December RLS 2018

 

1. Hallucinating reality

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception

First order KQs How have our senses evolved over time?

Second order KQs What are the implications of the way we ‘construct’ reality when it comes to understanding the world? Can we believe what we see?

What’s the story about? This short video explains how what we see around us is actually constructed (or ‘hallucinated’) by us individually, and is therefore a subjective rather than objective reality.

Analysing the story Use this rather nice video either on its own, or as a consolidation to what we see in our first unit - Reality check - about visual illusions, and how they indicate that we construct reality based on the context of prior experiences. Does this all confirm what Descartes said: “The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once”?

Source The Atlantic
 

2. Art?

Big Question Representing reality / Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences, imagination

First order KQs Who were the finalists of the 2018 Turner Prize?

Second order KQs Is art politics? Is art personal or shared? Can objective judgements be made about art?

What’s the story about? These two articles look at the shortlist for the 2018 Turner Prize. One (here) concludes that it is the most exciting list in years; the other (here) that it is one of the worst.

Analysing the story There are two things to consider here. First, the nature of art. What do these works of art tell us about the way this area of knowledge is developing? Has art now become politics? Is it purely about commentating on issues and controversies? Is the message now more important than the technique and execution? Second, given the difference in how the Turner Prize is regarded, can we say anything with certainty about art - such as what makes ‘good’ art, and what represents ‘bad’ art? Or is our judgement of art determined by our need to confirm our own social and political outlooks?

Source The Independent & The Guardian
 

3. Biohackers

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, technology

First order KQs What are ‘biohackers’? 

Second order KQs Does the human ‘umwelt’ need expanding? 

What’s the story about? The article looks at the way in which ‘biohackers’ try to create ‘new’ senses for human being by utilizing technology, and grafting it onto the human body.

Analysing the story Get students to link this story to the work of David Eagleman, who asserted that ‘“your brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness in your skull”. Does the work of these biohackers work on the same principle? Do we need this sort of work to expand out ‘Umwelt’? Does their work lead to genuinely new knowledge about the world?

Source BBC
 

4. Revising history

Big Question Development / perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What were the consequences of the Afghanistan War on the Soviet Union?

Second order KQs In what ways, and why, is history being rewritten in Russia? Why does history get revised? 

What’s the story about? Vladimir Kara-Murza (who happens to be an ex-student of Michael Dunn!) considers why the Soviet-Afghan war is being ‘revised’ by the current Russian government, and viewed in a different light.

Analysing the story A great example of second order knowledge in history, get students to look at what we wouldn’t analyse in TOK (see the 1st order KQ), and what we are interested in (our second order KQs). What does this show us about the fluidity of history, and the way it is subject - more than other areas of knowledge (?) to revision. Students can also compare this article to story 10 about how history gets re-written, and why.

Source Washington Post
 

5. First memories

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Memory, imagination

First order KQs What was your first memory?

Second order KQs How accurate are our ‘first memories’? How does environment affect memory? What are the benefits to a flawed memory?

What’s the story about? This accessible article runs through some of the ways in which memory is fallible, and how we often misunderstand this way of knowing.

Analysing the story This could be used as part of your consideration of the first big question, thinking about the way in which memory works - and why it works in this way. Get students to think first about how they think memory functions, and then how this differs from reality; they could then consider why it has evolved to work in a flawed way.

Source BBC
 

6. Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Language

First order KQs What does ‘descriptivism’ and ‘prescriptivism’ mean in linguistics?

Second order KQs How does being a descriptivist or prescriptivist change our understanding of language?

What’s the story about? This article asks a very simple, but important question - ‘who decides what words mean?’, and considers two different ways of viewing the role of dictionaries?

Analysing the story Ask students to give their ideas on the purpose of dictionaries. Then offer them definitions of ‘descriptivism’ and ‘prescriptivism’ - which of these do their ideas match up to? Ultimately, why does the writer conclude “Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius”?

