from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1995

Addison-Wesley Extends the Quack Attack

An Addison-Wesley "science" text appears to mark a new phase in the business of using schoolbooks for peddling quackery. Educators should take a firm stand against this vice.

William J. Bennetta

Seemingly innumerable reports have informed us that science education in the United States has sunk to a sorry state, and seemingly innumerable essays have told us what we can do to rescue it and to keep it from degenerating further. I hesitate to add to the stack of recommendations and prescriptions that already have been brought forward, but I'm going to do it anyway. I think that my suggestion has some special merit because educators can implement it instantly and easily, at no cost whatsoever. Here it is:
If an Addison-Wesley salesman tries to sell you a life-science book called Science Insights: Exploring Living Things, send him packing. Tell him to take his trash elsewhere. Tell him to hit the road, and tell him not to come back. Tell him that you value educational integrity even if Addison-Wesley doesn't.

In most respects, Exploring Living Things is just conventional junk. In most respects, it is merely another life-science text that "covers" the customary, huge array of topics by reducing them to the customary mush. One aspect of Exploring Living Things, however, merits special and immediate attention: This text appears to mark a new phase in the business of using schoolbooks for the direct and explicit promotion of quackery.

Such promotion has already become conspicuous in the "health" textbooks sold by some publishers, but (as far as I know) it has not been seen heretofore in a "science" book. Addison-Wesley evidently hopes to use Exploring Living Things to break some new ground. The company is trying to inject quackery into science classrooms and is trying to induce science students to accept quackish superstitions -- and in so doing, the company is directly attacking science education.

The endorsement of quackery in Exploring Living Things takes the form of a feature article that occupies half of page 527. That is not much space, but it is all the space that the writers need to renounce rationality, to renounce science, and to renounce fundamental scientific findings about the chemistry and energetics of living things, about human physiology, and about the etiology of human diseases. The article appears under the label "Historical Notebook," and that label is itself deceptive; the only "history" in the article consists of vague, misleading claims about magic. Here is the article, in full, followed by my comments. The numerals shown in square brackets, within the article, refer to the comments:

Hospitals, X-rays, blood tests, and miracle drugs have been around for only a short time. Not too long ago, people cured illness and disease differently than we do today.[1] They obtained medications from flowers, grasses, seeds, roots, and animals. They also thought of illness much differently. They believed it was caused by some sort of imbalance. This kind of medicine, often called traditional medicine, is still practiced today[2] by many people around the world.[3] The Chinese developed very complex and effective ways of healing beginning thousands of years ago.[4] The goal in Chinese medicine is to restore the body's balance of vital energy, called Qi (CHEE).[5] Imbalances in Qi are corrected[6] with methods such as acupuncture[7], shown at right.[8] Native Americans [sic] also have a long history of traditional healing practices. In addition to herbs, they use chanting and rituals to help create the conditions under which the sick can become well.[9] Today traditional medicine is being studied by modern doctors. They have seen that traditional healing can sometimes work when modern medicine can't.[10]

  1. Neglecting the dubious grammar, I notice a lack of specifics. Who were these "people," and just what kinds of "illness and disease" were "cured"? And who are "we"?

  2. Then why were the preceding three sentences cast in the past tense?

  3. Yes indeed. "Traditional medicine" is still practiced by many people around the world -- wherever people are too ignorant or too poor to seek or apply scientific methods for the prevention and curing of disease. This is the secret that peddlers of aboriginal quackery never disclose. Throughout the world, members of the educated elites rely on scientific medicine. "Traditional" nonsense is left to the deprived, the ignorant and the superstitious.

  4. Just what were these wonderful "ways of healing"? Why don't the writers name and describe some?

  5. The writers are now directly denying science and are dispensing swill. There has never been any evidence to support the notion of "vital energy" (also known as "the life force"), but there is an overwhelming body of knowledge -- including all we know about organic chemistry and molecular biology -- to refute it. Belief in "vital energy" is a relic of an old superstition called vitalism, and the Chinese rituals that involve "vital energy, called Qi" are nothing but moldy magic. For more about this, see my article "Leading Students into the Clutches of Quacks," in TTL for July-August 1994.

  6. Since there is no Qi, there are no "imbalances in Qi" -- and the claim that Qi imbalances "are corrected" is absurd. If the writers have looked into the subject they supposedly are describing, they know that what they are telling the student is bogus.

  7. "Acupuncture"? What is that? Why do the writers not disclose what they are talking about?

  8. The phrase "shown at right" refers to a photograph which shows somebody's face and a hand that is holding something. There is no caption (or anything else) to explain the photo or to tell what it signifies. This sort of obscurity is common in the promotion of quackery.

  9. That Indian stuff is so obscure and vapid that it is beneath contempt. It looks like the work of Addison-Wesley's pal Chief Thunderbottom. (See "Chief Thunderbottom, the Panderer's Friend," in TTL, November-December 1994.)

  10. That is a dramatic claim indeed. Why do the writers refuse to support it with any explication or with even one example?


I consider it obvious that Addison-Wesley's article will badly deceive any student who reads it and believes what it says or implies. I also consider it obvious that deception is the article's purpose.

In principle, I know, the endorsement of Qi nonsense and vitalism could be explained by assuming that Addison-Wesley's writers are just ignorant and stupid. But I can't see how stupidity could account for the evidently calculated murkiness and evasiveness that pervade the article as a whole. The article's continual obscurity seems actually to bespeak a kind of cleverness -- a kind that I often have seen in other writings that promote quackery. For my part, I conclude that Addison-Wesley's writers are engaging in deliberate trickery. I won't speculate about how or why they were induced to do so.

Some readers will question my recommendation that they should summarily reject Exploring Living Things (and should tell Addison-Wesley's salesmen to get lost) just because this book has one article that endorses superstition. To those readers I say: If you don't take a clear and emphatic stand against this vice right now, then when will you do so? Will you wait until other publishers have followed Addison-Wesley's lead and have larded their "science" textbooks with magic? Will you wait until you see "science" books that plug astrology and homeopathy and "colon hygiene" and dowsing? Will you wait until all the "science" books are full of gushy sidebars about the wonders of garlic pills and enchanted water and perpetual-motion machines and "psychic" veterinarians and bleeding statues of the Virgin Mary?

I assert that the time to take a stand is today. If an Addison-Wesley salesman comes your way, tell him to keep traveling. You'll be doing something important for science education.

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 frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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