Monday, November 23, 2009

to know is to be able to predict?

Just recently I sat through a very interesting TOK presentation given by a group of IB2 students that focussed on the role of prediction in science and beyond. It has been said that to know is to be able to predict. But how true is this? Scientists often feel obliged to make predictions. Is this really what we should expect of them? Why might they feel pressured to predict? Is all science amenable to making predictions? If we can't predict, does this lessen the value of what we know? There are some examples below to get us started. I would like us to concentrate on the sciences in this thread.

The source for the following is:

1869: Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table left spaces for elements that he predicted would be discovered. Three of these (gallium, scandium, and germanium) were subsequently discovered within his lifetime. PREDICTION: RIGHT

1964: Physicists predict the existence of the Higgs Boson. If CERN’s Large Hadron Collider finds no evidence for the existence of this massive fundamental particle, working models of the material universe might require a fundamental rethink. PREDICTION: PENDING

1965: Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore predicts that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years. The industry has so far managed to keep up (despite many predictions over the years about the law’s imminent demise). PREDICTION: RIGHT

1968: Entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicts that hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in the next two decades. PREDICTION: WRONG

2002: At the website, astronomer Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, predicts that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.” Also at Long Bets, entrepreneurial engineer Ray Kurzweil bets $10,000 that by 2029 a computer will have passed the Turing Test for machine intelligence. PREDICTION: PENDING

2003: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory sponsored GeneSweep, a sweepstakes on the number of human genes. While bids averaged around 60,000 genes, it was eventually won by a bid of 25,947—the lowest of the hundreds received. PREDICTION: WRONG

2007: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report projects that global surface air temperatures will increase by between 1.1 and 6.4°C over preindustrial levels by the end of the century. PREDICTON: PENDING

Sunday, November 15, 2009

want to win $1 million?

How about the chance to win a million dollars? Sounds good? All you have to do is solve one of the seven problems described here:

What does this tell us about mathematical knowledge?

Friday, November 13, 2009

too few top women in science and technology?

Lawrence Summers is a very intelligent man. He is also one who enjoys a certain amount of controversy. I hope you don't think I am picking on him - it's just that the controversies he creates are such good TOK controversies!

In 2005 (having given up the World Bank and become president of Harvard University), Summers gave a talk concerning the fact that so few women in America occupy the very top positions in academic institutions for science and technology. He gave a number of possible explanations - explanations which he said were supported by some of the social science research which has been done in this area. He gave three:

1) The positions in question require very long working hours, and women with children are generally not prepared to make this commitment.
2) Fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years.
3) Women are discriminated against.

Summers emphasized the second explanation and downplayed the third - that was the initial source of the controversy.

Now two questions:
1) Which of these explanations, if any, seem convincing to you? Why, and why not the others?
2) As a TOK student, presumably you are committed to keeping an open mind about matters that have not been established beyond doubt. So what evidence, collected by what methods, would convince you of the truth of each of the hypotheses?

Monday, November 9, 2009

the fall of the berlin wall - 20 years ago

Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. This was a momentous event in Europe with repercussions around the whole world. It is hard for me to think of this as history because I was there living in Germany at the time, and the excitement is still fresh for me.

But by twenty years after an event, historians are indeed already buzzing around it looking for fresh explanations based on the new insights that the passage of time can bring. Many books are being published about this event. Some say that communism was flawed from the start and it was inevitable that it would collapse one day. Others say that it was America that bankrupted communism through an arms race the the Soviet Union and its allies couldn't sustain. Others again look to the actions of influential individuals for explanation - what the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev did since assuming office in 1985, or what the East German leader Erich Honecker didn't do before he was replaced in 1989, or the knock-on effects of the earlier revolt in Poland led by Lech Walesa in 1980, or the fact that a Polish Pope was installed in 1978. Yet others invoke the will of the people - the mass protests and occupations of embassies throughout the memorable year of 1989.

We will spend some quality time thinking about the nature of history next semester, but, in general, what do you think about the causes of historical events? Should we look for explanations more to the grand structural forces or to individuals who can command these forces and bend them to their own ends?

I know some of you will answer "both", but if you had to make a choice...

Friday, November 6, 2009


Here’s something to think about. The following argument is the essence of a memo leaked from the office of the then Chief Economist of the World Bank – Lawrence Summers in 1991:

Pollution causes increased death and disability
The costs of death and disability are measured as lost earnings of those affected
The lost earnings will be lowest in the poorest countries of the world
Therefore the costs of pollution will be minimized by dumping pollutants in the poorest countries

In the light of all that we have discussed concerning Reason in TOK, what do you have to say about this?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

ways of knowing

Hi All,

Here's a new question for you to think about and make your contribution on this thread. Remember - your contributions to these blog threads will be taken into account for your semester grade, and there is not too much time remaining to contribute for this semester...