Source Aeon
 

7. Historical approaches

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs History, natural sciences, mathematics

First order KQs What are Niall Ferguson’s new assertions about a new approach to studying history? 

Second order KQs Can (and should) history be approached in a ‘scientific’ way?

What’s the story about? In a review of a new book by Niall Ferguson, Charlotte RIley considers the nature of historical enquiry, and the relationship between historians and the facts. 

Analysing the story Riley very nicely sets up the article with two visions of history - one, “catching facts like fish”; the other, “unravelling a tapestry”. Which of these does (and should) the historian aspire to, and what are the implications and difficulties of following each approach? Overall, does Riley argue that Ferguson has succeeded in the approach he follows?

Source New Humanist
 

8. Zero

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics

First order KQs Who invented ‘zero’?

Second order KQs How do mathematical concepts help us to understand the world? 

What’s the story about? This article considers the ‘genius’ of the discovery of the concept of zero, and the implications behind this step forward for mathematicians.

Analysing the story Try to get students to represent zero - how would they do it? Then demonstrate the ‘empty set’ concept, and ask them to consider the words of Robert Kaplan - “If you look at zero you see nothing. But if you look through it, you see the world.”

Source Vox
 

9. Science in 2018

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences

First order KQs What were the best and worst scientific ideas of 2018?

Second order KQs How does science move forward? Does science develop via ‘paradigm shifts’? Are new ideas reactions against old ones?

What’s the story about? These two articles ('positive' science here; 'negative' science - although often not really science - here) consider scientific ideas from 2018, looking at genuine advancements, and 'knowledge' that should be abandoned.

Analysing the story Students can start off by finding the one scientific idea that they find the most impressive (and why), and the one they find the most damaging to our understanding of the world. Then, they can think about what separates the good from the ugly when it comes to scientific knowledge. Overall, has 2018 been a good year for science? 

Source Vox
 

10. Presidential history

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences

First order KQs How is George Bush’s presidency regarded by historians and political scientists?

Second order KQs How and why do the reputations of political and historical figures change over time? Is our reading of history more a reflection of our times than the times we are looking at?

What’s the story about? Nick Bryant considers how our judgement of George HW Bush’s presidency - particularly in terms of foreign policy - has undergone a reassessment by historians and political writers.

Analysing the story The key line to consider is - “Bush offers a prime example of how presidential reputations evolve over the passing years, how legacies are reassessed and how traits characterised contemporaneously as weaknesses can be judged by future generations as virtues.” To what extent is this caused by the setting in which historians and political writers work? In other words, is our evaluation of the past always dictated by the situation in the present? Compare also to story 4 about how history gets re-written.

Source BBC
 

11. Ethical perspectives

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs RKS, ethics, human sciences

First order KQs What are the similarities and differences between the worldviews of Rowan Williams and John Gray?

Second order KQs How does our religious standpoint affect the way we understand the world? How can we produce valid ethical knowledge?

What’s the story about? Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher John Gray, appeared recently at the Cambridge Literary Festival, and talked about a wide variety of issues, particularly ethics. 

Analysing the story Students can analyse quite a lot of what was discussed. Is ethics innate, or has it been learned? If the latter, is it religion that has revealed appropriate moral behaviour to us? (see William’s 3rd point). To what extent does religion - and atheism - change over time? Does a lack of permanence in doctrine indicate that an ethical system is invalid? (see Gray’s 4th point). “There is no single Christian morality, nor an atheist one” (gray, 4th point). “I think that the Christian perspective – and religious perspective in general – does have somewhere in it the idea that there are aspects of our world that we simply do not own” (Williams, 6th point). Overall, how similar are their ideas - and is this surprising given the difference in religious outlooks of these two figures?

Source New Statesman
 

12. Psychological issues

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences

First order KQs What is the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology?

Second order KQs Should (and can) human sciences be subject to replication as part of the scientific method? What should be subject to more scrutiny in the human sciences: methods or results?

