Big blunders found in school textbooks

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

The fruits of knowledge are a hard won harvest. In the 13 years from kindergarten to college, the main occupation of a person's life is learning. Students slog their way through high school finding out that the first life on earth consisted of tiny green specks and that one of the common characteristics of all organisms is that they can move on their own.

There were the lessons about Sir Isaac Newton going up to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa to drop a ten-pound weight and a one-pound weight. This was all to show that objects of different weights still fall at the same rate.

Well, if you don't remember those lessons -- don't worry, because they're all wrong, incorrect, nonsense· Whatever you want to call them. Although, the fact that those "facts" aren't even true hasn't stopped some schoolbook publishers from including them in their texts.

The unfortunate result is that when some students thought they were boning up for college, they were really filling their heads with garbage.

Kim Chamberlain isn't that far removed from those high school days. The freshman microbiology major at Colorado State University says she remembers learning the lesson about Sir Isaac Newton as an account of factual history even though it's just a myth. Newton never climbed the leaning tower of Pisa to drop those weights.

"It reminds you that you really have to research some things. You can't take everything at face value, even if it's coming from a book," says Chamberlain.

According to members of the Text Book League, an organization that supports the creation and acceptance of sound textbooks, there are plenty of errors, misconceptions and pure poppycock that pop up in high school and even some college textbooks.

Lawrence Davis is a professor in the department of biochemistry at Kansas State University and he has also reviewed books for the Textbook League in their Textbook Letter. He says part of the reason for all the errors in these books has to do with copycat tactics used by some publishers.

"There are errors that are real conceptual errors. And some authors tend not to explore everything from scratch and they go to other books and use those same examples that are wrong. Once mistakes get in textbooks they're very hard to get out," remarks Davis.

A student can pay for these oversights in more than one way. Not only is their education perverted, but collegians can also lose out come test time.

Chamberlain has experienced this firsthand. She says, "There was a lab book that had a couple wrong statements about fungi. I can't remember exactly what it was, I just remember they told us it was something we needed to know for the test and we didn't find out until later that it was wrong."

Chamberlain says she's not sure if the professor will give students credit for the error even though they learned the erroneous material from the assigned text.

The references to tiny green specks as the first life on earth and the idea that all organisms can move on their own mentioned in the first paragraph came from Fearon's Biology, published by Globe Fearon.

In 1997 the state of Texas adopted that book as a high school text. Of course the first life on earth was microscopic and there wasn't anybody there with a microscope to make note of the color. And as far as all organisms being able to move on their own -- guess the author never heard of a tree.

According to a review by the Text Book League, Fearon's Biology also asserts that the nose controls the sense of smell (what about animals that don't have noses -- can't they smell anything?) and the biology text also offers a lesson about a famous book about a biologist named Frankenstein.

Fearon's Biology's Frankenstein lesson states, "Frankenstein pieced together the parts of dead bodies. Finally he brought a creature to life. But Frankenstein's creation was an eight-foot monster. Eventually the monster destroyed the biologist."

It may be hard for some to imagine what Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has to do with biology and it may bother others that Fearon's doesn't inform students that Frankenstein is a work of fiction.

Fearon's Biology bothered William J. Benetta. As the editor of the Textbook Letter, Benetta characterized Fearon's Biology in his review of the textbook as "a sorry, slapdash collection of hearsay, guesses and mystical drivel, all rendered in baby talk. ...This book is patently unfit for use in a high school or anywhere else. And anyone familiar with science will quickly discard Fearon's Biology as a fraud."

Fearon's is not alone in the world of textbook mistakes. Other tomes have their own serious textbook blunders.

A publication called Heath Physics, put out by the Heath Company, teaches students that when you walk, you push with your feet, but your feet do not push on you. This is untrue. Most physics majors in college know that if your feet didn't push you, you wouldn't go anywhere.

There is also some confusion in the book between the First Law of Thermodynamics and the Law of the Conservation of Energy. Now these are two distinct principles, but the book presents them as being interchangeable. Not exactly the lessons students want to be learning if they have their sights set on college.

According to the Textbook Letter, another one of Globe Fearon's books called Fearon's Global Studies, molds the future minds of America by telling them that Australia is a part of South and Southeast Asia, even though Australia is a completely separate continent.

The geography book also presents certain religious stories as if they were fact, including an account of Muhammad having a vision of the angel Gabriel.

Whether these textbooks are presenting flat out errors, or mythical stories presented as fact, many students have gone unaware that they were duped.

Carmen Hecht, a freshman art major at Kansas State University, is none too pleased to learn that some of her hard high school work may have been all for naught. If that was the case, she says, "That would definitely make me pretty upset."

Retired physics and astronomy professor for the University of Denver, Mario Iona, wrote a column for nearly ten years about errors made in physics books. He says, "Some examples are so blatant and they shouldn't be there. A respectable author and publisher -- they should know better. ·It's pretty disappointing."

There are plenty of disappointments. Take for example this passage from Fearon's World Geography and Cultures. The book states the following about an Amazonian rain forest: "It is thick with trees, vines bushes, and other plants. You can't even walk or even push your way through most of the rain forest."

Unfortunately for Fearon, they're wrong again. Most portions of a rain forest are fairly easy to walk through. The upper part of the forest, or canopy, often keeps sunlight from reaching plants at the jungle floor.

In World Geography Today, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., another lesson goes awry. The book states, "The ancient heart of Russia is the upper Volga River basin. The Russian Orthodox Church fled here after [Kiev] fell to the Mongols in 1240."

But according to a review by Paul F. Thomas, a professor of geography and education at the University of Victoria, in the Textbook Letter, that's not the case. Thomas states that there was no Russia in 1240. If there was no Russia, there couldn't have been a Russian Orthodox Church and in 1240, Kiev was the capital of Kievan Rus, which according to Thomas is a state that can't be even "equated" with Russia.

So with all these examples of textbook blunders, should students be concerned about what they're learning in college? Not really, according to Davis. He says most textbook errors are found in high school and middle school editions. "Generally speaking, at the more advanced levels in college publishing, errors are very small and very low."