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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1995

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Environmental Science: A Global Concern
1995. 612 pages. ISBN: 0-697-15894-2.
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard,
Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

A Suitable Book for Teaching
Faddish Fables and Baloney

Max G. Rodel

My review of the 1990 version of Wm. C. Brown's Environmental Science: A Global Concern was generally favorable. I was impressed by both the writing and the content that I found in that book, and I said that Brown had produced a fine addition to the array of science texts that were available for use by advanced high-school students.

At the same time, I cautioned that the 1990 book was not a straightforward presentation of science, that it emphasized social phenomena over scientific ones, and that it tried to instill "politically correct" views of environmental matters. I ended by stating my opinion that the book might better have been called Environmental Social Studies.

The 1995 version reinforces that opinion. Environmental Science: A Global Concern has now been updated and has been slightly enlarged, but its fundamental structure and its teaching approach have not been altered. It remains a well written, often compelling textbook that seeks to unite social, political, economic and scientific information, putting major emphasis on the social and political. The writers assert that their goal is to provide a foundation for understanding environmental problems and "finding ways to progress toward a better future" (page xvii), and they continue to emphasize doctrines of stewardship and sustainability, which call for humans to be nature's partners rather than nature's adversaries.

That is a valid perspective, with identifiable bases in science, but the writers don't stop there. In this 1995 book, as in the 1990 version, they repeatedly go far beyond science (and mislead students) by promoting ideological doctrines and other notions that have no place in a science text. Such figments seem even more conspicuous in the new book than they were in the older one. For example, some silly flummery about "ecofeminism" has been moved forward, so it now appears in the second chapter instead of the last; there is an absurd ideological section about "environmental justice," including an endorsement of the bogus notion of "environmental racism"; and the writers now are promoting the unsubstantiated notion that electromagnetic fields cause cancer. I shall return to some of these matters later.

Like the 1990 version, the new book is divided into five major parts, each covering a lot of material. Part One is an overview of environmental concerns, resources, conservation, environmental ethics, and some basic scientific principles. Part Two looks at population biology, human population dynamics, resource economics, and environmental health and toxicology. Part Three focuses on biological resources, discussing human nutrition, food sources, agriculture, and the use of forests and rangelands. Part Four deals with "physical" (meaning nonliving) resources: minerals, air, water and energy. Part Five explores interactions among societies and environments, emphasizing waste-handling methods, urbanization, and the concept of "a sustainable future."

The sequence of the chapters has been revised to keep related topics together and give even more emphasis to environmental ethics and environmental activism. The extent to which the individual chapters have been revised varies greatly. Some chapters are nearly identical to ones in the 1990 version, while others have been rewritten or combined. (The number of chapters has been reduced by two, although the new book includes new material and is longer by some 30 pages.) Even in sections where changes to the text have been minimal, the 1995 book has a "new" look. Many illustrations have been upgraded, and many charts and diagrams have been altered to add color.

An Unsubstantiated Claim

The writers assert that they have kept their text "simple and nontechnical" and suitable for students who have "little or no science background," but that claim is not substantiated by the text itself. Part One includes a survey of fundamental science -- ostensibly as a basis for understanding the scientific material that will appear in later sections -- but the survey is feeble, is given almost entirely to biological matters, and is blatantly inadequate. The writers devote only one page to basic chemistry, and in that one page they dash all the way from the concept of the atom to a verbal description of the structure of a nucleic acid (complete with jargon like "nitrogen-containing ring structure" and "phosphate bridge," which will have no meaning whatsoever to students who have "little or no science background.") The survey does not equip students to understand the chemical topics that will appear later in this book, and it obviously does not equip students to understand the chemistry in the "Further Readings" that are listed at the ends of chapters. Therefore, students will not be able to use Environmental Science: A Global Concern unless they already have taken high-school chemistry. If they also have taken high-school biology, then so much the better.

