Editor's Introduction -- In a vicious passage that ostensibly
alerts students to some of the dangers of smoking, the writers of the
schoolbook Holt Health play on vulgar superstitions and
reinforce irrational fears of the word chemical.
This article appeared in the "Editor's
in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1994.
William J. BennettaThere are good reasons for alerting students to the dangers of smoking, and there are valid ways to do this. There are also, however, some approaches that are not valid and are never acceptable. One such approach can be seen in the high-school textbook Holt Health, issued by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Holt's writers mislead the student, play on vulgar superstitions about chemistry, and reinforce irrational fears of the very word chemical.
"Cigarette smoke," the writers declare, "is a collection (sic) of more than 4,000 chemicals." (So what? A similar statement can be made about a club sandwich or about the student himself.) "Cigarette smoke contains methanol . . . . Taken in sufficient amounts, methanol can cause blindness." (So what? Smoking obviously does not deliver "sufficient amounts," for there is no correlation between smoking and blindness.) "Cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve dead frogs for biology class." (So what? The writers evidently want the student to believe that formaldehyde is evil because it can be associated with dead animals. But common salt, too, is used for preserving dead animals. And so is isopropyl alcohol -- a chemical which, in some of its other applications, serves benignly as a component of "rubbing alcohol" and skin lotions.)
There's more, but I've told enough to make my point. Holt's writers -- by dealing in specious associations, by promoting false inferences, and by treating chemical compounds as bogey-men -- ally themselves with all the talk-show quacks and food mystics whose perceptions of "chemicals" begin with ignorance and end with absurdity. The writers do a gross disservice to students and to the teachers who will have to help those students understand chemistry, physiology and the ways in which chemistry, physiology and health are related.
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.