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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 2000

Reviewing a high-school book in environmental science

Holt Environmental Science
2000. 448 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-052019-3.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1120 South Capital of Texas Highway, Austin, Texas 78746.
(This company is a division of Harcourt Brace & Company,
which is a part of General Cinema Corporation.)

Holt Wants Us to Believe
That This Is a New Book

Max G. Rodel

Well, I see some new pictures on the cover and some new maps in the appendix, but there is little else to distinguish the 2000 version of Holt Environmental Science from the 1996 version. The 2000 version is essentially a reprint of the 1996 version, with a new date displayed on the copyright page.

The copyright page is really the most noteworthy page in the 2000 version, for this reason: It shows the date "2000," with no indication that any earlier version of Holt Environmental Science has ever existed. Holt clearly wants us to believe that this is a brand-new book. It isn't.

When I wrote my review of the 1996 version for The Textbook Letter [see note 1, below], I began by stating my assessment of the book as a whole:

Holt Environmental Science is directed, I believe, at high-school students who have had no previous exposure to science. It appears to be most suitable for students who are not interested in science and who, if they had their choice, would not look at science books at all. It isn't appropriate for students who really want to study science, and it isn't suitable for use in college-prep courses.

That appraisal applies, of course, to the 2000 version as well, and so does everything else that I said about the 1996 book. Let me summarize some of the other observations that I recounted in my review of the 1996:

Checking for Changes

In producing the 2000 version, Holt has embellished the book's cover with some new pictures and with a diagonal stripe of advertising. The advertising says: "Includes SCILINKS NSTA Internet Resources and CNN Science in the News Video Resources." I'll tell you later about what I found when I went looking for those "resources."

Inside the book, there are only two substantial changes. The appendix has sixteen new pages of maps plus a new page about "Economics and the Environment"; and the lists of "STAFF CREDITS" and "ACKNOWLEDGMENTS," at the front of the book, have been expanded. (Apparently, the task of reprinting the 1996 book required more people than had toiled to produce the 1996 book in the first place.)

Those changes are the big ones. The 2000 version also shows a number of lesser modifications that I find enigmatic. On page xiv, for example, a picture of an iguana has been interchanged with a picture of some soft-drink cans: In the 1996 book, the iguana appeared on the right-hand side of the page, and the cans were on the left -- but now the iguana is on the left, and the cans are on the right. (Please don't ask me why.) Other trivial, cryptic alterations occur throughout the book. Some color schemes have been altered, logos have been tweaked, and the map that spans pages 406 and 407 (in the appendix) has new colors as well as a new key.

How about changes in content? Even though the 1996 book contained plenty of erroneous material and silliness, the Holt editors have not made any major corrections. In a few places, they have revised defective passages by making tiny alterations that did not require any extensive resetting of type. I have noticed seven such cases. In three of them, the alterations have helped. In the four other cases, the alterations have been inconsequential, and the revised material is no better than the 1996 material was.

The article "Making a Difference: High School Chemist" (pages 148 and 149) has not been changed at all -- and as a result, it is now even sillier than it was when it appeared in the 1996 book. The subject of the article is a girl called Elizabeth Philip. When we met Elizabeth in 1996, she allegedly had done "research" and had discovered that she could remove "toxic trace metals" from tap water -- in an "ecologically safe and affordable" way -- by treating the water with living yeast cells. In my review of the 1996 book, I noted that the article did not cite any data to show that any metal concentrations really declined when water was percolated through a mass of yeast cells, nor did it offer support for the claim that Elizabeth's technique depended on the cells' being alive. There was nothing to suggest that Elizabeth's "research" had involved any real science. Holt's account of Elizabeth's project was vague and unsatisfactory, but Holt has now reprinted it, word-for-word, in the 2000 book -- and when I say "word-for-word," I mean it. In the 1996 book, the article began with this sentence: "Elizabeth Philip has received a long list of prestigious awards for her scientific work -- at the age of only 17!" In the 2000 book, the article again begins with: "Elizabeth Philip has received a long list of prestigious awards for her scientific work -- at the age of only 17!" According to Holt, Elizabeth has been 17 years old for five years! [note 2]

Another example of recurrent silliness comes on page 146, where Holt has reprinted a laboratory exercise headlined "How Safe is Our Groundwater?" Let me say again that the headline doesn't seem to have any function except to suggest some kind of threat: The exercise does not present any information about natural groundwater, and it does not describe any mechanism for assessing how "safe" any groundwater supply may be.

One more example: In the book's section about fossil fuels, the graph of "past oil production and predicted production" (page 282) has been changed -- but the adjacent text still has a passage on "Dwindling Supplies of Fossil Fuels," where students read that "Fossil fuel supplies are limited, and we are using these resources much faster than they can be replaced by nature." Let me tell you again the simple truth of the matter: We have no understanding of the rate at which nature may be creating new stocks of fossil fuels. The known stocks of such fuels certainly are not "dwindling" -- they increase continually, as new stocks are discovered.

Searching for "Resources"

Now, what about that splashy stripe of advertising on the 2000 book's cover? As I noted above, the ad asserts that Holt Environmental Science "Includes SCILINKS NSTA Internet Resources and CNN Science in the News Video Resources."

When I looked for "CNN Science in the News Video Resources," I couldn't find any. I looked through the book from cover to cover, but I didn't find any mention of CNN or any explanation of what those touted "resources" might be. Why would a schoolbook company pull such a stunt?

When I sought information about the "SCILINKS NSTA Internet Resources," I found only some cryptic margin-notes. Many of the pages in the 2000 book have such notes, commanding the student to go to a Web site at www.scilinks.org -- but I don't know why. Nowhere could I find anything to explain why these notes appear in the book, or why the student needs to visit a Web site, or why the student can't use Holt Environmental Science without going on-line. Even the introductory message "To the Student," on pages xiv and xv, is silent about these matters.

I have seen useless Internet notes in other schoolbooks, such as Glencoe's Chemistry: Concepts and Applications [note 3], and I say again what I said in my review of that Glencoe book: If a given piece of information is important, then the student should be able to find it in the textbook that he is using -- and if it isn't important, the student should not be led to waste his time by trying to find it on the Web.

Because Holt has provided no guidance concerning the necessity or utility of the www.scilinks.org site, I haven't bothered to look at it.

In summary: The 2000 version of Holt Environmental Science is virtually identical with the 1996 version. Holt's pretense that the 2000 version is a brand-new book is exactly that -- a pretense. Holt Environmental Science does not offer much instruction in real science, and it can't be used in college-prep courses, but it will appeal to students whose motivations and capacities are limited. For this reason, it can serve in certain high-school classes and in some middle-school situations as well. Teachers must be aware, however, that the handling of environmental issues in this book is not always equitable: Holt's writers favor environmental activism and politically correct myths, such as the myth of "dwindling" fuel supplies.

Editor's notes

  1. Two reviews of the 1996 version ran in TTL for March-April 1996, under these headlines: "This Gaudy Book Can Be a Boon to Slow Students" and "This Isn't a Science Book, but It Has Good Pictures." [return to text]

  2. Holt's writers have failed to give even the most basic information about Elizabeth Philip, such as the name of her hometown and the name of the high school that she allegedly attends (or attended in 1996), and we have been unable to check or to clarify any of the claims that appear in the "High School Chemist" article. [return to text]

  3. See " 'interNET' Gimcracks in an Old, Dumb Book" in TTL for July-August 1999. [return to text]


Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist affiliated with Environmental Science Associates, in San Francisco. His principal professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives in Mill Valley, California, and he regularly reviews science textbooks for The Textbook Letter.

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