More Transparency Needed in Science Textbooks, Museums

The number of retracted scientific papers has skyrocketed in the last decade. In 2010, two science editors started Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to tracking science paper retractions. So far, the site has tracked about 200 papers.1

Retractions can occur for different reasons. About 73 percent of retracted papers in 2010 had errors, either in the research methods used or in the writing, and about 27 percent contained fraud, according to a recent presentation on the blog.

But just because a retraction occurs doesn't mean that the flawed report goes away. Nature reported that 235 papers retracted between 1966 and 1996 were cited in 2,000 later studies, and only 8 percent of those acknowledged the retractions.2

If other scientists are citing outdated or misleading data, what about outdated and misleading data presented in museums and textbooks? For instance, in 2010, the University of Pennsylvania toured an exhibit called Surviving: The Body of Evidence that claimed, "You are a survivor…of the process of evolution."3

But the exhibit featured "misleading, outdated or contrived information…. For example, one section features the thoroughly refuted 'horse evolution' story…. In reality, fossils of horse varieties…are mixed in various rock layers, showing no objective evolutionary pattern."3

Another prime example of outdated information currently still in use is German embryologist Ernst Haeckel's drawings of embryos. A contemporary of Charles Darwin, "Haeckel claimed that the developmental stages of an embryo retrace its evolutionary past. In other words, the human embryo supposedly goes through a fish stage, an amphibian stage, a reptile stage, and so on."4

In 1997, a team of British researchers used modern techniques to examine developing embryos, and they were nothing like Haeckel's depictions. "Not only did Haeckel add or omit features…but he also fudged the scale to exaggerate similarities among species, even when there were 10-fold differences in size."5

But some modern textbooks have still used Haeckel's drawings to teach students about evolution, even if they do mention that the drawings are discredited.6 Why use them at all, if what they portray is false?

Scientific investigation is an ongoing effort, and as more discoveries are made, it makes sense that older studies will be disproven or updated. But like the science paper retractions, discredited scientific notions keep turning up.

To help with scientific transparency, and hopefully the number of retractions, Retraction Watch presented some suggestions, including "Demand more of institutions" and "Make retraction notices clearer."1

The same practices need to be applied to textbooks and museum displays as well.


  1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: What retractions say about scientific transparency. Retraction Watch. Posted on November 21, 2011, accessed November 23, 2011.
  2. Van Noorden, R. 2011. Science publishing: The trouble with retractions. Nature. 478 (7367): 28.
  3. Thomas, B. Museum's 'Science' Exhibit Leaves More Questions than Answers. ICR News. Posted on January 11, 2010, accessed November 22, 2011.
  4. Mitchell, T. and E. Mitchell. Something fishy about gill slits! Answers in Genesis. Posted on March 14, 2007, accessed November 23, 2011.
  5. Pennisi, E. 1997. Haeckel's Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered. Science. 277 (5331): 1435, reporting on research in Richardson, M. K. et al. 1997. There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development. Anatomy and Embryology. 196 (2): 91-106..
  6. Luskin, C. What Do Modern Textbooks Really Say About Haeckel's Embryos? Discovery Institute. Posted on March 27, 2007, accessed November 23, 2011.

* Ms. Dao is Assistant Editor at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on November 29, 2011.

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