from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1992

Reviewing a middle-school book in the Prentice Hall Science Series

The Nature of Science
1993. 112 pages. ISBN of tile teacher's edition: 0-13-986027-4.

This Book Is a Piece of Junk

William J. Bennetta

I've looked at about a dozen books in the Prentice Hall Science series, and I've found that some of them show some novelty. In this review, however, my task is to tell about a volume that is quite traditional. It is called The Nature of Science, and it comports with one of the more invidious traditions of the textbook business: the concocting of books in which science is described by people who lack even the dimmest apprehension of what science is or what scientists do. The products of this folly -- books so ignorant and witless that they will kill any student's attempt to learn about science -- are familiar, uniform and numerous. With the publication of The Nature of Science, their number has increased by one. This book is just another piece of junk.

The book's title is misleading at best, because only the first chapter, comprising some 30 pages, even tries to tell about the nature of science. The rest of the text consists of filler, including gee-whiz tales, laboratory-safety tips, descriptions of instruments, and some incompetent stuff about quantities and measurement.

That first chapter is titled "What is Science?" The writers evidently have no idea of the answer, for they give no sign of recognizing that science revolves around the examination of evidence and the application of reason. What is evidence? What qualifies as evidence in a scientific setting, and what does not? What do we mean by reason? These questions, which seem not to have occurred to the writers at all, must be raised during any effort to explain what science is, because the answers define the difference between science and pseudoscience, between science and quackery, between a scientific assertion about nature and an assertion based on folklore.

Besides failing to discuss the concepts of evidence and reason, the writers have failed to provide case histories that might have shown how science corrects itself -- how scientists sometimes have rejected evidence that they once had accepted, or how they have revised their understanding of nature after combining old evidence with new reasoning. This failure ensures that no student will gain any idea of what science is or how it works.

So far, I've focused on the writers' failures. Now I'll describe some of their achievements, so to speak.

One such achievement is the relentless confusion of science with technology. We learn, for example, that "science" produces computer chips, and that chemical spills are cleaned up by "scientists."

Another achievement is the presentation of a view of "science" that, I infer, has been derived from two sources. One of these is television. The writers evidently have watched a lot of science-fiction movies and pseudoscientific commercials. This may explain why they believe, apparently, that science pivots around the ostentatious use of strange, incomprehensible words. It may also explain why, in an exercise on page 37, they evidently want students to recall old movies about mad scientists in remote laboratories.

The other source of the writers' notions seems painfully obvious: Only by copying a lot of codswallop from earlier schoolbooks, I believe, could they have come up with stuff that is so profoundly stupid and so numbingly familiar. On page 14, for example, they make the usual mess as they pretend to tell what a theory is, and they manage to confuse a theory with a hypothesis. The term hypothesis doesn't show up until page 20, where the writers provide another familiar mess and show that they don't know what a hypothesis is or what properties it must have.

Along with theories and hypotheses, the writers' phony science includes "facts." Well, what are facts? The writers ignore that issue entirely, saying only this: "Here is an example of a fact: The sun is a source of light and heat." Maybe, but that fact is based directly on sensation. In science, the most important facts are usually provisional inferences that embody thought and synthesis. The writers evidently don't know this.

Even after reading all of the writers' babbling about fact, theory and hypothesis, the student will have no idea of what distinguishes science from things that are not science. Nor will he be able to see through the theatrics of quacks, astrologers, creationists and other zanies who regularly use words like fact and theory and hypothesis to dignify their worthless claims.

Needless to say, the writers strongly promote the myth that scientific work has to involve experiments. On page 13, for example: "Using facts they have gathered, scientists propose explanations for the events they observe. Then they perform experiments to test their explanations." That stale, ignorant and simple-minded formula has been peddled in schoolbooks for decades, though it is bogus. The writers' devotion to it is nowhere clearer than on page 27, where they try to deny what they have just been saying. They merely show how ignorant they really are:

Believe it or not, many scientists search for the truths of nature without ever performing experiments. . . . Charles Darwin is considered the father of the theory of evolution (how living things change over time). Much of what we know about evolution is based on Darwin's work. Yet Darwin did not perform a single experiment! He based his hypotheses and theories on his observations of the natural world. Certainly it would have been better had Darwin performed experiments to prove his theory of evolution. But as the process of evolution generally takes thousands, even millions of years, performing an experiment would be a bit too time consuming!

First, Darwin was a great experimentalist, and the statement that he "did not perform a single experiment" is false and intolerably misleading. Second, the whole passage is garbage. Its major point -- that Darwin's reconstruction of evolutionary history was somehow defective and would have been "better" if he had done experiments -- is sheer buffoonery. Historical events are unique. They are not susceptible to experiment, and the concept of experimentation doesn't apply here. We can do experiments to elucidate general "rules" that govern natural events, but we cannot do experiments on specific events that already have occurred. This is true whether the events in question took millions of years, mere days, or mere seconds.

I close by noting some items that are minor but, I believe, tell still more about Prentice Hall's writers and about how The Nature of Science was assembled:

The key word is "nitwit."

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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