A 'GERM THEORY' OF EDUCATION
Like the disease infections which travel between hosts, information
travels between textbooks. It does so when students are taught from one
book, then later they grow up, become authors, and write new textbooks.
(c)1997 William Beaty
This sort of information-spreading can happen faster when an author uses
earlier textbooks as references when writing a new textbook. In this way,
one text or reference book can directly "infect" many others with its own
As in any disease epidemic, a particular piece of information can spread
exponentially: the more textbooks it occupies, the more likely it is that
other textbooks will acquire it. The spread of a particular fact can
often be more than exponential: the more textbooks it occupies, the
higher we'll perceive its credibility to be. If many textbooks assert the
same thing, authors will include that fact in their newly-written texts.
They might not check the fact for accuracy. After all, a concensus among
a large number of textbook authors cannot possibly be wrong. Or so we
Textbooks and humans act as independent populations which can infect each
other with information. Textbooks are "disease vectors" which spread
information (Or if you want to get Dawkins-esque, information has a life
of its own, and a human author is simply an efficient "disease vector"
which the Information uses to spread itself to other books!)
There is even a "Typhoid Mary" phenomena. If a piece of information
manages to worm its way into an authoritative reference book, it
spreads like wildfire.
Unfortunately, all of the above information-spreading methods can operate
regardless of whether a piece of information is true or false. Unless the
authors are experts in their field of science, the bad information can be
spread almost as easily as the good. If most reference books contain a
particular error, then all new books will probably aquire that error too.
Useful knowledge can spread among texts and references, but this makes
them vulnerable to a "disease" of misleading facts, incorrect facts, and
Some authors are obviously more prone to the "infection" precess than
others. Suppse that a non-expert author relies more on reference books
than on direct personal knowledge of a subject. OR suppose that author
simply copies material from earlier editions of a textbook which he or she
did not write. That author will be far more likely to pass along
misinformation. And if some authors adopt the philosophy that "this many
other textbooks can't be wrong", then those authors will defeat their own
immune systems. They will easily spread common misconceptions. Because
they are swayed more as more books become infected, they'll spread the
misconceptions faster than exponentially.
Disease immunity is an issue. Incorrect information competes with correct
information for the same "environmental niche" within the books. The
disease analogy still fits: it's much the same way that cowpox gives
immunity against smallpox. If you are an expert, if you *know* the
correct information because of real-world experience, then the
misconception cannot infect you. Yet this works both ways: if an expert
has been taught the misconception early on, then any later encounters with
the correct information will fall on deaf ears.
Evolutionary forces are important in textbook diseases. As an error
travels from book to book, it can start out as an inadvertent mistake, and
over time it can be honed and polished into a ravening plague which
invariably forces all the correct information out of new textbooks.
In other words, incorrect yet simple "facts" can push out the more
There is an uninfected population of books and humans as well as an
infected population. There is also a population which became immune
via "innoculation." Authors, students, and educators who are
intentionally made aware of the error can no longer become infected.
Perhaps even an active "immune system" exists: those who are made aware
of the "germ theory" of Information-transfer can begin constructing a
strong intellectual immune system" which deals with all sorts of
"killer diseases." People who are hyper-sensitive to misconceptions
and errors in textbooks will tend to defeat brand new infections that
they've never before encountered.
Here's the best route to conquering the disease: search out information
about misconceptions. Don't just try to aquire knowledge. Also build up
your defenses by learning about your "enemy": learn the tricks and
techniques used by the the bad information which wants to infect your
That's what you're doing right at this moment. Everybody please form a
line and roll up your sleeves! (grin!)
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