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All in all, a good book about chemical science and technology

Editor's Introduction -- The high-school book ChemCom: Chemistry in the Community doesn't pretend to be, and can't be substituted for, a conventional chemistry text. Aimed at bright students who plan to attend college but don't plan to become scientists, this cogently conceived, well written book presents some basic chemical concepts and relates them to everyday occurrences, to contemporary technology, and to major societal issues. The book's major fault is its pro-industry stance: When the writers deal with the chemical-process industries, they offer cheer-leading and boosterism while they avoid topics that point to malfeasance and controversy.
from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1993

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

ChemCom: Chemistry in the Community
1993. 571 pages. ISBN: 0-8403-5505-X. Copyrighted by
the American Chemical Society (Washington, D.C.).
Published by the Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company,
2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52004.

A Good Chemistry Book
with a Pro-Industry Tone

Max G. Rodel

ChemCom, a text created by the American Chemical Society (ACS), is a splendid introduction to chemistry. Far from being a dull compendium of chemical formulas, structures and equations, it is a fine teaching tool that illuminates both the science of chemistry and the impacts of applied chemistry on society -- especially those impacts that are beneficial.

The ACS says that ChemCom is intended chiefly for college-bound high-school students who do not plan to pursue careers in science, and that it is meant to help students learn chemical facts and concepts in a context of societal issues. In my judgment, it will succeed. Here is a book that really promotes science literacy among young people.

In its organization, the book stands somewhere between a conventional chemistry text (in which the principles of a great, esoteric science are taught in a logical sequence) and a typical environmental-science text (in which the interrelationships among various scientific and social studies command major attention, often at the expense of science). ChemCom is structured around broad issues that are consequential in our lives, and these issues are reflected in the titles of the book's eight principal sections: "Supplying Our Water Needs"; "Conserving Chemical Resources"; "Petroleum: To Build? To Burn?"; "Understanding Food"; "Nuclear Chemistry in Our World"; "Chemistry, Air, and Climate"; "Health: Your Risks and Choices"; and last, "The Chemical Industry: Promise and Challenge."

Each major section introduces principles of chemistry that are related to the section's technological and societal themes. For example, oxidation-reduction reactions are taught in the context of metallurgy and the smelting of ores. The balancing of chemical equations is taught in a chapter about the conservation and recycling of chemical resources; this pedagogic juxtaposition is original and clever. Polymerization chemistry is introduced in the section on uses of petroleum; the gas laws are taught throughout the section on atmospheric chemistry; and principles of nuclear chemistry appear within discussions of nuclear power plants and the biomedical uses of radioisotopes. The ChemCom approach melds theoretical chemistry with applied chemistry, and it makes sense.

The book's emphasis on practical matters is clear from the outset: The introductory "Special Note to Students" (on page xv) says that chemistry is a part of everyone's life, and that everyone -- not just scientists -- should be familiar with chemical concepts. More and more, communities face important choices that have scientific and technological aspects, and voters face decisions that cannot be made rationally without some knowledge of chemistry.

ChemCom exploits interactive teaching methods that engage the reader. The "Your Turn" sidebars, for example, deal with specific chemical laws or calculations, allowing students to practice the application of concepts that they have just learned. Most chapters contain "You Decide" features that ask students to analyze data and then to make technological proposals or evaluate hypotheses. (Do concentrations of heavy-metal ions in a river support the contention that metal ions are hurting the river's aquatic organisms? To answer that question, students undertake to use solubility concepts, data about ion concentrations in the river, and water-quality criteria published by regulatory agencies.) And each of the book's eight principal sections concludes with an exercise called "Putting It All Together," in which students use their chemical knowledge to try to solve real-world problems.

Another of the book's pedagogic tactics involves the use of narrative text and fake newspaper articles to tell how chemistry crops up in the life of a fictitious community called Riverwood. The students first encounter Riverwood in the book's opening chapter, "The Quality of Our Water," when a newspaper story reports that there has been a fish kill in the nearby Snake River, and soon the students are grappling not only with water-supply problems but also with principles of solubility, pH, and acid-base equilibrium. I like this approach.

As the Riverwood story unfolds, the apparent cause of the fish kill is identified: The fish were exposed to water, discharged from a power company's reservoir, that was supersaturated with air. Now comes the question of who should be held responsible; and at this juncture, the students enact a meeting of Riverwood's Town Council. Using information that is provided by the ChemCom writers, the students play the roles of Council members, power-company officials, scientists and engineers, as well as representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce, the County Sanitation Commission, and the local taxpayers' association. This is an excellent mechanism for bringing out different points of view.

The Riverwood motif recurs intermittently in later portions of the book, culminating in a debate about whether the Council should allow a chemical company to build an ammonia plant on the edge of town. The decision is eventually made by referendum, and Riverwood's citizens approve construction of the plant.

