Textbook Errors and Other Egregious Fallacies Taught In School

Staying on top of all your classes at school isn’t easy at the best of times. Studying, writing papers, passing tests, keeping track of all those facts and figures from five or more subjects at a time — it’s all some students can do to keep up. So how much harder must it be to manage one’s studies when faced with the added task of sorting out fact from fiction in the textbooks themselves? And yet this is a problem in textbooks and other teaching materials at all grade levels, in every subject, all over the country. Below are some of the most disgraceful examples of textbooks publishing false, misleading, and otherwise objectionable information.

Science or Guesswork?

In 2002, CNN reported on the results of a study conducted by physics professor John Hubisz to ascertain the accuracy of the information being presented in middle school science books.[1] Hubisz and a team of other professors examined dozens of textbooks and uncovered a startling amount of information that was unclear, contradictory, or blatantly incorrect. One textbook included a map that showed the Earth’s equator running through Florida and Texas, 1,500 miles north of its actual position. Another declared that humans were incapable of hearing sound below 400 hertz; in fact, the human hearing range is approximately 20-20,000 hertz.[2] A third textbook depicted the Statue of Liberty holding her torch in the wrong hand. After completing the study, Hubisz set up a website, www.science-house.org/middleschool/, where teachers can post errors they find in textbooks. But he also told CNN that while some publishers are receptive to the criticisms and willing to fix the errors, many are not.

Specious History

Some textbook errors aren’t merely inaccurate, they’re misleading and contentious. In October 2010, The Virginian Pilot reported that the book Our Virginia: Past and Present, an elementary school textbook used in schools throughout the state, contained some very uncomfortable misinformdation: a passage “claiming that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War.”[3] The error was found by Carol Sheriff, a professor at the College of William and Mary, who then pointed out that blacks weren’t allowed to serve in the Confederate army until the very end of the war. Professor Bruce Levine of the University of Illinois confirms this, saying

“Jefferson Davis barked this would ‘revolt and disgust the whole South.’ All of this stuff is easily documentable. The facts of the matter aren’t really murky.”

School officials maintained that their textbook reviewing process is typically quite reliable, and this mistake was an unfortunate but unusual exception. But many teachers and other academics, including many who have been a part of the reviewing process, disagree, saying that the sheer length of the many textbooks they have to review prohibits them from catching every error or even, in some cases, arriving at an informed decision about a given book.

It’s Not Fallacious; It’s Tradition

There is no excuse or explanation for some textbook errors (like the one that showed a picture of a compass with East and West on the wrong sides[4]), but sometimes the misinformation stems, very obviously, from the fact that the book’s author didn’t do his or her own research. There are a lot of myths floating around in the popular culture, and many of them find their way into textbooks as facts. Fearon’s Biology, a high school science book, has quite an impressive collection of myths-presented-as-science, from describing the first life on earth not as microscopic bacteria, but as “tiny green specks,”[5] to promulgating the false belief that all organisms can move on their own. Most outrageous of all, however, is the book’s lesson about “a biologist named Frankenstein.” According to Fearon’s Biology, “Frankenstein pieced together the parts of dead bodies. Finally he brought a creature to life. But Frankenstein’s creation was an eight-foot monster. Eventually the monster destroyed the biologist.”[6] It is left to the readers to discover on their own that Frankenstein is the eponymous character of Mary Shelley’s novel, and that there is no real biology to speak of in that work of fiction. But all of these ideas — tiny specks, mad scientists — are part of the popular imagination, errors that go back so far that they’ve become traditional.

Not Exactly

Science, and biology in particular, seems to be a frequent victim of flagrant misinformation in the textbook industry. Apparently no lesson plan is safe from the vague wording, bizarre leaps of logic, or downright incorrect presentation of facts. In 2005, The Weekly Standard reported: “several centuries ago, some ‘very light-skinned’ people were shipwrecked on a tropical island. After ‘many years under the tropical sun,’ this light-skinned population became ‘dark-skinned,’ says Biology: The Study of Life, a high-school textbook published in 1998 by Prentice Hall, an imprint of Pearson Education.”[7] The Standard interviewed Nina Jablonski, a professor of anthropology at the California Academy of the Sciences, who called the passage from the book “downright bizarre” and explained that it takes at least 15,000 years for the change in skin color described in the book to manifest. “Many years” may not be technically incorrect, but it is also less than scientifically precise or academically helpful. Wendy Spiegel, a spokesperson for Pearson education, admitted that the book’s depiction of evolution was misleading, but went on to assure the reporter that the teacher’s lesson guide explained the process accurately.[8] Half-right is better than entirely wrong, but it does leave one wondering if the students were held accountable when they got that question wrong on the test.

Historically Confusing

Another common problem in textbooks is that the authors have had to cater to a number of demanding, sometimes conflicting directives from state curriculum boards, while also organizing and presenting the material in a way that is as innocuous as possible. Textbook authors and publishers alike have learned hard lessons about offending ethnic, religious, or affirmative action groups or upsetting special interest organizations. As a result, factual errors in the text sometimes come about due to an overzealous process of watering down the truth to the point of losing important points of interest. For example, a review of the high school world history textbook Patterns of Interaction found that “The book’s suggestion that the Iroquois Federation was crucial to America’s founding is an example of political correctness”; that “The summary of the causes of the French Revolution is inadequate, and it is ‘ludicrous’ to say that Marie Antoinette was a major cause”; that “the description of September 11, 2001, does not ‘hint who the terrorists were, or what they were trying to accomplish,’” and that it “incorrectly describ[es] the pre-World War II emperor of Japan as ‘an absolute ruler whose divine will was law,’”[9] among other complaints. These are mistakes born not of a lack of research or understanding of the material, but of the authors’ and publishers’ fear that writing the whole truth might get them in trouble.

I Was Told There Would Be No Math

The study of mathematics is supposed to be nothing if not precise. The entire point of any mathematical equation is to get the same answer every time; consistency is what makes math the most reliable way to measure, well, everything. So when the Texas State Board of Education found a total of 109,263 errors in the math textbooks being reviewed for use in the 2008 school year, it was seen as a pretty serious problem. The Board went back to the publishers and told them that they had until spring to fix the errors, after which point each publisher would be susceptible to a fine of up to $5,000 per error found.[10] Of course, not all of the errors were in the arithmetic; some textbooks had accidentally printed the answers to the quizzes at the end of each chapter, while others had incorrect translations from the English to the Spanish versions. But, a hefty number of the errors were in the numbers themselves. All of the publishers’ books had errors, but leading textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin took the cake: 86,026 errors across its series of books, accounting for 79% of the total discovered by the Board. “It looks like one publisher won the sweepstakes,” said Board member, Bob Craig. “How can you make 86,000 errors in your textbooks? How do you do that?”[11]


[1] http://archives.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/11/03/badbooks/

[2] http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2003/ChrisDAmbrose.shtml

[3] http://hamptonroads.com/2010/10/error-sparks-concerns-over-textbook-selection-process

[4] http://archives.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/11/03/badbooks/

[5] http://www.colleges.com/Umagazine/articles/campusclips/textbooks.html

[6] http://www.colleges.com/Umagazine/articles/campusclips/textbooks.html

[7] http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/563mgsyh.asp

[8] http://mathforum.org/kb/thread.jspa?forumID=66&threadID=191067&messageID=713878

[9] http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/Historytextbooks[02-06-04].pdf

[10] http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/111607dntextextbooks.268c6c7.html

[11] http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/2002/12/22/2002-12-22_schoolbooks_flubbing_facts_t.html