Nonsense by the numbers

Editor's Introduction -- When they pretend to describe how slavery flourished in the New World, the writers of Prentice Hall's World Cultures use all of the major distortions, misrepresentations and fictions that are commonly printed in schoolbooks. But these Prentice Hall writers also try something new: They further mislead the student by dispensing some numerical flapdoodle.
This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1993.

A Nasty Bit of Fake Demography

William J. Bennetta

Prentice Hall's World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, dated in 1993, is being sold as a high-school social-studies book. It seems to be intended chiefly for use in the State of New York, where a syllabus issued by the State Education Department says that students in grades 9 and 10 should take a "global studies" course dealing with "other nations and their cultures." The opening pages of World Cultures list thirty "authors," "area specialists," "multicultural reviewers" and "teacher reviewers," of whom sixteen are identified as New Yorkers.

Despite its title, World Cultures says little about cultures or cultural phenomena, and it makes me wonder whether the Prentice Hall writers ever tried to find out what cultures are, how cultures are studied, or what the word culture signifies. The text seems to consist largely of snippets from older geography books and world-history books -- hastily patched together, ornamented with some "cultural" factoids and stereotypes, and trimmed to fit the writers' ideological fixations, racial obsessions and ethnic animosities. In various cases (such as the book's quick, crude, cavalier dismissal of all the peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia) the writers seem to have given free rein to some virulent prejudices.

The historical stuff in World Cultures includes various wrong or misleading items that are depressingly familiar, but the book also has a few twists that appear to be new. One of these, occurring in the writers' treatment of the Atlantic slave trade and the use of African slaves in the New World, seems especially nasty.

As a whole, the depiction of slavery in World Cultures is trite and uninformed, displaying all of the major distortions, misrepresentations and fictions that schoolbooks commonly dispense. [See "How Textbooks Obscure and Distort the History of Slavery" in TTL for November-December 1992.] Prentice Hall's writers, however, have augmented these with a bit of fake demography, stuck into a chapter about Latin America:

. . . European and Arab slave traders sent millions of Africans to the Americas. Many Africans died during the terrible voyage across the Atlantic. Others died from overwork, poor food, and unhealthy living conditions. As late as 1850, a slave in Brazil could be expected to live for about 35 years. As a result, the demand for slaves continued.

So a Brazilian slave, in 1850, "could be expected to live for about 35 years." According to whom? Where did Prentice Hall's writers get that number? They don't cite any source, but I know that their claim isn't based on census reports: Brazil's first census wasn't conducted until the 1870s. What evidence, if any, supports the writers' statement?

More importantly, what does the statement mean? What does it mean to say that a slave "could be expected to live for about 35 years"? Does that claim refer to an imported slave? If so, does it mean that an imported slave typically lived to the age of 35, or does it mean that a slave typically lived for 35 years after arriving in Brazil? Or does it refer to a slave who, rather than being imported, was born into slavery in Brazil? Was 35 years the life expectancy for a slave of that sort?

The writers' statement is, in truth, meaningless -- and not merely because it is vague and silly. Even if the writers were competent and had explained the phrase "live for about 35 years," their claim still would have no meaning, because they haven't furnished any statistical context for it. They haven't cited a life expectancy for Brazilian freemen or for any other group of people who lived in the middle of the 19th century. The writers thus invite the student to reach a conclusion that is quite wrong. Consciously or unconsciously, the student compares "about 35 years" with the life expectancy that prevails in the society that he knows best: the United States of the 1990s. He may not be able to recite current demographic statistics as such, but he surely knows that, in his experience, people typically live for much longer than 35 years, and he therefore infers that those slaves in Brazil died young -- that their lives were notably short. The student, however, has been misled.

Please look at the table below, which summarizes information given in legitimate historical and demographic publications. By using that information, we can put Prentice Hall's statement (as squishy as it is) into some kind of perspective. Assume first that Prentice Hall's writers mean that "about 35 years" was the life expectancy, at birth, for a slave who was born in Brazil. If that was the case, then the slave's situation was hardly unusual. As the table shows, life expectancies of about 35 years prevailed (among males, at least) in many mid-19th-century populations, even in middle-latitude countries that enjoyed relatively high standards of health.

Alternatively, assume that the Prentice Hall writers are referring to an imported slave, and that such a slave "could be expected to live for about 35 years" after reaching Brazil. If the slave was 15 years old when he arrived, he could be expected to die at the age of 50 or so -- and dying at 50 (or sooner) was by no means unusual in those days.

Finally, notice that the writers are dispensing outright nonsense when they say that a slave's life expectancy explains why "the demand for slaves continued." If the Brazilian slave system in the 1800s operated in steady state (so the size of the slave population was kept constant), and if the number of slaves who died each year was x, how many new slaves would have been needed each year? The answer obviously is x -- and we can give that answer without knowing whether a slave typically died at 30, 40, 50 or any other age. In other words, the requirement for replacements was independent of life expectancy. Such reasoning, of course, is not limited to cases involving Brazilian slaves. It applies to all populations, and it reflects a principle that is fundamental to demography and population biology.

At best, Prentice Hall's writers don't know what they are writing about. At worst, it seems to me, they are panderers who invent emotional claptrap instead of seeking to inform the student.

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.


In the years since this article was published, Prentice Hall's claptrap about "a slave in Brazil" has been reprinted, word for word, in at least three later versions of World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. (These later versions are dated in 1996, 1999 and 2001). Prentice Hall is a crooked company that reprints fake "information" again and again, even after the fakery has been exposed.


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