Most of the chapters in ChemCom offer laboratory exercises that illustrate basic chemical concepts and teach laboratory skills, and every chapter closes with a set of questions and with an optional exercise ("Extending Your Knowledge") for the more advanced students.

Favorable Images

Because some of my earlier reviews in these pages have dealt with environmental-science textbooks that were over-zealous in promoting environmental activism, I must emphasize that ChemCom does some promoting, too -- though of a different kind. The teacher who proposes to use this textbook should remember that it is a project of the American Chemical Society. As such, it offers very favorable images of both chemistry and the chemical industry. Chemistry is presented as something of a genial uncle -- always nearby, always smiling, always ready to lend us a helping hand -- and the book speaks with a pro-industry tone.

I was surprised to find that ChemCom says nothing at all about pesticides. The pesticides that are responsible for increased agricultural production, as well as serious chemical contamination of environmental media, are primarily synthetic chemicals -- products of the chemical industry. Pesticide chemistry would have been a worthy subject for discussion in, say, the section about "Understanding Food," yet the book does not mention pesticides there or anywhere else; nor can the terms pesticide and insecticide and herbicide be found in either the index or the glossary. I speculate that these omissions have been deliberate, and I suspect that they reflect the ACS's unwillingness to acknowledge the host of environmental problems that now are attributed to pesticides.

Still, the book does mention some environmental issues that involve commercial chemicals. It provides, for example, a discussion of the chemistry of fertilizers -- major chemical-industry products that are controversial in various ways. It also mentions global warming and ozone depletion, and it has a sidebar about a woman, educated as both lawyer and engineer, who works for the environmental group Greenpeace.

The only place where ChemCom really misses the mark comes in the "Understanding Food" section, where the writers make a brief diversion into the subject of world hunger. This passage (pages 221 through 223) contains no chemistry and appears pointless. If the writers had looked at hunger in terms of the prospects for using agricultural chemicals to promote agricultural production, the passage might have had some value. As it is, it adds nothing to the student's understanding of chemistry or of "Chemistry in the Community."

All in all, however, ChemCom is a fine chemistry book, full of sound science that is presented in a stimulating, often original way. I recommend this book to educators who want to teach science as it should be taught -- with flair. Although ChemCom is not intended for young people who plan to major in science when they get to college, it may inspire some undecided students to see science in a new light and to consider pursuing scientific careers that they will find rewarding throughout their lives.

An Engaging Textbook,
Marred by Boosterism

William J. Bennetta

I must start by saying a little about myself and my perspective. I got much of my formal education in chemistry while I was taking a degree in chemical engineering, and I learned about real-world chemistry during the years when I worked in technical journalism: I reported and analyzed information about the chemical-process industries, and I specialized in writing about chemical technology, chemical economics and environmental affairs. I am inclined, therefore, to adopt an industrial viewpoint when I look at chemistry textbooks, and this will be evident in my assessment of ChemCom.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), the organization that developed ChemCom, is an august scientific society and has an admirable record of supporting science education in the public schools. ChemCom, for the most part, complies with that tradition. We see here a literate, cogently designed book that furnishes a sound introduction to some fundamentals of theoretical and laboratory chemistry.

The book's big fault lies in its distorted picture of the chemical-process industries. Where industrial and commercial matters are concerned, the ACS writers mix cheer-leading and boosterism with the selective omission of distasteful subjects, and their unit titled "The Chemical Industry: Promise and Challenge" is unacceptable. Other faults appear when the writers abandon science in favor of fashionable nonsense: They conflate herbal quackery with chemistry, and they gratuitously retail the fantasy that the world has enough food for everyone.

ChemCom can't be compared with, and definitely can't be substituted for, a conventional chemistry text. It is an unusual, specialized product -- aimed at bright high-school students who plan to go to college but don't plan to become professional scientists -- and its content is limited. Instead of trying to cover all the topics that appear in conventional books, the ACS writers have taken a suite of basic concepts and have embedded them in eight units that emphasize how the concepts can be applied. In each unit, the writers try to relate specific concepts to everyday occurrences, to technology, and to a major societal concern that serves as the unit's theme: e.g., water quality, air quality, or the handling of mineral resources. This is a good pedagogic strategy, and the writers generally implement it well.

In its editorial and its graphic aspects, ChemCom is impressive. The prose usually is fluent and intelligent and readable, while scientific subjects are developed carefully and logically. Throwaway lines and useless mentionings are refreshingly rare -- except in the chemical-industry unit, where they abound. The pages are clean and inviting, and the illustrations have been chosen and handled well. In this book, pictures support the text and help in conveying information, rather than acting as mere decorations for impressing gullible customers.

The "You Decide" exercises, of which there are several in each unit, merit praise. They vary considerably in length (from a few paragraphs to more than two pages), but nearly all of them are achievements in the art of helping students to do science and to think scientifically. In no way are they comparable to the imbecilic "You Decide!" items seen in Merrill textbooks, which ask students to bray opinions without knowing anything. [See the comments on Merrill Life Science and Merrill Physical Science in the January-February and July-August issues of TTL.]

How the Book Goes Wrong

The unwelcome aspect of ChemCom is its blatant boosterism. The book continually projects favorable views of the chemical-process industries while avoiding topics that point to malfeasance or controversy. Maybe this reflects the fact that ChemCom is an ACS creation. The chemical-process industries employ a lot of the ACS's members, in such activities as petroleum-refining, paper-making, metallurgy and the manufacturing of foods, industrial chemicals, agricultural chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals, coatings, pigments and explosives.

Think of the book's subtitle: Chemistry in the Community. When I ponder chemistry in a community, I observe that virtually every community is vulnerable to chemical contamination and degradation. This is true wherever fuels, solvents, pesticides or any other chemical products are manufactured, and wherever those things are transported or stored or used or discarded. Chemical spills happen daily, and every week brings another news report about the pollution of a watercourse by agricultural chemicals, or about the unlawful dumping of chemical wastes. Sometimes we even have news of a conviction. And don't forget the chemical horrors of the maquiladoras, of which we recently have heard so much.

You won't find any of that in ChemCom. The existence of industrial pollution is acknowledged here and there, chiefly in an air-quality context, but the ACS writers do not give pollution the attention that, I assert, it deserves in any discussion of "Chemistry in the Community." And pesticides are not mentioned at all.

The evasiveness gets absurd and painful in the book's last unit, "The Chemical Industry: Promise and Challenge." Instead of analyzing real events or court cases or industrial efforts to forestall environmental-protection measures, the writers tell us that the companies of the Chemical Manufacturers Association must promise to be "safe and environmentally responsible." Later on, the writers pay more lip service to environmental matters by reciting empty rhetorical questions. Then they cryptically mention "errors in judgment and performance," and finally they announce that "the chemical industry's rate of occupational injuries and illness in 1988 was over 40% lower than the comparable figure for U.S. industry as a whole." Even if they had told us how that "rate" was calculated, their claim would be meaningless; I deplore such conjuring.

Whitewashing aside, the unit on "The Chemical Industry" is vapid, obsolete and often unintelligible. For example, the writers' characterization of composites as "emerging" technology is out-of-date by 25 years, and their entire treatment of biotechnology consists of this paragraph:

Remarkable progress in recent years by molecular biologists and biochemists has increased our understanding of basic chemical principles that determine the structure and function of macromolecules (such as proteins and DNA) within biological systems. The chemical industry is planning now for applications of new biotechnologies that result from the ability to control chemistry in living systems at the cellular level.

That does not even tell what "biotechnologies" are, let alone telling what any of their "applications" may be. The ACS writers should have defined biotechnology and should have cited some representative processes, emphasizing the two big realms of biotechnological work: replicating or propagating organisms or parts of organisms, on a practical scale, by artificial means; and using organisms or parts of organisms, on a practical scale, to effect chemical conversions. The writers should also have avoided reinforcing the common, false impression that all biotechnology is new and revolutionary. Some forms of biotechnology are surely new, but others originated in ancient times: Beer-brewing (a process in which microbes convert carbohydrate to alcohol) was practiced more than 5,000 years ago.

Particularly distressing is the writers' glib statement that technological tricks are needed to "provide adequate nutrition for the world's increasing population." The possibility of feeding the world's increasing population vanished in the 1960s. What is to be gained by suggesting otherwise?

I trust that the chemical-industry unit will be thoroughly revised when ChemCom goes into its next edition.

While they're at it, the ACS writers can make two other improvements. Turning to the unit "Understanding Food," they can excise their attempt to convince the student that Earth's human population has enough to eat. [See the article "The Economics of Fantasyland" accompanying this review.] And they can discard the dangerous flapdoodle appearing in the feature article on page 203:

Many remote communities in America that do not have the benefit of a local degreed physician rely on midwives and herbal healers [sic] to provide for their basic medical needs. Portia Bass' grandmother served as one of these special residents [sic!]. As a child, Portia spent her days in her grandmother's home watching her prepare herbs and medicinal teas . . . . It wasn't until she took a college class in organic chemistry that Portia realized how much chemistry her grandmother had used.

I don't know anything about Grandma, but I see no shred of support for the notion that she used "chemistry." Chemistry is a branch of natural science -- and students must understand that science is vastly different from folklore, folk medicine, magic and other approaches to nature. At a time when herbal quackery is resurging and is acquiring special prominence in the swindling of AIDS patients, the ACS shouldn't be dignifying it in any way, let alone conflating it with science.


Max G. Rodel is an environmental chemist, a registered environmental assessor in California, and a senior scientist with Environmental Science Associates, a consulting firm in San Francisco. 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.

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