On the other side of the ledger, the writers do an unusually fine job in their section "Science as a Way of Knowing," which outlines some principles of scientific thinking and scientific methods. They make a point of telling that not all scientific work involves experiments, and that scientists can generate and test hypotheses about natural systems even if the systems are not amenable to experimentation. They also emphasize that science does not "prove" things, that we never have "final proof" of anything, and that all scientific findings are conditional and are subject to modification in the light of new evidence. These are points that must be taught to science students at all levels.

Somewhat Sinister

Some errors of fact that appeared in the 1990 book have been carried into the 1995 version -- for example, the technical definition of BOD (on page 423) is still incorrect.

A more troubling defect is the retention of a lopsided, misleading treatment of "chemicals" in the chapter on "Environmental Health and Toxicology" (in Part Two). The book continues to view chemicals only in terms of their toxic and hazardous properties. Students read about chemicals that are irritants, asphyxiants, mutagens, teratogens or carcinogens, but there is nothing about the beneficial uses of these materials, and the entire presentation remains somewhat sinister. (As I asked when I reviewed the 1990 version: Do the writers really want to enable students to evaluate chemical risks and hazards, or do they just want to give students something to worry about?) Here is another reason why this textbook should be used only by students who already have had a course in chemistry. It would be a shame if the students' only impressions of "chemicals" and commercial chemistry were the impressions given in Part Two of Environmental Science: A Global Concern.

On the other hand, the chapter called "Pest Control" (in Part Three) provides a fine exposition of pesticides, with discussion of both the hazards and the benefits that such substances present.

The section about risk assessment has a new, baffling diagram -- evidently made by combining two illustrations from the 1990 book -- which supposedly depicts the public's perceptions of various environmental risks. The perceptions are represented by symbols scattered on a grid whose vertical axis extends from "Not observable" to "Observable" and whose other axis reaches from "Controllable" to "Uncontrollable." I do not understand this diagram (figure 9.14, page 189) and I do not know how the symbols were assigned to their positions on the grid. The writers seem to think that the diagram has something to do with a point that appears in the text on page 187: Perceptions of risks are ruled by emotion and ignorance, and they may have very little to do with reality. The public may regard automobiles and bicycles as benign, and may regard pesticides or DNA technology as loathsome and dangerous, even though deaths or injuries related to automobiles or bicycles are far more frequent than deaths or injuries associated with pesticides or with genetic engineering.

Fads and Fables

The deepest failings of this book, however, are its promotion of faddish silliness, its reciting of alarmist fables, and its pretensions that invite the student to confuse science with mysticism, religion, political ideology, and other things that are not science at all. Let me describe, as examples, the book's passages about "environmental racism," the Gaia hypothesis, and imaginary hazards of electromagnetic fields:

"Environmental racism"

The 1990 version of Environmental Science: A Global Concern had a mercifully brief section about an ideological notion called "ecojustice." In the 1995 version there is a new, longer section called "Environmental Justice," in which the writers cite some genuine phenomena but surround them with ideological interpretations that are distorted and dopey. The worst part of this section comes where the writers promote the idea of "environmental racism," a fancy that has become popular in some quarters in recent years.

Promoters of this fancy like to cite the fact that, in the United States, many waste-disposal sites and "dirty" industrial plants are in communities whose populations are largely black or Hispanic. Then they invite us to believe that this condition has been deliberately created by white racists, presumably as a way of visiting chemical hazards and other dangers on members of racial minorities. That alarming vision of cause and effect is an inescapable implication of the term "environmental racism."

"Environmental racism" makes a good story that can stir the emotions of ignorant audiences, but it is nothing more than that: a story. There is no doubt that dirty industries are unusually common in (or near) black or Hispanic communities, but this doesn't mean that white racists have deliberately sought this result; nor have the promoters of "environmental racism" produced any evidence to support such an idea. If we recall how the distribution of industrial plants or waste-disposal sites is influenced by land costs, by transportation facilities, and by the political power or political impotence of local residents, we needn't invoke a special "environmental racist" conspiracy to explain why dirty industrial operations are often found in communities of people who are poor and powerless. The inventors of "environmental racism" are in the business of using dubious "studies" and outlandish claims to confuse correlation with causation. The writers of Environmental Science: A Global Concern have perpetuated that confusion instead of sorting things out.

