There's no Injuns like fake Injuns

Editor's Introduction -- It's faddish nowadays for textbook-company hacks to lard their books with phony stories that glorify primitive peoples, especially Amerindians. Here is one of the dumbest Injun stories that we have seen.
This article ran in The Textbook Letter for July-August 1991.
It accompanied a review of Physical Science: The Challenge of
a middle-school book sold by D.C. Heath and Company.

Down in the Mud with Mark A. Carle

William J. Bennetta

Page 182 of Physical Science: The Challenge of Discovery has a boxed item headlined "Technology: Then and Now":

What have the Hopi and Zuni Indians known for a long time that other people are just learning today? These Native [sic] Americans have built homes with sun-dried clay called adobe. The adobe homes remain warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Today scientists at Illinois State University and Argonne National Laboratory are using the Indians' idea to help other people find a way to conserve energy. The scientists dug a 12-foot-deep pit under a house and filled it with mud. Tubing that contained antifreeze was placed throughout the pit. In the winter, they found that the antifreeze was able to reduce the rate at which the mud in the pit froze. In the summer, the melting mud helped to cool the house. The scientists think their mud pit could cut summer cooling costs by 90 percent in the Northeast, Midwest, and other areas of the United States that freeze during the winter. Their idea is not new, but their ability to apply technology in a new way may be helpful in the future!

We could not understand any of it. What was that first paragraph about? Did it mean that, until today, only Indians have known how to build houses with sun-dried clay that bore a particular Spanish name (adobe)? Or did it mean that, until today, only Indians have known how to build houses with sun-dried clay, no matter what the sun-dried clay may have been called? Did Heath's writers not know that construction with unbaked clay has been practiced in every part of the world where rainfall is scant and summers are hot?

As for the second paragraph: We could not discern what really was going on in the mud-filled pit, but it seemed to involve storing and then recovering energy as the water in the mud alternately froze and thawed. In other words, it seemed to exploit water's high heat of fusion. But what did this have to do with Indians or with houses made from sun-dried clay? The temperature-moderating effects of dried clay proceed from its low thermal conductivity, not from any changes in state. Besides blurring some simple physics, Heath's baffling analogy appeared to patronize the Indians: They seemed to have been dragged into the story for no reason except to supply a clever-aborigines anecdote that Heath's writers presumably found amusing.

On 3 July we sent a query, by certified mail, to Mark A. Carle, the first of three authors listed on the title page of Heath's book. (Carle is identified there as "Director of Curriculum Development, Science Department Chairperson, University School, Hunting Valley, OH.") We asked him to clarify the first paragraph of the item in question, to send copies or full citations of the technological and historical literature on which that paragraph was based, and to send copies or full citations of the technical literature from which the mud-pit story was derived.

We sent our inquiry again, by certified mail, on 29 July. At this writing, we have not received any reply. We still do not understand the mud-pit story, and we are unable to cite any reason for thinking that it has a basis in fact.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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