IN THE BAD BOOKS
|Did you ever get the
feeling that what you learnt in science class at high school was
just plain wrong? Did you feel stupid because you couldn't
understand what the textbook was getting at? Did you get a question
wrong even when you'd faithfully applied the right formula?
Well, turns out you might have been right all along.
A new examination of some of the most widely used middle
school physical science textbooks in the USA has found tracts that
incorrectly state Newton’s first law of motion and show the equator
passing through the southern United States! Even worse, some of the
accredited authors don't seem to exist, or never even wrote the
books in the first place.
Other astounding errors spotted by
the examiners included:
- A textbook asserting (within 12 pages) that "sound travels
faster through warm air than cold air" and then that "sound
travels faster in colder air".
- A book giving the incorrect formula for the volume of a
The purpose of the two-and-a-half-year study,
carried out by Dr. John L. Hubisz, visiting professor of physics at
North Carolina State University, was to review and critique a dozen
physical science textbooks used by a significant number of American
middle school students. University science departments in the US,
and indeed other parts of the world, have lately been concerned
about the poor level of scientific knowledge their new scholars are
bringing with them from high school. Hubisz's findings certainly
shed some light on this.
Could do better
conduct the study, Hubisz enlisted the aid of seven other reviewers
already familiar with middle school science textbooks. "We had a
good cross-section of teachers and teachers who teach teachers," he
explains. All reviewers had physics and teaching backgrounds that
varied from middle school to graduate school, and all but one had
more than 20 years of experience in the field.
were less than encouraging. The team found numerous errors in
scientific accuracy, faulty portrayals of the scientific approach
and inappropriate lessons for particular grade levels.
books have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant
photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not
possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represented impossible
situations," the report asserts. Most of the statement's 100 pages
list specific errors from several of the books reviewed.
Perhaps more sinister than
the factual errors was the difficulty experienced in contacting the
"authors" listed on the covers. "Of the several names listed in
several of the textbooks, none that we contacted would claim to be
an author and some did not even know that their names had been so
listed. Instead of authors, we have a collection of people who
checked parts or aspects of the textbook. Some of these reviewers
actually panned the material and heard nothing further from the
publisher," the report states. (our italics.)
"Our goal is to put pressure on publishers to
get real authors for textbooks and for those authors to be in the
right academic discipline," Hubisz says. For example, most of the
physical science "authors" were actually biologists.
a clear-cut author to contact about errors, the study panel tried
going through the publishers. Unsurprisingly, for the most part they
either dismissed the panel's findings or obfuscated, promising
corrections in subsequent editions. However, the report says that
reviews of these later releases frequently turned up more errors
The appearance and layout of the texts
also came in for a bashing. The panel found that selection
committees were often enticed by the visual appeal of textbooks in
an effort to present students with a modern-looking volume. However,
the report maintains that textbooks with many illustrations,
graphics and other attention-grabbing items
frequently do nothing to aid the instruction of middle school
children. Moreover, much of the "eye candy" has little to do with
the topic, leading the panel to conclude that graphic designers and
text writers had little to no communication in the production
Dumb and dumber
The inaccurate and
vacuous textbooks may be explained by the findings of Cornell
University sociologist. Donald P. Hayes. In February 2000, Hayes
gave an address pointing out the difficulty American students had in
coping with high school science because the textbook standards in
other subjects had been "dumbed down" to such an extent. Lulled into
lexical laziness by years of oversimplified schoolbooks, the
students came in for a shock when they reached the science lab, an
environment demanding greater accuracy and more specific
Reporting at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, Hayes felt that too many
American students were shunning high school science for "easier"
subjects, and then passing into adulthood as poorly educated,
science illiterates with a vulnerability to pseudo-science.
"They are not prepared for science texts with
all the domain-specific words, the equations and the longer
sentences. There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the
schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes said.
"After World War II, we simplified books for history,
English and other non-science subjects by shortening the sentences
and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that might challenge readers to
learn new concepts," Hayes recalled.
"As science becomes
more sophisticated, the language inevitably becomes more specific,
and many American students are not prepared for the level of
difficulty that they will encounter in science texts."
Especially if the books turn out to be wrong!
Any complaints about factual errors or
inappropriate illustrations in Beyond 2000 stories should not be
addressed to us, but instead to our high school teachers or directly
to the publishers of New Worlds of Science 3.