Later in their "Environmental Justice" section, the writers use obscurity to misrepresent issues involving American Indians. A photograph on page 38 shows an unidentified group of Indians marching under a defaced American flag, and the caption says that they are marching "in protest of toxic waste dumping on tribal lands." The writers don't tell who these people are, where their tribal lands are, what is being dumped, or who is doing the dumping, but students can hardly fail to conclude that somebody is abusing the Indians by discarding wastes on tribal lands without the Indians' consent.

Can the writers cite a place where this is happening? I doubt it. I know of cases in which tribal governments have considered formal proposals to establish commercial dumps on tribal lands, and I know that such projects have sometimes caused rancorous political divisions within tribes, and I suspect that this is what the photograph on page 38 really signifies. If those Indians are really protesting against "toxic waste dumping on tribal lands," their protest is almost certainly directed against some decisions or actions taken by their own tribal leaders. Students will not understand this, because the writers of Environmental Science: A Global Concern have omitted all the relevant information.

The Gaia hypothesis

The so-called Gaia hypothesis is not so much a hypothesis as a body of conjecture. It has a basis in scientific observations, but the observations have been extrapolated to support unscientific conclusions and have become entangled with cocktail-party mysticism. This seems to be the reason why the Gaia conjecture, although it has nothing to contribute to a beginner's understanding of environmental science, has shown up in various environmental-science texts. It is trendy, and some writers evidently think that its overtones of supernaturalism will make it appealing to readers.

The conjecture was put forth, some 15 years ago, by the British scientist James Lovelock. At its core lies the observation that our planet, as a whole, apparently has some homeostatic mechanisms that tend to preserve conditions favorable to life. The mechanisms cited most frequently in this context are ones that affect and moderate the composition of the atmosphere, the temperature of Earth's surface, and the salinity of the oceans, helping to keep them suitable for living things. Some of these mechanisms involve chemical processes that are carried out by organisms, so one implication of the Gaia conjecture is that organisms help to maintain Earth in a state that is conducive to their own survival.

So far, so good. Undeniably, global feedback mechanisms exist that have global effects on life -- the flux of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans is a case in point -- and it is good to study them.

What is not good is the way in which Lovelock's ideas (along with the phenomena that he addressed) have been dragged out of their scientific context and have been transformed, by ignorant popularizers and sensationalists, into props for religious and mystical notions. These include, for example, the idea that our planet was purposefully planned and was created with purposeful mechanisms which enable it to perform an ordained function -- i.e., serving as a home for organisms (or specifically for humans). The Gaia conjecture can easily suggest that such ideas are "scientific" (or it can easily be made to look like "scientific" support for them) if it is presented ineptly in a "science" book. Impressionable students can easily lose sight of where science ends and where mysticism begins.

The writers of Environmental Science: A Global Concern seem to encourage this result. Their material about the Gaia conjecture appears in a box on page 53, with the headline "Does Earth Have a Plan?" It is confused and misleading, and it is not redeemed when the writers say, "Although Lovelock dissociates himself from mysticism or religious implications of his theory [sic], many people believe it suggests a design, purpose, and meaning in the world." If the writers had to mention the Gaia conjecture at all, they should have described it competently and should have used it to teach about the nature and boundaries of science, instead of mulling science with what "many people believe." They also should have remembered what the word theory denotes. The Gaia conjecture is not a theory, and calling it by that name breeds more confusion.

Electromagnetic fields

On page 180, a boxed article headlined "Electromagnetic Fields and Your Health" demonstrates how textbook-writers can embarrass themselves by telling trendy alarmist stories. The article begins:

Many forms of technology seem scary and mysterious, but few seem as insidious as potential dangers [a pun?] from invisible, unfelt electric and magnetic fields associated with our use of electricity. . . . Although the data are vague and often contradictory, there appears to be some increased risk of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, and perhaps Alzheimer's disease associated with exposure to these fields.

