from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1993
Reviewing a middle-school book in life science
Merrill Life Science
1993. 714 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-675-16760-4.
Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company,
936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081. (Macmillan/McGraw-Hill
is owned jointly by Macmillan, Inc., and by McGraw-Hill Inc.)
This Ignorant, Shoddy Book
Deserves Only to Be Junked
Ellen C. Weaver
I began my examination of Merrill Life Science by browsing to
get an idea of the book's emphasis and scope, and I immediately
found obvious, alarming defects. A more thorough reading confirmed
my first impressions and led me to conclude that this book should
not be used in any school.
The book's text contains innumerable statements, presented as
facts, that are simply untrue. The writing is so badly loaded with
non sequiturs and contradictions that any teacher or student who has
a sense of logic will be driven up the wall. Illustrations and
their legends are frequently meaningless. The passages about some
important aspects of human biology and health are not only wrong but
quite irresponsible. The false display of concern for
environmental matters is intellectually destructive, for Merrill's
writers repeatedly encourage the student to form an opinion while
having little or no information. And the writers show a
condescending attitude toward Hispanic women -- which is, for me,
the last straw.
Merrill's treatment of health issues has grave errors of both
commission and omission. Because middle-school students are
entering or experiencing puberty, and because many of them are
starting to take athletics seriously, they are likely to be
strongly aware of their own bodies and interested in how those
bodies work. A middle-school course in life science, then,
provides a valuable opportunity to furnish students with biomedical
information that will be useful to them throughout their lives.
Merrill Life Science squanders this opportunity and furnishes
students with dangerous nonsense. Look at the section titled
"Alcohol," on page 584:
Unlike many drugs, alcohol does not affect the nervous system
directly. Most of it is absorbed through the walls of the stomach
and small intestine. It enters the circulatory system undigested.
Therefore, all body tissues are exposed to it directly. Alcohol is
a depressant, slowing down the central nervous system.
A logical student will immediately see the contradictions in those
statements. How can the student respect any part of a textbook that
says such things?
The Merrill writers continue:
Large amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream dull the senses and
cause the drinker to have a slower reaction time, lose
coordination, and have slurred speech. . . .
Most states have laws that define the legal limit of the amount of
alcohol allowed in the blood for a driver. Because a small amount
of alcohol can cause abnormal behavior and loss of judgment, just a
few drinks can cause a driver to be legally "under the influence."
For example, two 2-ounce drinks of whiskey or five bottles of beer
may be enough for a person to be arrested as a drunk driver.
To me, the writers' use of "amount" instead of concentration
indicates that they lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the topic.
So does their use of idle terms such as "large amounts" or "small
amount," in place of quantitative information. So does their
failure to grasp that the effects of ingesting any quantity of
alcohol depend on the drinker's weight and on the speed of
ingestion. And how will adolescents interpret the evasive statement
that four ounces of whiskey or five bottles of beer "may" make a
person a drunk driver? I'm sure they will take it to mean that
drinking five bottles of beer and then trying to drive "may" be
perilous or "may" be quite alright! In reality, four ounces of
whiskey or five bottles of beer, especially if taken quickly or on
an empty stomach, will render almost any minor dangerously drunk.
(In California, an adolescent driver is defined as drunk if his
blood-alcohol concentration exceeds 0.05%. According to a chart
published by California's Department of Motor Vehicles, a person
who weighs between 90 and 129 pounds will show a concentration of
0.05%, or more, for at least an hour after taking 12 ounces of beer
or 1.25 ounces of 80-proof liquor. If a minor in that condition
drives a car, the minor "definitely" will be deemed to be driving
under the influence of alcohol, the Department says.)
Finally, I point out that Merrill's passage about alcohol says
nothing about the special dangers that alcohol presents if it is
drunk by a woman who is pregnant. There is no acknowledgment of
fetal alcohol syndrome.
