The Magazine

A Textbook Case of Junk Science

From the May 9, 2005 issue: What our children is learning?

May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By PAMELA R. WINNICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A study commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 2001 found 500 pages of scientific error in 12 middle-school textbooks used by 85 percent of the students in the country. One misstates Newton's first law of motion. Another says humans can't hear elephants. Another confuses "gravity" with "gravitational acceleration." Another shows the equator running through the United States. Individual scientists draft segments of these books, but reviewing the final product is sometimes left to multicultural committees who have no expertise in science.

"Thousands of teachers are saddled with error-filled physical science textbooks," wrote John Hubisz, a physics professor at North Carolina State University at Raleigh and the author of the report. "Political correctness is often more important than scientific accuracy. Middle-school text publishers now employ more people to censor books than they do to check facts."

The aim of President Bill Clinton's Goals 2000 project, enacted nine years ago, was to make American students first in science literacy. It didn't happen. A study by the National Assessment governing board in 2000 found that only 12 percent of graduating seniors were proficient in science. International surveys continue to show that American high school seniors rank 19th among seniors surveyed in 21 countries.

Members of the scientific elite are occasionally heard blaming religion for the sorry state of science education. But it isn't priests, rabbis, or mullahs who write the textbooks that misrepresent evolution, condescend to disadvantaged groups, misstate key concepts of physics, show the equator running through the United States, and come close to excising white males from the history of science. Young Americans need to learn science, and they need to distinguish it clearly from Algonquin myth.

Pamela R. Winnick is an attorney and journalist based in Pittsburgh. Her book A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion is due out later this year.