SEVERAL CENTURIES AGO, some "very light-skinned" people were shipwrecked on a tropical island. After "many years under the tropical sun," this light-skinned population became "dark-skinned," says Biology: The Study of Life, a high-school textbook published in 1998 by Prentice Hall, an imprint of Pearson Education.
"Downright bizarre," says Nina Jablonski, who holds the Irvine chair of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences. Jablonski, an expert in the evolution of skin color, says it takes at least 15,000 years for skin color to evolve from black to white or vice versa. That sure is "many years." The suggestion that skin color can change in a few generations has no basis in science.
Pearson Education spokesperson Wendy Spiegel admits the error in describing the evolution of skin color, but says the teacher's manual explains the phenomenon correctly. Just why teachers are given accurate information while students are misled remains unclear.
But then there's lots that's puzzling about the science textbooks used in American classrooms. A sloppy way with facts, a preference for the politically correct over the scientifically sound, and sheer faddism characterize their content. It's as if their authors had decided above all not to expose students to the intellectual rigor that is the lifeblood of science.
Thus, a chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.
Houghton Mifflin spokesman Collin Earnst says such tales are included in order to "connect science to culture." He might more precisely have said to connect science to certain preferred, non-Western, or primitive cultures. Were a connection drawn to, say, a Bible story, the outcry would be heard around the world.
Affirmative action for women and minorities is similarly pervasive in science textbooks, to absurd effect. Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse. In the same series, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, is shown next to black scientist Lewis Latimer, who improved the light bulb by adding a carbon filament. Edison's picture is smaller.
Jews have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes in science, but readers of Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade textbooks won't get wind of that. Navajo physicist Fred Begay, however, merits half a page for his study of Navajo medicine. Albert Einstein isn't mentioned. Biologist Clifton Poodry has made no noteworthy scientific discoveries, but he was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, so his picture is shown in Glenco/McGraw-Hill's Life Science (2002), a middle-school biology textbook. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, and Nobel Laureates James Watson, Maurice H.F. Wilkins, and Francis Crick aren't named.
Addison-Wesley, another imprint of Pearson Education, is so keen on political correctness that it lists a multicultural review board of nonscientists in its Science Insights: Exploring Matter and Energy, published in 1994 but still in use. Houghton Mifflin says it overemphasizes minorities and women to "encourage" students from these groups. A spokesman for Pearson Education blames the states for demanding multiculturalism.
If it's the states that impose multiculturalism, however, they're only doing the bidding of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1995, the academy published the National Science Education Standards, which, according to academy president Bruce Alberts, "represent the best thinking . . . about what is best for our nation's students." The standards (which explicitly place religion on a par with "myth and superstition") counsel school boards to modify "assessments" for students with "limited English proficiency" by, for example, raising their scores. They tell teachers to be "sensitive" to students who are "economically deprived, female, have disabilities, or [come] from populations underrepresented in the sciences." Teachers should especially encourage "women and girls, students of color and students with disabilities."
This "best thinking" of the nation's scientific elite is being used by nearly all the 50 states as they centralize their science standards. With 22 states now requiring statewide adoption of textbooks, big-state textbook markets are the prizes for which publishers compete.
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.