The section on "Tobacco" is hardly better, and I am appalled by the
writers' notion that passive smoke (smoke that reaches us from
someone else's cigarette, cigar or pipe) "contains more tar,
nicotine, carbon monoxide and other chemicals than that inhaled by
the smoker." This is patently false, since passive smoke has been
diluted with air. I note, too, that the writers say nothing about
tobacco-chewing, a dangerous custom that is popular among some
The section on human nutrition has some real boners. The text
about carbohydrates, for example, is confused and misleading,
partly because the writers evidently think that humans can digest
cellulose. Later on, they declare that beef, pork, fish, chicken
and nuts contain only "some" of the essential amino acids.
Nonsense! All of those foods have the full complement, though nuts
are poor (but not entirely lacking) in methionine.
The writers also deal in obscurity. On page 443 they cite "grains"
as good sources of protein, but they show a picture of amaranth, a
plant that has almost no dietary significance in North America and
will be unknown to students. (Why not show wheat or maize?) A note
in the margin of page 444 says: "Cultures that drink blood as a part
of their diet supply some of their nutritional needs for sodium,
protein, and iron." The phrase "cultures that drink blood" is
ridiculous -- some animals, including some humans, drink blood, but
cultures don't drink anything. In any case, the note will be
meaningless to students who don't already know about the use of
blood as food. Instead of citing an example (say, the consumption
of cow's blood by the Masai, in Africa) the writers leave the
student to wonder what is going on.
The topic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is muddled,
obscured and trivialized. The book's index makes no reference to
STDs or to sex itself. In the text, a passage on "Sexually
Transmitted Diseases" (pages 561 and 562) refers twice to "having
sex" but does not suggest what that means, and it says nothing about
techniques by which the risk of acquiring STDs can be lessened.
[Editor's note: Merrill's penchant for endangering students' lives
by withholding information about the prevention of STDs has been
noted before. See the reviews of Merrill Health in
TTL for March-April 1992.]
The features that I have found in the treatment of human biology --
obscurity, vagueness, ignorance and absurdity -- run through the
whole book. For example:
- On page 54: "Energy in the universe is wrapped up in bonds that
hold atoms together. When fireflies blink and shine in the dark,
they release some of that energy . . . ." Nonsense! Only a
minuscule fraction of the energy in the universe has anything to do
with chemical bonding. Do these writers really think that stars run
on chemical reactions, or that energy travels from the Sun to Earth
as a torrent of compounds?
- Page 56: "Inorganic compounds are made from elements other than
carbon." False. Carbon appears in many inorganics, including some
that have great biological importance.
- Page 56: "Organic compounds make up some foods and membranes in
cells." The writers have hedged and have tried to hide their
ignorance by saying "some." (The logical student asks: If only
"some" foods and membranes are made of organics, what are the rest
- On page 80 the writers guess that the growth of grass roots
represents asexual reproduction! Then, on page 81 they say: "Some
organisms produce new organisms through regeneration. During
regeneration, a new organism grows from a piece of the parent
organism." But the adjacent illustration shows a gecko growing a
new tail, and the caption says: "Some animals produce whole new body
parts by regeneration. A gecko can replace a lost tail by
regeneration." (Merrill's writers have confused regeneration with
reproduction, and the student has good reason wonder: Exactly what
is regeneration? Is it the production of a new organism, or
is it the regrowing of a body part?)
- The "Technology" box on page 89 is more guesswork. The writers
imagine that the commercial fermentation of sugars to produce
ethanol is new and depends on "recombinant DNA technology."
- Page 193: "A saprophyte is any organism that uses dead material
as a food and energy source." (The logical student asks: Is a
human, then, a saprophyte?)
As if double-talk, false "facts" and errors of logic were not
enough, the writers mislead the student by promoting anthropocentric
notions that are alien to science. On page 184 they ask whether
there are any "good" viruses, and on page 145 they urge the student
to assign moral values to natural occurrences: "Why is extinction
not always a bad event?"
