them) and a tendency toward rigorous thinking, both of which effects are extremely beneficial to society as a whole.
posted by kindall at 9:46 AM on January 15, 2001

I think an excess of context in the presentation of today's science books is a very different issue from the 500 errors documented in the study. These are simply inexcusable (a map with the equator going through the U.S.?!?).

Education in this county has become a sick joke, and we are sabatoging our future by not fixing it immediately.
posted by rushmc at 9:56 AM on January 15, 2001

Of course I know the three laws of thermodymics: 1. You can't win. 2. You can't break even. 3. You can't get out of the game.

Actually, what I understand about them is enough to do the kinds of engineering I have been involved in. I know that all conversions of power are going to be lossy and that there will always be heat produced. I know that perfect efficiency is impossible. Since I'm a software guy, the precise calculations and the exact limits are not really in my realm. I need to understand them well enough to deal with EE's and ME's and understand what issues they are dealing with (because I do embedded software) and that's the limit of my knowledge of them. If I need more precise information, I go talk to someone.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:15 AM on January 15, 2001

The study was financed with a $64,000 grant ...reviewed the 12 textbooks for factual errors.

What?! you needed $64,000 to proofread 12 books for basic errors... that anyone who had taken a science class would be able to catch? Even if you figure each book has over 500 pages, that's like $10/Page. Where can I get that job?

And as for the photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal, I don't think you'd even need to take a science class to realize it was supposed to be a picture of Britney Spears.
posted by willnot at 11:25 AM on January 15, 2001

I should have read further before posting. This is perhaps one of the most troubling statements I've seen all year:

many middle-school science teachers have little physical science training and may not recognize errors

posted by willnot at 11:29 AM on January 15, 2001

That's been a problem for a long time. Almost anyone with significant scientific training can get a lot better job somewhere else, and as a result the majority of public school science teachers actually have little formal science training. In some school districts they experimented with the idea of paying more to science teachers to provide an incentive for qualified people to stay in the field -- but the teacher's unions objected to the idea.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:47 AM on January 15, 2001

I think that a lot of this flows from the fact that mathematics and reading are the only two disciplines which are subject to rigorous and repeated assessment with negative consequences for failure.

Science and social sciences are tested only to the lowest possible threshold of minimal descriptive familiarity. Although gifted students, or those with ambitious parents, can and do get serious education in some sciences or history, for the majority of the student body, they just aren't important.

Thus, while it usually not possible to earn a high school degree without knowing that if 2a + 3 = 6, then a must equal 1.5, one can do so quite easily without knowing that sodium and chlorine produce salt, or that the prices usually rise when demand increases without an increase in supply.
posted by MattD at 12:25 PM on January 15, 2001

What the heck does "cultural diversity" and "political correctness" have to do with chemistry and physics?

Steven, the article you linked discusses problems with fact-checking and QA in textbooks. I think the point Hubisz was trying to make was that the publishers need to pay more attention to the content of their textbooks, not less. They need to hire some fact checkers and QA people to sit alongside the interns who are checking the textbooks for photos of people of color. What's wrong with that?

Where is this rant coming from? 400 years of slavery, 500 years of segregation, 40 years of supposed equal protection, and you think it's people of color who are to blame for the fact that their identities are racialized? That you, me, and the rest of the country think of them as African-, Asian-, Mexican-, Hawaiian-Americans? A group of people chooses to embrace their heritage which makes them vulnerable to the cultural, institutional, and individual violence of racism rather than to discard it, as Irish, Italians, and so on have had to do to become white, and you point the finger at them? That's not gonna fly.

I haven't yet read Lies My Teacher Told Me, but I thought it was supposed to cut through a lot of the white supremacist bullshit that's (still) taught as history. Is that not the case?
posted by sudama at 12:48 PM on January 15, 2001

<SIDE TOPIC>As a further question, Steven, what in that article makes you think that the problem with those textbooks was the "cultural diversity" aspect? It's certainly problematic, imho, if all the photos of kids in a textbook depict white children, and fixing that problem should in no way impinge on the publisher's ability to publish a factually correct science textbook. Unless you can point to an instance where a "diverse" text was chosen over a good one, please don't blame this on the supposed rampaging forces of political correctness. Publishers print these books and school boards choose them; those are the people to blame. (In one of his essay collections, possibly Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman recounts his horror at the low quality of science in physics textbooks he was once asked to review; this isn't a new phenomenon.)&lt;/SIDE TOPIC>

posted by snarkout at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2001

I think Steven's comments are a result of this quote from the article:
Hubisz ["Hubisz, president of the American Association of Physics Teachers" - from elsewhere in the article]said educators need to pressure publishers to get "real authors" for textbooks.

