Logo



IGNORANCE  IS  STRENGTH

Editor's Introduction -- Among the many fads that feckless educators have embraced in recent years, none is more pernicious than the one that calls for promoting anti-intellectualism, for endorsing ignorance, and for teaching students to scorn the very idea of learning. Sleazy publishers exploit this fad by producing schoolbooks in which students are urged to form opinions without knowing anything, to bray about complicated issues that lie far beyond their grasp, and to substitute sham for knowledge and reason. Here are two reviews of such a book -- Merrill Life Science, published by Glencoe. It is hard to read Merrill Life Science without recalling 1984 and the Party's slogan IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1993

Reviewing a middle-school book in life science

Merrill Life Science
1993. 714 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-675-16760-4.
Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company,
936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081. (Macmillan/McGraw-Hill
is owned jointly by Macmillan, Inc., and by McGraw-Hill Inc.)

This Ignorant, Shoddy Book
Deserves Only to Be Junked

Ellen C. Weaver

I began my examination of Merrill Life Science by browsing to get an idea of the book's emphasis and scope, and I immediately found obvious, alarming defects. A more thorough reading confirmed my first impressions and led me to conclude that this book should not be used in any school.

The book's text contains innumerable statements, presented as facts, that are simply untrue. The writing is so badly loaded with non sequiturs and contradictions that any teacher or student who has a sense of logic will be driven up the wall. Illustrations and their legends are frequently meaningless. The passages about some important aspects of human biology and health are not only wrong but quite irresponsible. The false display of concern for environmental matters is intellectually destructive, for Merrill's writers repeatedly encourage the student to form an opinion while having little or no information. And the writers show a condescending attitude toward Hispanic women -- which is, for me, the last straw.

Merrill's treatment of health issues has grave errors of both commission and omission. Because middle-school students are entering or experiencing puberty, and because many of them are starting to take athletics seriously, they are likely to be strongly aware of their own bodies and interested in how those bodies work. A middle-school course in life science, then, provides a valuable opportunity to furnish students with biomedical information that will be useful to them throughout their lives. Merrill Life Science squanders this opportunity and furnishes students with dangerous nonsense. Look at the section titled "Alcohol," on page 584:

Unlike many drugs, alcohol does not affect the nervous system directly. Most of it is absorbed through the walls of the stomach and small intestine. It enters the circulatory system undigested. Therefore, all body tissues are exposed to it directly. Alcohol is a depressant, slowing down the central nervous system.

A logical student will immediately see the contradictions in those statements. How can the student respect any part of a textbook that says such things?

The Merrill writers continue:

Large amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream dull the senses and cause the drinker to have a slower reaction time, lose coordination, and have slurred speech. . . .

Most states have laws that define the legal limit of the amount of alcohol allowed in the blood for a driver. Because a small amount of alcohol can cause abnormal behavior and loss of judgment, just a few drinks can cause a driver to be legally "under the influence." For example, two 2-ounce drinks of whiskey or five bottles of beer may be enough for a person to be arrested as a drunk driver.

To me, the writers' use of "amount" instead of concentration indicates that they lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the topic. So does their use of idle terms such as "large amounts" or "small amount," in place of quantitative information. So does their failure to grasp that the effects of ingesting any quantity of alcohol depend on the drinker's weight and on the speed of ingestion. And how will adolescents interpret the evasive statement that four ounces of whiskey or five bottles of beer "may" make a person a drunk driver? I'm sure they will take it to mean that drinking five bottles of beer and then trying to drive "may" be perilous or "may" be quite alright! In reality, four ounces of whiskey or five bottles of beer, especially if taken quickly or on an empty stomach, will render almost any minor dangerously drunk.

(In California, an adolescent driver is defined as drunk if his blood-alcohol concentration exceeds 0.05%. According to a chart published by California's Department of Motor Vehicles, a person who weighs between 90 and 129 pounds will show a concentration of 0.05%, or more, for at least an hour after taking 12 ounces of beer or 1.25 ounces of 80-proof liquor. If a minor in that condition drives a car, the minor "definitely" will be deemed to be driving under the influence of alcohol, the Department says.)