Are ways of knowing more like mirrors or filters?

PS Please remember that a new thread does not mean the older ones are finished - you can continue to argue and discuss there...

TOK course assignment 3

Dear Everyone,

Here are the instructions for course assignment 3.

Find an article or other piece of written text that interests you because of its connection to the Theory of Knowledge programme.

In 500-600 words, discuss this connection. Do not simply summarize the text your have chosen; focus on the connections between the content of the text, material from the TOK course, and your own experience.

Submit your work according to the usual format, with a copy of the text you chose attached at the back. Please give a full MLA reference to your chosen text at the end of your written work (consult your Diploma Planner for how to do this).

Your work is due during the TOK lesson on Friday 20th November.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

English as the global language...?

Dear Everyone,

I recommend the following article for another view on the language/thought issue:

What would be lost if English became the only language in the world?

If you were listening to Mrs. Trumper's presentation on Friday, you will remember that she reminded us that learning a language is not just about finding translations for words (that would be a "robotic" activity!); she suggested that languages carry something of the cultures in which they are embedded with them. Remember also that Sapir and Whorf took a much more extreme position - namely that languages have a profound effect on how we think (linguistic relativism), or even lock us into particular ways of thinking (linguistic determinism).

Many people subscribe to the view that language extinction is a bad thing - because it results in the loss of these other ways of thinking; reduction in language diversity means reduction in thinking diversity. However, McWhorter in this article thinks that this argument is exaggerated. He suggests that language loss is more a matter of aesthetics - we would lose the beauty of being able to explore languages (something most people don't really care about), but this would be more than compensated by the advantages of everyone being able to communicate easily.

What do you think?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Multiple perspectives: Analysing a knowledge claim

Once upon a time, there were three soccer referees discussing how they did their jobs. They started to argue about what is meant by a “foul” in soccer…

Referee A: “I call fouls as I see them.” “Nonsense,” says Referee B: “I call fouls as they are.” “You’re both wrong,” says Referee C, “until I call them fouls, they’re nothing.”

Each referee is making a different claim about language, perception and reality. Can you relate them to what we have talked about in TOK? What do you think about it?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A response: "The Philosophical Baby" and "The Inside of a Dog"

TOK Assignment 1 

These two books – “The Philosophical Baby” and “The Inside of a Dog” look interesting because they seem to provide opportunities to apply some of the concepts we have been discussing in TOK class in a wider context. When we looked at sense perception in TOK, we were primarily thinking about ourselves as grown human beings, but by looking at babies and dogs we can perhaps not just gain some insights about them but also some deeper understanding of ourselves. 

Some fundamental knowledge issues that apply to the research described on both dogs and babies are: how can we know the nature of the experiences of others, especially when these others are not capable of telling us directly? And even if they could tell us, to what extent would we then be justified in claiming to know these experiences? These two books illustrate some ways in which we can at least make a start in trying to overcome some of the difficulties. 

With humans, most of the sense data we receive and act upon comes through our eyes and sense of sight. When we discussed the idea of perception as representations in the mind, we probably found it easy to think about it this way – there is an object in the real world and there is an “image” of it in our minds. But a dog’s dominant perceptions are smells – and it is perhaps harder for us to comprehend the relationship between sense data (a chemical) and perceptions (the smell) in this case. The review of the book also shows how different kinds of sense data can result in different kinds of perceptions – if we continue to perceive a stationary object our perception doesn’t necessarily change with time, but if we continuously smell it our perception does change because odours become weaker with time. These apparent differences between the experiences of dogs and humans suggest that possibly they live in worlds more divergent than we might have thought. 

The book on babies seems to make a different point. We talked in class about how our perceptions might be influenced by prior experiences, no doubt held in our minds by memory – thus we construct our perceptions. This is helpful to us because we know how to handle perceptions by directing our attention to them in the manner to which we have become accustomed, rather than every experience appearing to be new and confusing. But this is just what it is like to be a baby (or is it – how can we know?) – the baby has few experiences with which to filter perceptions and limited ability to make a conscious choice of what to attend to. Perhaps this means that babies provide evidence for perceptual realism but grow into evidence for constructivism! As the review states, this is likely to be an exhausting business, but it means that, when cued representations become detached, the baby’s imagination is freer to roam in creative ways. If creative imagination is part of what it means to be conscious, then maybe we could say that babies are more conscious than adults. This for me is the most surprising and interesting insight from the review.