A little learning is a dangerous thing

In the June 21, 2010 issue of the Inquirer, Mr. Antonio Calipjo Go wrote a commentary entitled “The blind leading the blind.” It appears that Mr. Go took time out of his busy schedule just to point out certain alleged errors in Biology, a book developed by UP NISMED.

Admittedly, like other publications in circulation today, Biology is not immuned from occasional typographical and editing errors. During the revision of the book in 2004, the following errors were overlooked: the location of Gregor Mendel’s monastery on page 166, Czechoslovakia should have been changed to “the Czech Republic”; “sap,” as appears in an illustration of a flower on page 147, should have been “sepal”; the world population figure on page 163, should have been updated to reflect the most recent projections; and “medinillas” on page 328, should not have been classified as “orchids” but as “prototerrestrials” (most medinillas are) or “hemiepiphytes” (for some medinillas).

There are other lapses: the term “deoxyribonucleic acid” which appeared at least four times in the 2009 edition of the book is found correctly spelled on pages 27, 185, and 190, but not on page 196. The term “tree-striped box turtle” appearing page 328 should have been spelled “three-striped box turtle”—in short, the editors missed the letter “h.” And the term “acetylcholine,” which appeared at least twice in the 2004 and 2009 editions of the book, is misspelled on page 119.

Human lapses, we might say, in a world run by imperfect men and machines. Even Mr. Go himself, despite his uncanny eye for spotting errors by others, did not seem to realize that “UP NISMED” is the acronym for the “University of the Philippines National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development,” hence, should have written, “UP NISMED,” not “UP-Nismed.” A trivial error, yes, but so are some of Mr. Go’s alleged “errors” being attributed to the book’s creators and editors. It is important to label these as “alleged errors” because some of the latter are not errors at all but merely products of differences in stylistic or usage preferences. Significantly, Mr. Go does not even cite his references. Nor does he mention authoritative sources as basis for what is “correct” (as the antithesis of the “errors” he claims to have detected) in his piecemeal nitpicking. More importantly, some of his corrections to the pointed “errors” do not hold water.

For instance, Mr. Go thinks the one-word title of the book, Biology, is “unimaginative.” We, on the other hand, prefer to call it “concise.” He takes issue with the picturesque name “spiny anteater,” which is not incorrect at all, in an attempt to impose his preference for the term “echidna” which does not evoke any vivid image of the animal at all, or, to use his word, “unimaginative.” He wants “monotremes” in place of the more acceptable and more descriptive “egg-laying mammals.” He would rather we used “marsupials” instead of the suggestive designation “pouched mammals.” Why should Mr. Go insist in using esoteric Latin terms which second year high school students find difficult to understand (and to pronounce as well), where more imaginative English equivalents are available and accepted in the scientific community? Aware of this difficulty, UP NISMED has decided to put more value on ease in comprehension (because the descriptive English words used in the book readily convey the concept desired) rather than in Latin and Greek tongue-twisters that most students consign to the specialized concerns of etymologists and pedants. Why, even among collegiate academics, Latinisms such as ibid., op. cit., loc. cit., et seq., seriatim, passim, infra, and supra, among others, have given way to readily-understandable English equivalents. The point is that difference in preferences should not give rise to the heresy that Mr. Go is always right and those who disagree with him are always wrong. On this score, we in NISMED would rather tell Mr. Go outright that “In matters of preferences there should be no dispute, rather than say “De gustibus non est disputandum.”

Mr. Go asks if it is correct to teach, at the basic level, that “Bone consists of living cells found in cavities and are surrounded by a hard, nonliving substance.” He pontificates that “Bones are a solid network of living cells and protein fibers that are surrounded by deposits of calcium salts,” without even acknowledging his source (namely, Chapter 36 of Miller and Levine’s Biology published in 2006 by Prentice Hall), from which his quoted statement was lifted verbatim et literatim. Ethical considerations prevent us from quibbling with Mr. Go’s real source, namely, Miller and Levine, we in UP NISMED did not commit any error simply because in the book Biology we did not state the fact the way Mr. Go would prefer it said; the bottom line is that bones are indeed surrounded by deposits of calcium salts— the nonliving substances referred to in the textbook. Incidentally, Mr. Go’s source is simply entitled Biology; would he also dare call Miller and Levine “unimaginative”?

