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 Mocking truth and tricking students

Editor's Introduction -- The writers of a middle-school book in life science have devoted a whole page to a bizarre exercise in sustained falsity. The writers present a bogus "Hippocratic Oath," and they strive to make the student believe that this "Oath" was composed in ancient times. In doing so, they falsely ascribe modern values and formulas to people who lived thousands of years ago, and they hide the values, beliefs and customs that those ancient people actually embraced.
from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1992

Why Is Merrill Peddling This Fake "History"?

William J. Bennetta

Science textbooks are rather notorious for purveying fake "history," much of which seems to consist of fictitious stories that got into schoolbooks many years ago. Textbook-company hacks have been copying and recopying them ever since, into one crop of books after another.

In this article, I examine a case that appears much harder to explain. It involves Merrill Life Science, a new middle-school book, dated in 1993, that is marketed by the Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company.

Under a pretext of relating science to "literature," the writers of Merrill Life Science give a whole page to a false account, complete with a fake text, of the Hippocratic Oath. There is no way to know why they imagine that the Oath is relevant to life science, for they give no explanation.

This case merits attention, I believe, for several reasons. First, the fake history seems to be newly invented, for I have not seen anything like it in any earlier life-science book. Second, it seems particularly pernicious (as I shall explain later). And third, it is presented in a way that is remarkable as an exercise in sustained falsity.

Here are the salient facts of the case, starting with some history that is genuine:

The Hippocratic Oath is an ancient pledge that embodies a code of conduct for physicians. Though the Oath is named for Hippocrates (the leader of a Greek school of medicine that flourished some 2,400 years ago), its actual authorship and origins are obscure. The Oath's text, however, is well known and readily available; there are several English translations, all closely similar to each other, that appear in many medical books and reference books. Let me quote a version given in Collier's Encyclopedia. The phrase "cut a person who is suffering with a stone" refers to the surgical removal of bladder stones:

I swear by Apollo the physician, by Aesculapius, by Hygeia, Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my best ability and judgment, I will keep this oath and stipulation; to reckon him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents; to share my substance with him and relieve his necessities if required; to regard his offspring as on the same footing as my own brothers, and to teach them this art if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or stipulation, and that by precept, oral teaching and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons and to those of my teachers, and to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath, according to the law of medicine, but to no others.

I will follow that method of treatment which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; furthermore, I will not give to a woman an instrument to produce abortion.

With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my art. I will not cut a person who is suffering with a stone, but will leave this to be done by practitioners of this work. Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption, and, further, from the seduction of females or males, bond or free.

Whatever in connection with my professional practice, or not in connection with it, I may see or hear in the lives of men which ought not to be spoken abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret.

While I continue to keep this oath inviolate, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of my art, respected always by all men, but should I trespass and violate this oath, may the reverse be my lot.

Now turn to page 601 of Merrill Life Science. We see the label "Science and Literature," then a headline saying "The Hippocratic Oath," then the Merrill writers' statement that "Doctors traditionally take the Hippocratic Oath when graduating from medical school." That statement is wrong. The Hippocratic Oath has historical significance, but (contrary to popular belief) it rarely is used, anymore, in medical-school ceremonies.

The Merrill writers continue:

The Hippocratic Oath is so named for Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived about 400 B.C. Notice how carefully it spells out the obligation of a doctor to guard the dignity and health of their [sic] patients no matter what their [sic] race, creed or color.

Even if we had never seen the Hippocratic Oath, we would know, at this point, that fakery is afoot. Though the Merrill writers have flubbed their pronouns, the import of their statement is clear. It is also ludicrous. The notion that the ancient Greeks shared our modern, bureaucratic preoccupation with matters of "race, creed or color" will surely evoke laughter from any educated adult. But young students in a middle-school life-science class may fail to recognize that the Merrill writers are undertaking to trick them.

The writers now present their fake oath:

I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity;

I will give my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due;

I will practice my profession with conscience and with dignity;

The health of my patient will be my first consideration;

I will respect the secrets which are confided in me;

I will maintain by all the means in my power, the honor and the noble traditions of the medical profession;

My colleagues will be my brothers;

I will not let considerations of religion, nationality or race, party politics or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient;

I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception; even under threat I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity;

I make these promises solemnly, freely, and upon my honor.

Somehow, "race, creed or color" has turned into "religion, nationality or race, party politics or social standing," but the writers do not explain the discrepancy.

To bolster the impression that the fake oath is ancient, Merrill's page has a picture, done in an archaic style, that shows a robed and bearded sage who is writing with a quill. He is not identified (and he looks, to me, more medieval than classical), but students can hardly miss the implication that this is old Hippocrates himself.

Where did the fake oath come from? Did Merrill's writers make it up? No, they did not. As the writers surely know, what they have misrepresented as the Hippocratic Oath is, in fact, the Declaration of Geneva, a code that was endorsed by the General Assembly of the World Medical Association in 1948. That's 1948 AD, not BC. The Declaration projects some faint echoes of the Hippocratic Oath and, indeed, can be regarded as one of the Oath's highly modified, much diminished descendants (of which there are several). To mistake the Declaration for its renowned ancestor, however, is manifestly impossible, because the Declaration is so starkly modern while the Oath so obviously comes from another age.

The Merrill writers' fakery is as puzzling as it is outlandish. Though the Declaration of Geneva has nothing to do with life science, the writers obviously wanted to put it into their book. But why didn't they simply print it and identify it correctly? Why have they gone to such lengths, including the use of a deceptive picture, to make the student think that the Declaration is something else, and that it dates from antiquity? I don't know.

Whatever the writers' reasons may be, their stunt is one of the ugliest bits of trickery that I've yet seen in a schoolbook. They undermine the student's ability to understand vital aspects of cultural history, and they do this in two ways: They falsely and pointedly attribute modern values and formulas to ancient people, and they hide the values, beliefs and customs that those ancients actually embraced. Look again at the real Oath, and see how (in sharp contrast to the Declaration) it begins and ends by invoking the supernatural. See how it depicts the physician as a member of a fraternity, obligated to teach his skills to other members' sons and to ask no fee for doing so. As for ideas of social equality: Notice that the Oath says nothing at all about race, creed or color, though it does say that a physician should accord a sort of equality to the two sexes by refraining from the seduction of either. So too with slaves and freemen. Clearly, the oath originated in a society much different from our own.

One more thing must be noted here. If a student accepted Merrill's story about medical-school ceremonies, the student would think that graduating physicians swear to "maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception" -- a phrase that could be taken as an injunction against abortion. In fact, the oaths used by medical schools in the United States, nowadays, typically do not refer to abortion at all, even obliquely. When schools use the Declaration of Geneva, the phrase about "the time of conception" is usually omitted. There has been a considerable change in medical attitudes toward abortion during the decades since the Declaration was written -- not to mention the change that has occurred since somebody, long ago, wrote the real Hippocratic Oath and explicitly required that a physician "not give to a woman an instrument to produce abortion."

History is interesting and important, and students need to learn about it. Fake "history," however, is poisonous.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

Earl Hautala, the Textbook League's manager of research, assisted in the preparation of this article.

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