What’s the story about? Psychology has faced problems over the last few years linked to the problems associated with it when it comes to replicating findings by academics. This article considers whether the field has emerged stronger as a result. 

Analysing the story This is a great resource to help students explore the difference between the natural and human sciences. In the former, replication (at least in the more experimental sciences) is clear-cut. In the latter, theories are very hard to replicate. What implications does the article demonstrate this leads to? And how has psychology tried to resolve this problem?

Source FiveThirtyEight
 

13. The camera never lies?

Big Question Representing reality / perspectives

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences, reason, emotion

First order KQs What was the Miners’ Strike?

Second order KQs How can artistic editing change the way we perceive reality? Does a picture ever lie? 

What’s the story about? The story shows two pictures from the ‘Miners’ Strike’ that took place in the UK during the 1980s, and asks the question, which one is more effective.

Analysing the story The two images are of the same event, but express completely different sensations - the first, menace and antagonism between the miners and the authorities; the second, sympathy and good humour. Students could be given a short background the event, and given a different image, and then asked to arrive at their own conclusions about what happened - how can an image mislead or enlighten us about what’s going on in the world, and how can they be used to manipulate what we think?

Source The Guardian
 

14. How to argue

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Reason, intuition, natural sciences

First order KQs What is confirmation bias?

Second order KQs Does scientific evidence strengthen arguments? Should we reject our intuitive knowledge when we argue? 

What’s the story about? Brian Resnick offers two strategies to strengthen powers of argument, with a strong emphasis on listening to what other people think and feel. 

Analysing the story This is a useful little article to help students hone their powers of argument. Perhaps begin by asking them how best and how worst to engage in debate with people who have different opinions. Then offer them the article, and assess how useful these two tips seem. Students could then put these strategies into action - do they actually work? And how open are students to the idea that theirviews and opinions might be wrong?

Source Vox
 

15. Divine Immanence

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs RKS

First order KQs What is ‘divine immanence’?

Second order KQs How do religious concepts influence the way we understand the world? To what extent are our worldviews determined by the way we subscribe to religious ideas?

What’s the story about? The article considers the concepts of ‘immanence’, and how it influenced the way Martin Luther King viewed the world, and informed the way the Civil Rights Struggle was approached.

Analysing the story Students often struggle with religious knowledge systems, either regarding this area of knowledge as solely about the existence of God, or confusing it with ethics. This story about MLK shows how a religious concepts - immanence - can shape the way people understand the world, and how it influences the knowledge they construct. Get them to look up what immanence means first of all, how it influenced King, and finally a consideration of the (profound) implications of holding this belief. They could also reflect on central concepts (religious or otherwise) that inform their outlooks and worldviews.

Source Aeon
 

Quick stories

QS1 Dobble

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Mathematics
  • KQs How does understanding mathematics help us understand the world?
  • Source Smithsonian


QS2 Grapes of Wrath

  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences
  • KQs Is reality best understood via fiction?
  • Source New Statesman


QS3 Kindness considered

  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, ethics
  • KQs Can we explain kindness in purely scientific terms?
  • Source Washington Post


QS4 Written by...

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences, memory
  • KQs How is history determined by those who write it?
  • Source Big Think

QS5 Art galleries

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts
  • KQs How can artistic expression be used to express our relationship with the world?
  • Source Washington Post

 

November RLS 2018

 

1. Word of the year

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs What are the ‘words of the year’?

Second order KQs What knowledge about the world is conveyed in a single word? Do words define society, or the other way around? Is our use of words determined by out perspective?

What’s the story about? These three links take you to the ‘word of the year’ as chosen by Collins, Oxford, and dictionary.com

Analysing the story This is a great RLS for students to process, and can be one they offer their own opinions on. First, how much can we learn about the state of society from these words? Have they been chosen by organisations with an agenda? How might they change if they were chosen by a different perspective? And which word would they choose as the ‘word of the year’ - and why?