The section on biological classification is the same old nonsense.
The account of binomial nomenclature is wrong, and the account of
how organisms are classified is ridiculous. The writers lead the
student to believe that classification is a matter of mere
convenience and is done so that scientists can "find" organisms.
The same notion recurs in a silly exercise that compares
classification to the sorting of shoes.
The exercises and activities in Merrill's book are as ignorant as
the text. For example: The activity on page 68, "Photosynthesis
and Respiration," is a meaningless show involving bromthymol blue,
sodium bicarbonate, Elodea and light. The writers have no
idea of what is going on, and they demonstrate this by their false
statement that "Sodium bicarbonate releases carbon dioxide when
mixed with water." They seem to hope that bromthymol blue will
indicate "the presence of an acid." But what does this have to do
with photosynthesis? And what is an acid? And what
is bromthymol blue? The writers evidently don't know. This
"activity" is simply a magic trick, with no scientific content at
all. (The writers like it so much that they repeat it, in slightly
different form, in the "MINI-Lab" on page 278. It is just as
nonsensical there as it was on page 68.)
That the writers do not understand laboratory work is shown clearly
in the "Skill Handbook" at the back of the book. Under
"Experimentation Skills," they pretend to outline a controlled
experiment, but what they describe is no such thing (and is
virtually impossible to perform).
Some text pages are decorated with features that are totally
baffling. They ask the student to answer questions, but they give
little or no information on which reasonable answers might be based.
On page 64, for example, a "Technology" box asks: "What is the
advantage of bacterial plastics over plastic-cornstarch mixtures?"
The box gives no information about the characteristics of those
materials, so the student can only invent a fantasy that has nothing
to do with the real world. And once again, this "science" text
promotes a practice that is alien and hostile to science.
That "Technology" box exemplifies how the writers handle
environmental matters in general: They urge the student to form
opinions in the absence of information. This brainless approach
recurs in various "Science and Society" features that start with
the command "You Decide!" Without having anything that even
resembles respectable information, the student must invent
categorical judgments about hugely complicated questions, deciding
(for example) whether all states should be required to develop
recycling programs, or whether we should discontinue all use of
pesticides. So the student learns to substitute ignorance and sham
for knowledge and reason!
Lastly, I deplore the "Science and Art" feature on page 669, about a
painting by a woman whose last name is given as both "Garzas" and
"Garza." The writers say she "inherited" her talent from her
grandmother and mother, but they cite no reason for imagining that
artistic ability is transmitted genetically, nor do they allow the
possibility that she might have had good teachers or might have had
to work to develop her skill. Instead, they patronize her in a
sentence that strikes me as insufferably condescending: "Choosing
this career was a challenge to the traditional role most Hispanic
women follow." I am outraged!
Merrill Life Science shows such serious faults, and so many
of them, that it deserves only to be junked.
A Glitzy, Mindless Book
That Glorifies Ignorance
William J. Bennetta
In The Textbook Letter for November-December 1991, I
undertook the repellent task of reviewing Biology: The Dynamics
of Life, a gaudy mess that the Merrill Publishing Company has
been trying to pass off as a high-school biology text. In my
review, I suggested that Merrill had not even tried to produce
something that could be useful to students. Instead, I inferred,
the company had sought to concoct an item that, by its sheer
glitziness, would impress those gullible educators who "evaluate" a
book by flipping through it for a minute or two, glancing at
pictures and headlines.
I now make the same judgment about Merrill Life Science. I
regard this book as nothing but flashy trash, and I think that
anyone who actually reads it will arrive at a similar opinion. The
book's only evident function, as far as I can see, is to get fools
to part with their money.
The big theme of Merrill Life Science is ignorance.
Ignorance pervades the text, and it is assiduously promoted
in a series of special features whose message will be quite clear, I
think, to any student: Knowledge counts for nothing, and learning is
a needless chore. I'll tell more about those features later.