Finally, I point out that Merrill's passage about alcohol says nothing about the special dangers that alcohol presents if it is drunk by a woman who is pregnant. There is no acknowledgment of fetal alcohol syndrome.

The section on "Tobacco" is hardly better, and I am appalled by the writers' notion that passive smoke (smoke that reaches us from someone else's cigarette, cigar or pipe) "contains more tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide and other chemicals than that inhaled by the smoker." This is patently false, since passive smoke has been diluted with air. I note, too, that the writers say nothing about tobacco-chewing, a dangerous custom that is popular among some adolescent boys.

The section on human nutrition has some real boners. The text about carbohydrates, for example, is confused and misleading, partly because the writers evidently think that humans can digest cellulose. Later on, they declare that beef, pork, fish, chicken and nuts contain only "some" of the essential amino acids. Nonsense! All of those foods have the full complement, though nuts are poor (but not entirely lacking) in methionine.

The writers also deal in obscurity. On page 443 they cite "grains" as good sources of protein, but they show a picture of amaranth, a plant that has almost no dietary significance in North America and will be unknown to students. (Why not show wheat or maize?) A note in the margin of page 444 says: "Cultures that drink blood as a part of their diet supply some of their nutritional needs for sodium, protein, and iron." The phrase "cultures that drink blood" is ridiculous -- some animals, including some humans, drink blood, but cultures don't drink anything. In any case, the note will be meaningless to students who don't already know about the use of blood as food. Instead of citing an example (say, the consumption of cow's blood by the Masai, in Africa) the writers leave the student to wonder what is going on.

The topic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is muddled, obscured and trivialized. The book's index makes no reference to STDs or to sex itself. In the text, a passage on "Sexually Transmitted Diseases" (pages 561 and 562) refers twice to "having sex" but does not suggest what that means, and it says nothing about techniques by which the risk of acquiring STDs can be lessened.

[Editor's note: Merrill's penchant for endangering students' lives by withholding information about the prevention of STDs has been noted before. See the reviews of Merrill Health in TTL for March-April 1992.]

The features that I have found in the treatment of human biology -- obscurity, vagueness, ignorance and absurdity -- run through the whole book. For example:

  • On page 54: "Energy in the universe is wrapped up in bonds that hold atoms together. When fireflies blink and shine in the dark, they release some of that energy . . . ." Nonsense! Only a minuscule fraction of the energy in the universe has anything to do with chemical bonding. Do these writers really think that stars run on chemical reactions, or that energy travels from the Sun to Earth as a torrent of compounds?

  • Page 56: "Inorganic compounds are made from elements other than carbon." False. Carbon appears in many inorganics, including some that have great biological importance.

  • Page 56: "Organic compounds make up some foods and membranes in cells." The writers have hedged and have tried to hide their ignorance by saying "some." (The logical student asks: If only "some" foods and membranes are made of organics, what are the rest made of?)

  • On page 80 the writers guess that the growth of grass roots represents asexual reproduction! Then, on page 81 they say: "Some organisms produce new organisms through regeneration. During regeneration, a new organism grows from a piece of the parent organism." But the adjacent illustration shows a gecko growing a new tail, and the caption says: "Some animals produce whole new body parts by regeneration. A gecko can replace a lost tail by regeneration." (Merrill's writers have confused regeneration with reproduction, and the student has good reason wonder: Exactly what is regeneration? Is it the production of a new organism, or is it the regrowing of a body part?)

  • The "Technology" box on page 89 is more guesswork. The writers imagine that the commercial fermentation of sugars to produce ethanol is new and depends on "recombinant DNA technology."

  • Page 193: "A saprophyte is any organism that uses dead material as a food and energy source." (The logical student asks: Is a human, then, a saprophyte?)

