Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Let's go, GMOs! Some recent lowlights from science textbooks

Today's edition of La Presse has an article on an elementary school science textbook that contains the follow rather unbalanced content on GMOs (genetically modified organisms):

In the future, we will see more and more genetically modified fruits and vegetables that are capable of defending themselves against disease and insects. We will therefore have less need to use polluting pesticides. Nutritious and hardy, these fruits and vegetables will, we think, be even tastier than before. Apples won't have any more seeds, strawberries will be sweeter and juicier, and pears will keep for longer. It is also foreseeable that medicines and vaccines will be integrated in foods... (my translation from French)

This extract reminds me of some of the gems that I uncovered while researching Québec junior high school science textbooks.
For example, consider the follow extract about automation from Eureka, a junior high textbook:
Since the introduction of the assembly line, human beings have been gradually replaced by robots. These machines perform monotonous and repetitive tasks. They are controlled by computers and are quicker and more accurate than humans. This development has transformed the labour market. Factories used to seek unskilled labour. Today, they want workers capable of maintaining and programming increasingly complex robots.
In with the robots, out with the pesky humans! There is no mention made of any of the difficulties that may result from replacing humans with robots; we only hear that the "unskilled" workers are being replaced and that the speedy and efficient robots are moving in. One is reminded of the scene in Michael Moore's Roger and Me in which a puppet autoworker at the now-defunct Autoworld theme park sings a song ("Me and My Buddy") to the robot that is helping him on the assembly line.

Another of my favorites is from a different textbook (Galileo):

Cutting trees for commercial purposes represents only a fraction of trees that die.

This a true, although deceptive, piece of information (consider: "Deaths linked to tobacco use only represent a fraction of all humans that die."). However, the text doesn't neglect to inform us where the real danger lies:

Insects and fires are the greatest dangers that threaten our forests.

Ah, yes! Those pesky insects. Forget about human activity--we're doing a great job of managing that here in Quebec!

Many large forest companies are working to replant our land. Governments look after the preservation of the forest by planting millions of trees every year.
In Québec, we have a major problem with deforestation (French-speaking readers should check out the documentary L'Erreur Boréale, which is freely available on Youtube), but a lot of the textbooks attempt to avoid facing up to this, perhaps in order to avoid controversy. A certain amount of  avoidance may be legitimate; people do, after all, have differing views about this issue. Still, covering up the issue by presenting a deceptive account of the problem is not a good way to introduce students to this kind of controversy.

A final fave is this dumb passage about learning styles from Connection:
Did you know that the way you perceive and interpret a diagram is linked to how you learn and your learning style? Some people can decipher diagrams as easily as others read sheet music. To others, however, diagrams are as difficult to understand as a text written in hieroglyphics! It is your genetic material that predisposes you to understand better when you use one approach rather than another.
Having trouble understanding some of the diagrams in the textbook? Tough luck, because it is HARD WIRED into your genes, kid. You might as well just give up right now and put the diagrams away.

(As for myself, I'll have you all know that I read diagrams quickly and easily. I usually look at at least ten of them before lunch).

For more on these examples and other worrisome extracts from science textbooks, point your browser here if you are associated with a university. Or, just send me an e-mail, and I'll send you a pdf of the article.

No comments: