Bad history does not mean bad science

An article titled “Darwin misconceptions in textbooks slammed in biology journal” sure sounds like it ought to be a hard-hitting criticism—we ought to look into that. Larry Moran did, and wow, what a bust. It’s pathetic. It’s a list of seven “errors” made in discussions of Darwin’s biography in textbooks, which is little more than a lot of nit-picking over details that are not so important to a biologist, but are more a matter of historical accuracy. Some of them are trivial matters of emphasis—saying that Darwin published the Origin after he returned to England is quite correct, and unless they’re discussing what he did afterwards, saying that he waited 23 years to publish is irrelevant in the context of a biology textbook—and others, such as the statement that Wallace and Darwin presented their work together when both were presented in absentia are plain wrong, but again, do not affect the substance of the science. I agree that if they’re going to present that material, they ought to get it right…but I also wouldn’t object to stripping out all mention of Darwin’s name (except in the bibliography), and focusing on the evidence and experiment and theory. It’s not that I think the history is unimportant, but we’re already tightly strapped for time to cover the essentials in introductory biology; let’s set it aside in class, and instead tell the students to go read Janet Browne or Desmond and Moore in their copious free time.

I can sympathize with an expert insisting on holding textbooks to a better standard, and in that sense this is a reasonable work. However, it’s being pushed by hack journalist Denyse O’Leary and the British propaganda site “Truth in Science” as if it is a challenge to the science. It isn’t. It’s a criticism of lazy text book publishers, and that’s about it. Except when creationists distort a criticism of historical reporting into another reason to cast doubt on a science.


  1. Johnny Vector says

    I just don’t get the insistence by the creationists that errors in high school textbooks are proof that evolution is wrong. So what if they got some of Darwin’s biography wrong? So what if they even were to actually include Haeckel’s drawings without criticism? If they do that, they are wrong. You don’t find that kind of error in the actual scientific literature.

    People who cite bad textbooks as a sign of bad science really ought to be tied down with their eyes held open and forced to read through Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, with appropriate drugs and Beethoven playing during the part where he is reviewing textbooks for his local high school.

    Then we’ll see how they feel about it. “See, physics must be wrong, it says in this textbook that you can add the temperatures of different stars!… Ohhhh, my head!!!”

  2. gerald spezio says

    Since you mentioned the forked-tongue Limey propaganda site, Truth in Science; let me suggest that there are plenty of continuing frightening attacks on science at Chris Mooney’s Intersection – better descibed as *Flogging Science.* Today’s post by Mooney’s guest blogger, Sheril Kirshenbaum, makes more preposterous claims about *framing science* to save the world.

    Today’s classic; “Scientists MUST adapt and evolve to the political environment…” This is Sheril’s very yuppie reframing of natural selection and a terrific linguistic reframing of the entire scientific enterprise.

    Sheril is a marine biologist from the Nicholas School of Environmental Sales at prestigious Dook U. These Dook suits were recently funded by Conoco-Phillips to the tune of one million bucks.

    These yuppies are working for better science communication and a better world, eh?

  3. says

    If these morons are complaining about how inaccurate historical minutiae in textbooks makes for bad science, then, why aren’t these same twits complaining to the Pope to rewrite the sections in the Bible that refer to rabbits, er, hyraxes as being hoofed cud-chewers or the part that says grasshoppers only have four legs?
    Oh, wait, they’re hypocrites, so nevermind.

  4. trrll says

    The history is important, but it’s…well…history, and properly belongs in a history of science text, not a biology text. Attribution is important, of course, because it is important to be able to find the original references, but historical detail beyond that is beyond the scope, even though in moderation it can help to add “flavor” to an account.

  5. says

    I was wondering, why worry about someone wanting history books to be as accurate as possible…

    Then I get to the part where it’s O’Leary.

    /rolls eyes

    Like historical revisionism was ever a problem for the Creationism / ID crowd / Religious Constitutionalists. They base many of their arguments of using that very tactic.

