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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in earth science

Modern Earth Science
1998. 714 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-050609-3.
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 Harcourt General Inc.)

A Superficial Revision of an Old, Weak Book

Anne C. Westwater

There's both good and bad news about the 1998 version of Modern Earth Science. I'll start with the good news -- but I hope that you will read beyond that, because the bad news about Holt's book is troubling.

Much of the good news has to do with the illustrations, activities, and other items that augment the book's main text:

The Bad News

If the entire book were as good as its special articles, and if the main text were as up-to-date as the "Science and Technology" spreads, Modern Earth Science would be a very fine product. Unfortunately, this isn't the case -- which leads me to the bad-news part of my review.

As a teacher, I am always interested in learning whether a "new" version of a textbook is truly new, or whether it's an old book with a different cover, some add-ons, and a higher price. I therefore have compared this 1998 version of Modern Earth Science with the 1989 version, as described by Arthur J. Boucot and Richard A. Smith in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1990. Guess what! -- most of the factual and conceptual errors that Boucot and Smith saw in the 1989 version are still in place, nine years later. They include wrong descriptions of the geologic nature of plains, the formation of coal, and the formation of placer deposits; an erroneous attempt to classify landforms; and even a startlingly wrong notion (which Boucot described as "laughable") about the location of Pangaea. In a number of places, Holt has reprinted erroneous material word-for-word.

Smith's evaluation of the 1989 Modern Earth Science included some remarks about the book's Unit 5, which deals largely with paleontology:

Compared with what it should be, it is pitifully thin. It is also incoherent. Paleontologists integrate their information around the theme of organic evolution, the principle that explains the succession seen in the fossil record. Holt's writers do not do this -- indeed, they have no integrating theme at all -- and they treat organic evolution as if it were only a sidelight or afterthought.

All of that is still true. In the 1998 book, Unit 5 is still inadequate and still lacks an integrating theme, and its depiction of organic evolution is incoherent and wrong. On page 347 students read that natural selection is often called "the survival of the fittest." Then the students are subjected to a passage which perpetuates two erroneous notions -- that natural selection requires "environmental changes," and that individual organisms can alter themselves to suit "environmental changes" and thus become more "fit." Nothing in the 1998 book helps students to distinguish between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution, and nothing in this book can help students to learn how natural selection really works.

Some of the factual errors that Boucot and Smith saw in the 1989 book have disappeared -- either because the passages in which they occurred have been discarded entirely, or because Holt was able to correct them by changing only a line or two or type. This is little comfort. It is clear that Holt's revising of Modern Earth Science has been sporadic and superficial, with most of the effort directed toward the creation of eye-catching novelties. Holt has not made any systematic attempt to repair the many mistakes in the book's main text.

Nor has Holt made any serious attempt to update the book as a whole. Yes, there is a feature article about the Galileo spacecraft's journey to Jupiter, as I noted earlier -- but the book never even mentions the spectacle that we witnessed in 1994, when Jupiter was struck by the remnants of Periodic Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. There is a boxed sidebar about the earthquake that wreaked destruction on Kobe, Japan, in 1995, but there is nothing about the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994. There is nothing about recent investigations of Chicxulub Crater, the buried impact crater which provides impressive evidence that a big comet or asteroid collided with Earth some 65 million years ago. A picture-caption on page 608 declares categorically that "In 1996, scientists discovered fossil evidence of primitive microorganisms" in a meteorite that supposedly originated on Mars -- but that claim is outdated and misleading. In more recent studies of the meteorite, other scientists have judged the "fossil evidence" to be enigmatic and inconclusive.

Here's a little more bad news. Modern Earth Science has 30 "Small-Scale Investigation" activities (one in each chapter), but too many of them seem inappropriate because of the materials and preparation time that they require. However, they may be useful as demonstrations, to be performed by a selected student or by the teacher.

Like many other schoolbooks, the 1998 Modern Earth Science gives the impression that it has been assembled from bits and pieces, by people who didn't know as much as they should have known about the subject matter. There is no way to infer who those people were. The book's title page shows the names of four alleged authors but doesn't identify them. Later we encounter an introduction (on pages xvi and xvii) that is signed by one of those four, Robert J. Sager, and we read that Sager teaches at Pierce College, in Lakewood, Washington. The three other "authors" remain mystery-men whose whereabouts are unknown. On the other hand, Holt has furnished (on page iii) an impressive list of alleged "reviewers," each identified by affiliation and location. The contrast between this display and Holt's withholding of information about the book's so-called authors is striking.

The Bottom Line

It is a shame that the essential content of Modern Earth Science remains unchanged and that the book still carries so much misinformation. A teacher who has a strong knowledge of the earth sciences will probably be able to work around the book's misconceptions and factual errors, so I agree with what Richard Smith said in his review of the 1989 version: Modern Earth Science "is not a total loss" if the teacher is able to use it selectively. But a teacher whose own knowledge of the earth sciences is shaky will often be led astray by this book, and will wind up disseminating a lot of misinformation to students. For such a teacher, Modern Earth Science is not acceptable.


Anne C. Westwater retired in 1997 from a twenty-year career as a science teacher, including some fifteen years as a teacher of biology, earth science and environmental science at Napa High School (in Napa, California). She now lives at The Sea Ranch (in Sonoma County, California) and works as a consultant in the application of brain research to educational practice.

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