Of course, it is absurd to declare that "there appears to be some increased risk" if one knows that the data are "vague and often contradictory," but the writers do not let such niceties stand in their way. They launch into an enumeration of scary results produced by various "studies," and then they prescribe protective measures like these:

First of all, homes and schools should be at least one kilometer away from high-voltage power lines. Electric distribution lines that bring power into homes create much less powerful fields but should still be shielded and routed away from the parts of houses where people spend the most time. . . . Bedside appliances, such as electric clocks, telephone answering machines, or anything with an electric motor that runs continuously should be placed at least a meter away from your head. Even better, why not place them across the room? Other electric appliances . . . should be used as briefly as possible and at the greatest distance from your person as is feasible. . . .

Enough! Before you try to move your house, and before you become terrified of your bedside clock, you need to know that the most notorious allegation about power lines and appliances -- the claim that they cause cancers -- is not supported by evidence. Alhough it has been widely publicized in recent years, and though it now is being publicized again in Environmental Science: A Global Concern, it apparently is nothing but Luddite nonsense. In their zeal to make their book look trendy, the writers have only made themselves look like fools. They should have waited to see what respectable scientific analysis would disclose.

What respectable scientific analysis has disclosed has been summarized in a report that was released in April 1995 by the Council of the American Physical Society (529 Fourteenth Street, NW; Washington, DC 20045). Let me quote from the Council's introductory letter:

The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. This literature includes epidemiological studies, research on biological systems, and analyses of theoretical interaction mechanisms. . . . From this standpoint, the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated.

These unsubstantiated claims, however, have generated fears of power lines in some communities, leading to expensive mitigation efforts, and, in some cases, to lengthy and divisive court proceedings. The costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power line-cancer connection have risen into the billions of dollars and threaten to go much higher. The diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis is disturbing to us.

For scientific and historical insights into some claims about electromagnetic fields and cancer, I recommend the Frontline program "Currents of Fear," which was broadcast in June by many public-television stations. My readers may be especially interested in the segments that directly discredit two of the scary "studies" that are cited in Environmental Science: A Global Concern. One of these originated in Denver, Colorado; it was just an amateurish invention, and it never had any scientific respectability. The other study, originating in Sweden, was more interesting. It included some statistical analysis performed by experienced biostatisticians, and it seemed to show that exposure to electromagnetic fields was linked to an elevated incidence of leukemia. That correlation was false, however; it had emerged because the statisticians had chosen to work with only a small sample of the data that the study had generated. (When some other samples of the data were analyzed by the same methods, some of the results indicated that exposure to electromagnetic fields was correlated with a reduced incidence of leukemia! In other words, the fields now seemed to act as cancer-prevention agents!) A videotape of "Currents of Fear" can be purchased from PBS Video at Box 791, Alexandria, Virginia 22313. The price, with shipping, is $78.45.

The raving about electromagnetic fields in Environmental Science: A Global Concern, like the cant about "environmental racism," is the sort of material that shouldn't appear in any book which has "science" in its title.

Recommendation

The 1995 version of Environmental Science: A Global Concern has some considerable merit as a social-studies book, but as a science book it is too deeply flawed by the writers' failure to distinguish science from pseudoscience. It is an appropriate tool only for teachers who suffer from a similar lack of discernment and who want to advocate the kinds of environmental ideology and environmental activism that the writers favor. I find irony in the fact that this textbook includes a fine sidebar about critical thinking, in which the writers warn against accepting obscure statements, warn against accepting claims that are not supported by evidence, and point out that a person who promotes a particular view may have "an axe to grind or a personal agenda." The writers ought to have practiced the critical thinking that they preach, and they ought to have stricken all the baloney from their book.


Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist and a registered environmental assessor in the state of California. His major professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives and works in Mill Valley.

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