Source Collins / CNN / Oxford Dictionaries

2. Virtual reality

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs The arts, sense perception, human sciences, history, imagination

First order KQs How successful is the new computer game, ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’? What qualifies a form of expression as art? What makes art great?

Second order KQs Does the quality of art depend on how successfully it represents reality? How do the arts develop over time?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the latest release by Rockstar Games, set in the American West, called ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’. It analyses how realistic it is, and what realism means in the computer games industry.

Analysing the story This is a great story to use for an understanding both of representations of reality, and the development of art forms. Students could consider the questions that Rob Nelson - one of the creators of the game - poses: “What does realism mean?... how slavishly we adhere to realism, that’s a balance that we have to strike… How do you populate a world this size with enough to do? What are the things that make a city or a town feel authentic? How are people going to be hanging out in the world – and then what systems are you going to need to have them behave believably? Is this art? Is this great art? Lots to discuss!

Source The Guardian

3. Recolouring the past

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs History, sense perception, imagination

First order KQs How does Marina Amaral recolour photos?

Second order KQs How should historians fill in the gaps of their knowledge? Which ways of knowing should history be based on?

What’s the story about? This video features the work of Marina Amaral, who we have looked at before. She 'recolours' photos from the past, creating images that seem to resonate more with us than the black and white originals.

Analysing the story We looked last time at why it is that colour seems to link us to the past more intimately; what’s interesting in this video is what Dan Jones says - “The job of the historian is to fill in the things that you don’t know with your best guess” Do you agree? If so, how should we do that? Is this process (ie recolouring photos) a valid way of doing that?

Source BBC

4. Funky physics

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, imagination, reason

First order KQs What is the ‘look elsewhere effect’?

Second order KQs Do we have to understand a concept in order to discover it? How does scientific knowledge progress? What is the role of imagination in producing new knowledge?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the latest discovery by scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern. They have possibly detected another ‘new’ particle, but as the article says, “If this particle really exists, then it is not just outside the standard model but outside it in a way that nobody anticipated.”

Analysing the story This is a demanding read, and only those with an advanced knowledge of physics will get everything out of it. However, students can read it and get a general gist, and then consider what it tells us about the seemingly contradictory way science advances - scientists often detect something they don’t understand, and then try to make sense of it. Why does the article conclude by saying, “life for experimentalists and theorists will suddenly get very busy and very interesting”?

Source The Conversation

5. Gene editing

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, ethics, human sciences

First order KQs How did He Jiankui edit the foetus’s genomes?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between ethics and the natural sciences? 

What’s the story about? The biggest story in science (and, indeed, ethics) at the moment is news that a Chinese researcher has made the world’s first genome-edited babies, who were born during November. This has caused shock and outrage amongst many members of the scientific community around the world. 

Analysing the story This is a huge story not just in the scientific world, but also in the way society advances. Students should familiarise themselves with the details of the real-life situation. They could approach it via first order questions first - the rightness and wrongness of what’s happened, but then they should move on to consider the knowledge implications. Should ethical rules restrict the way we produce scientific knowledge? If so, who should decide on these ethical rules? How should they be decided - which principles should we apply?

Source New York Times / The Atlantic / Nature  

6. Fragmented reality

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences

First order KQs Who was Grete Hermann?

Second order KQs Does scientific knowledge require a philosophical approach? Is truth absolute, or ‘fragmented’? Is scientific knowledge subject to context?

What’s the story about? This attractive video outlines the life and work of Grete Hermann, who was a mathematician and philosopher, who offered an interesting insight into the discoveries of the earliest quantum physicists. 

Analysing the story Students may have to watch this video a couple of times, but it links very nicely to the concept of ‘context is everything’, which we explore in BQ1. This time, however, it isn’t just our subjective perception of the world, it’s natural science. Does Hermann’s work provide that truth - even in this objective area of knowledge - varies according to context?