Mr. Go takes issue with this statement: “Xylem cells are usually dead cells with thickened walls while phloem consists of living cells.” He asks: “How can cells or substances be considered dead or nonliving when they are embedded deep within a living organism, and without which that organism cannot, in fact, live or survive?” Without belaboring the obvious, there is no singular definitive meaning for xylem or bone and, even living or nonliving for that matter. When plants mature, xylem cells assume pipeline conductive functions only after they have elongated, their end walls have broken down, and have died. In the same manner, osteocytes or bone cells provide rigid framework to the body only after calcification or deposition of calcium salts. Apparently, Mr. Go’s single criterion for considering a cell as living is the fact that it is embedded within a living organism. This is absolutely wrong. But just because UP NISMED’s definitions of bone and xylem do not agree with his, he right away cries “Error!” which in itself is a grievous and irresponsible error.

Mr. Go thinks 358 pages are not enough to tackle a “very complex subject.” He prefers the much longer book by Prentice-Hall which, he says, has 923 pages. The question is: Can Mr. Go teach the contents of the 923 pages in a single academic year? Now, this is a question of policy, which the DepEd–not Mr. Go–is the deciding authority, and policy decisions are not amenable to a neat matrix divided into “right” and “wrong.” Mr. Go knows that DepEd, as a matter of policy, has recommended at that time a limited number of pages per textbook, and DepEd has good reason for doing so, given the average capability of second year high school Filipino students to digest information contained in textbooks. Despite this limitation, this 358-page textbook has managed to include all the learning competencies for second year Biology students. Yet, Mr. Go pretends to be wiser than DepEd, or, to be more popish than the Pope.

Another thing: Mr. Go ridicules the question, When did humans evolve? and calls it “stupid.” In fact, he cannot think of a question more stupid than this because, according to him, evolution is a very slow process of change occurring over a very long period of time. Apparently, Mr. Go wants to restrict the use of “When?” to mean “At what time?” He thinks it is wrong to use “When?” when somebody means “Over what period?” Apparently, in Mr. Go’s dictionary, “when” should always elicit a fixed date as answer, and it would be terribly wrong for that word to elicit an answer that embraces a period of time not fixed as to day, month and year. Using his rule, no one would be able to ask these questions: When did the dinosaurs rule the Earth? When did the last Ice Age occur? When were the Himalayas formed? To him, these questions are “stupid,” although he does not even point to an authority who applauds his commentary as the product of a “clever” mind.

Mr. Go thinks the caption, Tools used during early times. Are these tools familiar to you? Where are they currently used?, is also stupid. Clever as he pretends to be, Mr. Go seems to miss the point; the caption simply challenges the young reader’s mind–it intends to underscore the readers’ unfamiliarity with these ancient tools and to make them realize the fact that they are no longer in use today. Through these supposedly “stupid” questions, the book simply applies the Socratic method of arriving at the correct answer. Through these, the young mind is made to appreciate the sharp contrast between the level of technology in olden times (where the tools available were a little more than stones with sharp edges and pointed tips) and that of our time where the tools available are run by computers and provide instant access to information worldwide through means unimaginable in the early stages of civilization.

True to his style, Mr. Go took several passages in the book and dismissed them off as “downright silly.” We feel sorry for him because his comments betray the workings of a closed mind. Had he only bothered to look into the context of the passages he had opted to ridicule, he would have been less hasty and more circumspect in his generalizations. The great minds that contributed to the ascent of human civilization have been open minds, and the little minds that caused the stagnation of civilization were the closed minds that focused on trivialities and quibbled over inconsequentials–these are the minds behind the Inquisition and the Dark Ages. As they say, it takes a great mind to build and create the wonders of the world, but it doesn’t even need a mind at all to destroy what others built.

We request readers who come across commentaries such as the ones spewed by Mr. Go, to be wary and critical. It is always wise to do one’s own research rather than depend on those who, for undisclosed motives, masquerade as experts and peddle misinformation in the guise of some noble-sounding advocacies. Science is littered with corpses of debunked theories and discredited nostrums peddled by charlatans who possess an iota of half-truth but who peddle it as incontestable truth.

Mr. Go may have acquired just enough learning to find fault and split hair in the works of others. But so far he has not shown enough learning to enable him to create a work of his own. It is a pity that he spends his time trying to demolish rather than create. Truly, a little learning is a dangerous thing. On this note we say, the time has come for Mr. Go to Stop.