  6. gerald spezio says

    PZ, please take a look at what is being presented as scientific critique at flogging science. The more you look the more you see. It scares the hell out of me.
    This is an insidious and concentrated attack on the very heart of science. It is being orchestrated by the most self-serving bastards in the universe. Check out the so-called partners (Duke Energy, Conoco-Phillips, etc.) of the Nicholas School and its associated whorehouse, The Center for Global Change. We lose this battle and we die.

  7. Kseniya says

    I just don’t get the insistence by the creationists that errors in high school textbooks are proof that evolution is wrong.

    What’s to get? It’s just another instance of how Creationists insist that everything ever written, spoken, observed, unobserved, or imagined is proof that evolution is wrong. :-)

    It is regrettable that the authors of the textbook got some of Darwin’s biography wrong. What’s especially annoying is how these errors are wheeled into the public’s attention by people who continually get all of Darwin’s science wrong.

  8. DragonScholar says

    No wonder we’re out of straws, someone’s grasping them all.

    There’s a condition where people obsessively see connections that aren’t there (hey, my psych degree is 17 years old). These folks seem to deliberately cultivate such a condition.

  9. says

    DargonScholar brings up a good point. But we have to realize that IDists are prone to find patterns in any set of data. Afterall, isn’t pattern recognition the entire premise of their ‘irreducible complexity’ or the (ad hoc) statistical analysis of probabilities to determine complexity?

    How does the old addage go? People who look in the clouds can find anything from their heart’s desire amongst the random swirls of condensed water vapor in our atmosphere. Same goes for data miners ;-)

  10. travc says

    I don’t like the idea of stripping the history out of science education. Yeah, intro survey courses suck… way too much material typically presented as one factoid after another. But the historical bits really do give (at least some students) a needed angle to contextualize, relate, and actually learn the scientific material. My brain works much better this way actually, though I assume to others such historical bits seem irrelevant… they are not to a subset of learners.

    Going even farther, some of the best courses I’ve taken (alas, haven’t gotten to teach one yet) were actually a history *based* approach to a scientific field. I assume some of you know what I’m talking about, but for the unenlightened: This involves studying the key experiments and publications more or less chronologically and the impact they had on the understanding of the day. By the end, you have reached “now” (or at least “recently”) and have a pretty good grip on the current state of knowledge in the field. Physics is often approached this way, and bio could use more of it IMO.

  11. fardels bear says

    There are some interesting groups dedicated to teaching science through history and philosophy:

    As a historian of science, it does bug me when intro science textbooks muff basic historical facts. Just as easy to get them right as get them wrong.

    More troublesome is when a distorted view of history is provided in introductory textbooks. Evolutionary psychology textbooks do this. Many parrot the history of so-called “Standard Social Science Model” of Cosmides and Tooby. Since the SSSM is wrong in almost every historical claim it makes and subsequently in how it portrays the content of science, I feel that an improperly framed history does negatively impact how students understand science.

  12. says

    As a newly enrolled Friend of Charles Darwin (thus my credentials) I now officially have some expertise in this matter. I will use this expertise to defer to Larry Moran and PZ. The person who made the discovery doesn’t own it for all times. May as well argue that since Newton practiced some un-sciences then his laws don’t work.

    But the ID’ists see Evolution as a cult of personality, I guess. Kind of like if you prove that Jesus didn’t exist then Christianity will “Poof” away.

  13. Madam Pomfrey says

    That hollow sound you hear is the bottoms of many barrels being scraped…

  14. Richard Simons says

    I agree with travc that a historical approach can work well. A course centred on ‘What people believed and why’, with explanations of awkward facts that caused revisions and additions, can be a real eye-opener to students who tend to think everything they are told is cut and dried. A colleague gave one such lecture, finishing with the current ideas and ‘Perhaps 20 years from now one of you will give a similar lecture, in which you will wonder how we could have possibly been so stupid.’ Afterwards several students commented it was the first time they had thought of things in that light.