Source Massive/Aeon

7. Liberty/diaspora

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs The arts, history

First order KQs Which images has Omar Victor Diop chosen for his Liberty / Diaspora project?

Second order KQs Can you ‘correct’ history? How does perspective shape the way history is approached? Can art give us an insight into history? 

What’s the story about? This short video shows the work of Omar Victor Diop, an artist who reimagines images from history, superimposing black subjects onto famous painting from the past. 

Analysing the story In Diop’s words, “Revisiting history is always useful, because even if you do it the wrong way, because you are opening a new chapter, and you’re creating a new conversation.” Is he doing it in the ‘right’ way, or the ‘wrong’ way? Does his reimaginings of historical images change your understanding of them? Overall, does this demonstrate the role art can play in helping us to make sense of the past?

Source BBC

8. Engaging with the random

Big Question Expert knowers

AoKs/WoKs Indigenous knowledge questions, human sciences

First order KQs What is the evidence that shamanism a universal feature of human society?

Second order KQs Do hypotheses help or hinder us from producing knowledge? How can ‘engaging with the random’ help us to generate knowledge?

What’s the story about? Thomas T. Hills looks at why shamanism is a universal feature of human society, and why it evolved in certain societies. It’s a useful article for us because it shows how we can apply hypotheses in understanding indigenous knowledge and human sciences.

Analysing the story The article is interesting on several levels. First, have a look at Hills’s possible arguments to explain shamanism - how does he put forward several hypotheses, and then explore them? Is creating a framework like this a good approach, or does it close off possible explanations? Second, read find the passage which follows his assertion that “When minds can’t find things, they engage with the random.” What does this mean, and what how does shamanism link to this?

Source Aeon

9. Le Grand K

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, sense perception

First order KQs How are weights calculated?

Second order KQs Are systems of measurement real or imagined? How has the way we measure and calibrate reality changed over time?

What’s the story about? This article looks at how this month saw the replacement of ‘Le Grand K’ in Paris - the prototype kilogram, which has always acted as our the reference point for our measurement of one kilo - with Planck’s constant, a number that relates a radio wave’s energy to its frequency. 

Analysing the story This is a lovely - and quite possibly surprising - story about the way in which we measure and calibrate the world. Is having an actual object to represent a weight more ‘real’ than basing our understanding of a kilogram on a radio wave? Does this change indicate that knowledge becomes more accurate over time? Why is accuracy so important - and seemingly more important now than ever?

Source Wired

10. Graphic history

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What made Anne Frank such a gifted writer? 

Second order KQs Does the selective nature of historical evidence mean that it is always flawed knowledge? Can we escape our own perspectives when we look at the past?

What’s the story about? This article looks at a new publication of Anne Frank’s diaries, which is presented as a ‘graphic adaptation’. The reviewer, whilst praising the “stunning and poetic drawings”, also bemoans that “it’s so abridged that readers are shortchanged.”

Analysing the story In other words, the writers of this new book have had to deal with one of the key challenges for historians: selection of evidence. Why does the reviewer feel that this selection was unsuccessful? What ensures successful selection of evidence in history? On another issue, (similarly to story 7), have the arts provided us with an extra level of insight in understanding this event in history? 

Source The Atlantic

11. 6'8"

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, human sciences

First order KQs How are tall people treated differently?

Second order KQs To what extent is our perspective determined by physical attributes? Is our view of the word determined by the way we are treated by others?

What’s the story about? This is a very simple article, which looks at how extreme height can impact on the way in which we view and interact with the world. 

Analysing the story This brilliantly simple article could be used to introduce BQ6. Students could think about how being tall can shape your understanding of and interaction with the world (both negatively and positively), and then compare to what Nicholas Kulish says. Then they could think about other physical and mental traits that help to make our perspectives unique. To what extent are we aware of other people’s perspectives? To what extent do we ever leave our own perspective on the world? Can we ever talk about a ‘normal’ physical or mental trait?