"They get people to check for political correctness ... they try to get in as much cultural diversity as possible," he said. "They just don't seem to understand what science is about."
Hubisz is placing the blame on poor fact-checking because people are too concerned with "political correctness" as opposed to scientific facts.

I agree that the diversity isn't an excuse, but that's what Steven's basing his argument in this case on.
posted by cCranium at 2:06 PM on January 15, 2001

many middle-school science teachers have little physical science training and may not recognize errors

duh. In most secondary schools, and especially middle schools, teachers teach stuff they know nothing about. Our science teachers were OK, but for example I had a teacher for "Humanities" (a random course for kids who weren't in band, choir, or any remedial classes. they had to stick us somewhere.) which consisted of a large part of ancient history - Greece, Rome, Egypt, etc... which was taught by a woman who called Cleopatra an African American and hadn't heard of Alexander the Great, who had been hired to teach remedial reading....
posted by dagnyscott at 2:22 PM on January 15, 2001

cCranium is correct about what I was responding to. I can't see any point in checking a science text for "political correctness" or "cultural diversity" because I don't think those things are issues in a science text. Science (physics and chemistry, at least) is supposed to be about the physical world; it's as close to a culture-free subject as is taught, except for mathematics. There's nothing wrong with doing cultural diversity in classes where it makes sense. This just doesn't happen to be one of them IMO.

And no, Sudama, I'm not blaming the minorities. That's a straw man. Unquestionably the text book companies need more fact checkers, but more to the point, they need to be checking the right things. Why are they wasting time checking for cultural diversity when they should be checking for scientific errors?

Lies my teacher taught me does to some extent deal with issues of eurocentrism, but he's more concerned about suppression of anything and everything which might make this country look bad. An example is the story of the Pilgrims (or fairy tale about them, for it bears little resemblance to reality). When the Europeans arrived in New England, they brought with them all the diseases they had back home. The Natives didn't have any resistance, and the diseases moved through them like a scythe, killing them in swarms. Entire Native villages were wiped out by diseases like influenza. This left lots of land unused which the Natives had already cleared and turned into viable farmland. The Pilgrims thanked God for this gift. (Nice folks.) They didn't have to exterminate the Natives because God was doing it for them. I sure never learned that part in school.

That's the kind of thing he talks about. And he spends a bunch of time talking about the myth of Helen Keller, too. That section is fascinating, not just for what they've traditionally told us, but for all the things they left out.

What he's criticizing is not ethnocentrism directly as much as the fact that the history books seem to be designed to inculcate pride in country, as opposed to being designed to actually teach history.

Dagny, I too am amazed how many people don't know that Cleopatra was of Greek descent. I've run into that one several times. Invariably they've heard of Alexander, but don't know anything about him.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:51 PM on January 15, 2001

Kindall (way back there): I agree that most students will never do science--but if that means that we don't teach science in a relevant way, then we're guaranteeing that none of them will ever do science. We've got to aim a little higher than the minimum, don't we?

In total agreement on your other reasons, btw.
posted by rodii at 3:11 PM on January 15, 2001

Sudama, I'm not blaming the minorities. That's a straw man.

I should have quoted you as saying "Except that these days I gather the goal is to make the students Proud To Be A Hyphenated American. Wonderful." before I went off.

Anyway snarkout said everything I thought I said but didn't. His second sentence contains all that needs to be said. If there is a straw man in this discussion, I think it's the one named "political correctness."
posted by sudama at 4:15 PM on January 15, 2001

which was taught by a woman who called Cleopatra an African American and hadn't heard of Alexander the Great, who had been hired to teach remedial reading....

that's funny, especially seeing that she was of Macedonian (not Egyptian) extraction just like Alexander.
posted by lagado at 4:45 PM on January 15, 2001

I agree that most students will never do science--but if that means that we don't teach science in a relevant way, then we're guaranteeing that none of them will ever do science.

That's not even the only goal. Science and technology are going to be even more important to human civilization than it ever has been before, and the role of science in society is going to be the focus of a lot of debate when we discuss things like biotech, gene therapy, stem cell research, cloning, genomics, pharmaceuticals, space research... what have you. People need to understand basic science in order to participate intelligently in these discussions, and to vote responsibly in elections that wll affect science policy.
posted by shylock at 5:49 PM on January 15, 2001

Thank you, shylock. You said it before I could, and probably better.
posted by rushmc at 7:23 PM on January 15, 2001

If there is a straw man in this discussion, I think it's the one named "political correctness."

yep, worst meme ever!
posted by lagado at 7:41 PM on January 15, 2001

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