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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1997.

Delivering a Double-Whammy

William J. Bennetta

Let's review. In a scientific context, the word theory denotes an explanatory principle that has been tested and confirmed; a scientific theory is a structure of ideas, supported by preponderant evidence, that explains a body of observations and thus explains some aspect of nature. Yet many textbook-writers seem to delight in misleading students by applying theory to any notion about anything. Here is an example, set in a context of biogeography, that I've noticed in Exploring American History, a high-school book published by Globe Book Company:

Some Europeans looked to ancient peoples of the Middle East to explain the ancestors (AN-ses-turz) of the first Americans. . . . [Some] believed that the first Americans were ancient Hebrews from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This theory is accepted by a religious group in America known as the Mormons.

That's a double-whammy, doubly wrong.

For one thing, the Mormons' claims about migrations of Old World peoples into the New World do not constitute a "theory." They are not supported by evidence, and they do not explain any observations. They are ideas derived from The Book of Mormon, a religious tract that was issued in 1830 by the Mormons' first leader, Joseph Smith.

For another, the notion that ancient Hebrews were the first humans to reach the New World is not "accepted" by the Mormon "religious group." Some individual Mormons may favor it, and some Mormons may claim that all Amerindians are descendants of Hebrew progenitors, but such beliefs are not articles of Mormon doctrine. My information about these points has come from Stewart Reid, a doctrinal specialist on the public-information staff at the Mormons' headquarters in Salt Lake City.

In The Book of Mormon, Reid told me, Joseph Smith wrote about populations called the Jaredites and the Nephites. The Jaredites purportedly came into the New World from the Middle East more than 4,000 years ago. The Nephites were a later group that supposedly lived here from about 600 BC to AD 400 or so.

"As to whether these were the first inhabitants," Reid said, "we don't have a position on that. Our scripture does not try to account for any other people who may have lived in the New World before, during or after the days of the Jaredites and the Nephites, and we don't have any official doctrine about who the descendants of the Nephites and the Jaredites are. Many Mormons believe that American Indians are descendants of the Lamanites [a division of the Nephites], but that's not in the scripture."


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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