As if double-talk, false "facts" and errors of logic were not enough, the writers mislead the student by promoting anthropocentric notions that are alien to science. On page 184 they ask whether there are any "good" viruses, and on page 145 they urge the student to assign moral values to natural occurrences: "Why is extinction not always a bad event?"

The section on biological classification is the same old nonsense. The account of binomial nomenclature is wrong, and the account of how organisms are classified is ridiculous. The writers lead the student to believe that classification is a matter of mere convenience and is done so that scientists can "find" organisms. The same notion recurs in a silly exercise that compares classification to the sorting of shoes.

The exercises and activities in Merrill's book are as ignorant as the text. For example: The activity on page 68, "Photosynthesis and Respiration," is a meaningless show involving bromthymol blue, sodium bicarbonate, Elodea and light. The writers have no idea of what is going on, and they demonstrate this by their false statement that "Sodium bicarbonate releases carbon dioxide when mixed with water." They seem to hope that bromthymol blue will indicate "the presence of an acid." But what does this have to do with photosynthesis? And what is an acid? And what is bromthymol blue? The writers evidently don't know. This "activity" is simply a magic trick, with no scientific content at all. (The writers like it so much that they repeat it, in slightly different form, in the "MINI-Lab" on page 278. It is just as nonsensical there as it was on page 68.)

That the writers do not understand laboratory work is shown clearly in the "Skill Handbook" at the back of the book. Under "Experimentation Skills," they pretend to outline a controlled experiment, but what they describe is no such thing (and is virtually impossible to perform).

Some text pages are decorated with features that are totally baffling. They ask the student to answer questions, but they give little or no information on which reasonable answers might be based. On page 64, for example, a "Technology" box asks: "What is the advantage of bacterial plastics over plastic-cornstarch mixtures?" The box gives no information about the characteristics of those materials, so the student can only invent a fantasy that has nothing to do with the real world. And once again, this "science" text promotes a practice that is alien and hostile to science.

That "Technology" box exemplifies how the writers handle environmental matters in general: They urge the student to form opinions in the absence of information. This brainless approach recurs in various "Science and Society" features that start with the command "You Decide!" Without having anything that even resembles respectable information, the student must invent categorical judgments about hugely complicated questions, deciding (for example) whether all states should be required to develop recycling programs, or whether we should discontinue all use of pesticides. So the student learns to substitute ignorance and sham for knowledge and reason!

Lastly, I deplore the "Science and Art" feature on page 669, about a painting by a woman whose last name is given as both "Garzas" and "Garza." The writers say she "inherited" her talent from her grandmother and mother, but they cite no reason for imagining that artistic ability is transmitted genetically, nor do they allow the possibility that she might have had good teachers or might have had to work to develop her skill. Instead, they patronize her in a sentence that strikes me as insufferably condescending: "Choosing this career was a challenge to the traditional role most Hispanic women follow." I am outraged!

Merrill Life Science shows such serious faults, and so many of them, that it deserves only to be junked.

A Glitzy, Mindless Book
That Glorifies Ignorance

William J. Bennetta

In The Textbook Letter for November-December 1991, I undertook the repellent task of reviewing Biology: The Dynamics of Life, a gaudy mess that the Merrill Publishing Company has been trying to pass off as a high-school biology text. In my review, I suggested that Merrill had not even tried to produce something that could be useful to students. Instead, I inferred, the company had sought to concoct an item that, by its sheer glitziness, would impress those gullible educators who "evaluate" a book by flipping through it for a minute or two, glancing at pictures and headlines.

I now make the same judgment about Merrill Life Science. I regard this book as nothing but flashy trash, and I think that anyone who actually reads it will arrive at a similar opinion. The book's only evident function, as far as I can see, is to get fools to part with their money.