This book's content, if we may call it that, is dominated by
superstitions, by statements that make no sense at all, and by wild
guesses -- "facts" that the writers have simply dreamed up. These
writers continuously demonstrate that their knowledge of science is
Read chapter 15, for example. Even its silly title, "Cold-Blooded
Vertebrates," doesn't prepare us for the chapter itself, in which
the writers evidently have mixed garbled hearsay with outright
fiction. At one point, they invent the notion that all the "ancient
reptiles" died off, and that the "modern reptiles" constitute a
different, mysterious group that "probably descended from similar
amphibian ancestors." I was so disgusted by that rubbish (and by
other, similar stuff) that I asked a professional biologist to write
an analysis of the whole chapter. His article, exposing Merrill's
nonsense for what it is, will appear soon in The Textbook
Now look at chapter 23, where the writers ask: "What do you think
are the odds of a family having all boys or all girls? What do you
think is the proportion of boys to girls among children born in the
general population?" They then tell the student to "find out" the
sex ratio among newborns: "Take a penny and toss it in the air.
There is an equal chance that it will land heads or tails. Toss the
penny a hundred times and keep a record . . . ."
I needn't point out, to anyone who has any scientific sense, that
this pastime may tell something about a coin but can tell nothing
about babies. The only way to discover the sex ratio among newborn
humans is to look at newborn humans. (When we do this, we
find 106 males per 100 females.) Besides teaching students that a
silly game can be substituted for the observing of nature, Merrill's
writers show that they do not understand the concept of probability.
Their statement about "an equal chance" is just stupid.
Merrill Life Science is full of colorful pictures, but many
of these are worthless: They are erroneous, incomprehensible or
unrelated to the text, or they have weird captions that seem
irrelevant to what is being shown. Some pictures portray organisms
in garish false colors, for no evident reason but to make the book
glitzier -- the captions don't disclose that the colors are false.
More glitz is supplied by features and sidebars, which often are
mindless. My favorites include the bogus "MINI-Lab" items on pages
241, 278 and 353, and an "EcoTip" on page 449: "Eat lower on the
food chain by consuming more vegetables and fruits." (What is a
food chain? The writers haven't said. And even if the student knew
what a food chain was, why would he want to "eat lower" on one? I
give up.) The feature-writers reach their heights, however, in
their series of "Science and Society" items. These don't merely
dispense ignorance -- they glorify it.
Each "Science and Society" feature asks the student for an opinion
about some real or bogus issue. In various cases, the issues have
no scientific aspect at all. On page 47, for example, the student
must say whether it is "right" to sell human organs. That is a
purely moral question, and any answer to it will be arbitrary. No
question of right or wrong can be answered by observing nature.
Here and elsewhere, the writers brutally mislead the student by
misrepresenting the nature and province of science.
And then there are the "Science and Society" items that trade in
plain falsity, as on page 361:
Many environmentalists believe that the clear-cutting of forests
in the northwestern United States is too destructive to be
continued. . . . However, many people depend on logging to support
their families. Without the logging industry, the economy of many
areas would be ruined. What do you think the answer to this problem
So the issue is framed as if the only options were to log by
clear-cutting or to abolish "the logging industry." Rubbish!
The worst aspect of the "Science and Society" features is that they
train the student to take positions without knowing anything.
Merrill's writers never provide the information that would enable
the student to formulate a rational judgment. The idea of having or
seeking knowledge before announcing a conclusion is scorned.
This is the glorification of ignorance. The writers deliver their
message to the student again and again: You don't have to know; you
just have to bray.
Educators should do their best to protect students from Merrill
Ellen C. Weaver is a professor of biological sciences, emerita,
from San Jose State University. Her scientific specialties are
plant physiology and the application of remote sensing to the
oceans. She has served as an advisor to the National Academy of
Sciences and as the president of the Association for Women in
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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