Source The Guardian

12. Cold outside

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, the arts

First order KQs Is the song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ about sexist?

Second order KQs Why and how does ethical knowledge change over time? Is it valid to make moral judgements about artistic expressions from other eras? 

What’s the story about? The 1944 song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is regarded as a Christmas classic, but one radio station has now stopped playing it - saying that it seems incongruous in the #MeToo era - and there’s a heated online debate about it. 

Analysing the story Students could have a look at the lyrics to the song, and decide for themselves - is this an inappropriate song? Is the fact that we’re having this debate at all indicative of an area of knowledge that is subject to more change than others? If so, why?

Source CBS

13. A repressed language?

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs Why does English lack certain terms to describe behavioural traits?

Second order KQs Does language determine knowledge?

What’s the story about? The story looks at more culturally-specific terms, this time about character traits and modes of behaviour, for which there are no words in the English language. The writer considers the extent to which this is because those traits are unique, or especially at home, in those cultures.

Analysing the story Students can look through the different terms, and pick out their favourites. Think about what the writer says: “Learning other languages offers insights into the way that other cultures see the world”, and, “Languages encapsulate culture. They are an embodiment of the way in which a particular group of people has agreed to communicate.” Do you agree? Or is linguistic relativism unhelpful in giving us an insight into the relationship between language and culture?

Source BBC

14. Subjective algorithms

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, ethics, reason

First order KQs What use do we make of algorithms?

Second order KQs How objective is the knowledge generated by algorithms? Is it possible to approach ethical problems (or any type of problem) completely objectively?

What’s the story about? This short video by Cathy O’Neil ponders the nature of algorithms, and challenges the idea that they represent “indisputable mathematical truths”

Analysing the story Get students to think about the type of knowledge produced by algorithms, and how objective it is. Think further, about how this knowledge is applied and used, focusing on the common view that it’s used to generate unbiased decisions. Then play the video, and focus in on what O’Neil (brilliantly, and so simply) contends. Does this change their view of what sort of knowledge algorithms produce?

Source Aeon

15. Clash of cultures

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, RKS, human sciences

First order KQs Why was John Chau killed on North Sentinel? 

Second order KQs In which areas of knowledge can we follow an absolutist approach to knowledge?

What’s the story about? This story is all about a clash of perspectives, and the difficulties that that indicates about being able to understand the worldview of people who are from a completely different culture. John Chau, an American missionary, travelled to North Sentinel, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and against all advice (not to mention laws), tried to land on the island, and spread a Christian message. The islanders killed him for his efforts. 

Analysing the story Students could initially think about some first order questions: why is it illegal to visit North Sentinel; why is contact with outsiders so dangerous for the people living there; why did John Chau think it was acceptable for him to visit; why did the North Sentinelese react in the way they did? Then move on to think about some of the implications. Does this prove that it’s impossible to get into the mindset of those with a different perspective about life? How does having a religious faith complicate (or support?) our ability to understand other cultures? 

Source Global News / Straits Times  / Guardian / Christian Post

Quick stories

QS1 Multilingual island

  •  Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences
  • KQ How does language-use shape society?
  • Source The Atlantic

QS2 Computer art

  •  Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, technology, mathematics
  • KQ What is art?
  • Source The Guardian

QS3 Propaganda

  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs History
  • KQ How important is the evidence we use to construct knowledge?
  • Source BBC

QS4 Heaven or hell?

  •  Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, ethics
  • KQ How useful are the arts in providing us with knowledge about the world?
  • Source New Humanist

 QS5 85%

  •  Big Question Perspectives
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences
  • KQ How do perspectives shape the way we use evidence for our knowledge claims?
  • Source The Conversation

 

October RLS 2018

 

1. Do we not bleed?

Big Question Purpose & value / Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, ethics, human sciences, emotion, imagination

First order KQs What theme does Marc Quinn explore in his artwork, ‘Odyssey’?

Second order KQs What does art help us to understand? Are ethical issues best explored via the arts? 