The big theme of Merrill Life Science is ignorance. Ignorance pervades the text, and it is assiduously promoted in a series of special features whose message will be quite clear, I think, to any student: Knowledge counts for nothing, and learning is a needless chore. I'll tell more about those features later.

This book's content, if we may call it that, is dominated by superstitions, by statements that make no sense at all, and by wild guesses -- "facts" that the writers have simply dreamed up. These writers continuously demonstrate that their knowledge of science is approximately nil.

Read chapter 15, for example. Even its silly title, "Cold-Blooded Vertebrates," doesn't prepare us for the chapter itself, in which the writers evidently have mixed garbled hearsay with outright fiction. At one point, they invent the notion that all the "ancient reptiles" died off, and that the "modern reptiles" constitute a different, mysterious group that "probably descended from similar amphibian ancestors." I was so disgusted by that rubbish (and by other, similar stuff) that I asked a professional biologist to write an analysis of the whole chapter. His article, exposing Merrill's nonsense for what it is, will appear soon in The Textbook Letter.

Now look at chapter 23, where the writers ask: "What do you think are the odds of a family having all boys or all girls? What do you think is the proportion of boys to girls among children born in the general population?" They then tell the student to "find out" the sex ratio among newborns: "Take a penny and toss it in the air. There is an equal chance that it will land heads or tails. Toss the penny a hundred times and keep a record . . . ."

I needn't point out, to anyone who has any scientific sense, that this pastime may tell something about a coin but can tell nothing about babies. The only way to discover the sex ratio among newborn humans is to look at newborn humans. (When we do this, we find 106 males per 100 females.) Besides teaching students that a silly game can be substituted for the observing of nature, Merrill's writers show that they do not understand the concept of probability. Their statement about "an equal chance" is just stupid.

Merrill Life Science is full of colorful pictures, but many of these are worthless: They are erroneous, incomprehensible or unrelated to the text, or they have weird captions that seem irrelevant to what is being shown. Some pictures portray organisms in garish false colors, for no evident reason but to make the book glitzier -- the captions don't disclose that the colors are false.

More glitz is supplied by features and sidebars, which often are mindless. My favorites include the bogus "MINI-Lab" items on pages 241, 278 and 353, and an "EcoTip" on page 449: "Eat lower on the food chain by consuming more vegetables and fruits." (What is a food chain? The writers haven't said. And even if the student knew what a food chain was, why would he want to "eat lower" on one? I give up.) The feature-writers reach their heights, however, in their series of "Science and Society" items. These don't merely dispense ignorance -- they glorify it.

Each "Science and Society" feature asks the student for an opinion about some real or bogus issue. In various cases, the issues have no scientific aspect at all. On page 47, for example, the student must say whether it is "right" to sell human organs. That is a purely moral question, and any answer to it will be arbitrary. No question of right or wrong can be answered by observing nature. Here and elsewhere, the writers brutally mislead the student by misrepresenting the nature and province of science.

And then there are the "Science and Society" items that trade in plain falsity, as on page 361:

Many environmentalists believe that the clear-cutting of forests in the northwestern United States is too destructive to be continued. . . . However, many people depend on logging to support their families. Without the logging industry, the economy of many areas would be ruined. What do you think the answer to this problem is?

So the issue is framed as if the only options were to log by clear-cutting or to abolish "the logging industry." Rubbish!

The worst aspect of the "Science and Society" features is that they train the student to take positions without knowing anything. Merrill's writers never provide the information that would enable the student to formulate a rational judgment. The idea of having or seeking knowledge before announcing a conclusion is scorned.

This is the glorification of ignorance. The writers deliver their message to the student again and again: You don't have to know; you just have to bray.

Educators should do their best to protect students from Merrill Life Science.


Ellen C. Weaver is a professor of biological sciences, emerita, from San Jose State University. Her scientific specialties are plant physiology and the application of remote sensing to the oceans. She has served as an advisor to the National Academy of Sciences and as the president of the Association for Women in Science.

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 often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

----------

Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail