from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1997

Reviewing a middle-school book in physical science

Merrill Physical Science
1995. 742 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-826953-5.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Next Time, Glencoe Should Try
to Get Some Real Authors

Lawrence S. Lerner

When I reviewed the 1993 version of Merrill Physical Science, I made some inferences about the book's history. It seemed to me that a satisfactory and sometimes good manuscript, which might have been turned into a superior product, had been mishandled and severely degraded. The book was riddled with scientific errors and sloppily written statements that should have been corrected during editing, and I concluded that Glencoe had used editors who knew nothing about science and little about writing. The editors' main activity, it seemed, had been to load the book with auxiliary items, including numerous foolish, pious, and irrelevant sidebars. [See The Textbook Letter, July-August 1993, page 6.]

I concluded my review of the 1993 book by warning that any teacher who tried to use Merrill Physical Science would have a lot of work to do:

The teacher must carefully read ahead, identify errors, distribute written corrections to the students, and create replacements for the activities and end-of-chapter problems that are nonsensical. The teacher should also advise students to ignore the auxiliary items entirely, and should reinforce that advice by analyzing a few sidebars and telling why they are absurd. In fact, Merrill's book can be useful in teaching a cardinal principal of critical thinking: Don't believe everything that you read in books. I hope that the next edition of Merrill Physical Science will be heavily revised and corrected.

Now I have read that next edition, dated in 1995, and I have both some good news and some bad news to report. I also have a puzzle to present, concerning the book's "authors."

Even in its 1993 version, Merrill Physical Science was a book whose origins were clouded in mystery. The first printing of the 1993 version listed four "authors" -- Richard G. Smith, Jack T. Ballinger, John D. McGervey and Marilyn Thompson -- along with seven "consultants." But when Glencoe issued a second printing, which was practically identical to the first, the lists were revised. Smith, Ballinger and Thompson remained as "authors," but McGervey was demoted to the rank of consultant, and more "consultants" were added for good measure. These changes were obviously specious, since the book itself was the same product that it had been before.

Now, in the 1995 version, Glencoe has done some more switching and swapping. Ballinger has disappeared, and Glencoe now claims that the "authors" of Merrill Physical Science are Marilyn Thompson, Charles W. McLaughlin and Richard G. Smith. In the 1993 version, McLaughlin was merely one of the "consultants" who allegedly contributed "special features." Now he is an "author" and he even outranks poor Smith, who has fallen from first to last on the "authors" list.

This game of musical chairs is puzzling, and it compels me to ask: What does the term "author" mean in Glencoe's lexicon? Clearly, a change in the list of "authors" displayed in a Glencoe book does not signify that the book has undergone a major rewriting. In the large, the 1995 version of Merrill Physical Science is just a revised printing of the 1993. The revisions include the correction of some typographical and scientific errors, the deletion of some of the stupidest sidebars, the retitling of some others, and the replacement of some figures.

Spotty, Inadequate Fixes

I have the impression that the Glencoe people saw my review of the 1993 version but chose to ignore my message that it needed to be thoroughly overhauled.

When I examined the 1993, I found and catalogued more than 150 scientific errors, including errors of fact, contradictions, and items that simply did not make sense. I couldn't list them all in my review of the 1993 book, but I did cite 55 of them.

Looking at the 1995 version, I see that Glencoe has corrected, or has tried to correct, 36 of those 55 -- about 65%. Of the others (i.e., the 100-plus mistakes that I didn't cite in my review), Glencoe has fixed only 25 or so -- some 25%. To me, this bespeaks a reprehensible attitude. Instead of putting Merrill Physical Science through a process of thorough checking and rewriting, which the book so clearly required, the Glencoe people evidently tried to get away with merely fixing some errors that had been brought to their attention and could be corrected easily. The editors seem to have been concerned with merely satisfying certain complaints -- some of mine, some that presumably were lodged by others -- instead of producing a new version that would be scientifically and pedagogically sound.

The 1995 book is slightly improved, to the extent that Glencoe has made those fixes, but it retains so many errors and absurdities that it forces the teacher to bear the same burden that was imposed by the 1993 version. The teacher still must read ahead, identify errors, distribute errata sheets to students, and make on-the-spot substitutions of real science for Glencoe nonsense.

Will Glencoe produce yet another version of Merrill Physical Science? If so, I have a suggestion: How about turning this book over to some authors -- authors in the universally accepted meaning of that term -- who can attain respectable levels of accuracy and good sense?

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties are condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education.


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