When science books are put to the test, it's hard to decipher fact from fiction
By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 05/17/99
When electrical engineer William Beaty was working on the design of an electricity exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science, he decided to check out some elementary school science textbooks in search of good ways to communicate fundamental concepts on the subject.
What he found was a morass of misconceptions, mistakes and
misinformation in one text after another. Not one of the books, he found,
even contained what he considered to be a valid definition of what
electricity is, much less how it works. And he discovered something else:
Even his own understanding of the subject, despite his years in the
profession, was flawed; he was still the victim of deeply-help
misconceptions that he had learned in grade school.
of my misconceptions had been specifically taught to me,'' he said.
''[They] were in my science textbooks long ago, and they were still inmost
Unfortunately, what Beaty found is not at all unusual.
Scientists and educators say that many of the textbooks used today in US
elementary and high schools contain significant errors, fabricated
history, erroneous diagrams and misleading explanations. Beaty, in a
lengthy Web page he setup to try to dispel scientific misinformation,
cites examples of the kind of misleading claims about electricity found in
numerous textbooks. For example, many texts describe an electric circuit
as consisting of charges that come from a battery, flow through a wire,
turn into light inside a bulb, and then flow into the battery's other
There are several things wrong with that story, Beaty explains. The
chargesare already inside the wire, not supplied by the battery, and they
are not turned into light; if they were, they couldn't keep flowing. And
this version leaves out the connection through the battery, where charges
flow through and back out again.
Beaty suggests that a better approach is to use analogies that help clarify the fundamental concepts, such as this: ''A battery or generator is like your heart: it moves blood, but it does not create blood.''
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