What’s the story about? This story looks at the creation of the newest work by British artist Marc Quinn, which will be exhibited outside the New York Public Library, and then go on world tour. The work features two tons of blood - half of it taken from refugees, and half of it taken from non-refugees. The audience will be invited to ‘spot the difference’. 

Analysing the story This is an amazing story to consider, in many different ways - think first about what inspired Quinn came up with this idea, how he created it, and what the final product is. Then think about bigger questions: does this work of art help us to understand an ethical issue more clearly? Does this indicate the true purpose of the arts? What generates artistic impact - imagination, conceptual vision, or the skill with which the work has been created? Quinn’s work is worth exploring; see, for example, how he blends an interest in scientific knowledge with artistic expression.

Source Guardian

2. First man

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, history, emotion

First order KQs How accurate is ‘First Man’ about the Apollo Moon Mission?

Second order KQs What can we learn about the past from artistic recreations? Is accuracy of understanding synonymous with accuracy of facts?

What’s the story about? The two articles (from the Smithsonian and Wired) look at the film ‘First Man’, and consider how accurate it is about Neil Armstrong’s mission to the moon, and what knowledge it successfully conveys.

Analysing the story Read through the first article, and focus on what it tells us about the emotional content of the film. Does this film help us to genuinely understand what Armstrong and those around him were feeling at the time? If it does, how is that knowledge useful? In the second article (see here), what did the film get right and wrong about the technical challenges of the mission? Do directors and writers have an obligation to make their films as accurate as possible? Overall, what role do you think the arts have in shaping our understanding of the past?

Source Smithsonian / Wired

3. Shredded

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences

First order KQs Why did Banksy shred his painting, Girl with Balloon?

Second order KQs How does context shape the way we understand art? What is the key component of artistic knowledge? Is the value of art determined by its intention or content?

What’s the story about? Will Gompertz treats Banksy’s act of shredding his own painting, Girl with Balloon, as a work of art in itself, and rates it as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the century.

Analysing the story That Gompertz regards this act as a work of art is, in itself, deeply interesting, and could lead students towards a very interesting discussion of the nature of art, and what gives it its value. However, what’s even more interesting is how our perception of this work of art changed as this process occurred. First, what was our perception of the artwork before the shredding? How, then, did our ideas change - and why was the buyer of the work of art not put off by the destruction? Does this all show that art is ephemeral and superficial, or that it acts as a mirror to nature “to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

Source BBC

4. Drug hunters

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, imagination, intuition

First order KQs What methods do ‘drug hunters’ use to create new drugs?

Second order KQs Is scientific knowledge produced in a systematic way? What role does imagination (and chance) play in scientific discoveries? Is the scientific method a valid model for understanding how scientific knowledge develops?

What’s the story about? Donald Kirsch and Ogi Ogas discuss how new drugs are ‘hunted’, and how the end product - if there is one - rarely matches up to what researchers set out to find.  

Analysing the story This article gives us some fantastic insights into how scientific knowledge is produced and used. Ask students before they look at it to explain how drugs are created, then get them to focus on various aspects of the story, such as: what proportion of scientists ideas get funded (and what implications does that have for scientific ideas)? What proportion of these then end up actually manufactured and approved? What makes producing drugs so much more difficult than building a bridge, or sending an astronaut into space? What do these difficulties reveal about the scale of discoveries such as that made by James Simpson? And how can Borges help us understand the process of ‘drug hunting’?

Source Salon

5. Unique animal

Big Question Development / Purpose & Value

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, reason

First order KQs What is ‘meliorism’?

Second order KQs Are all disagreements caused by a lack of understanding of what others mean? 

What’s the story about? This is an interview with the British philosopher John Gray, on a variety of topics such as his views on atheism, history, and the way in which we produce and use knowledge.

Analysing the story Gray offers some very interesting ideas, which students can work on (perhaps working in groups to analyse each one, and offer their opinions on), such as: “atheists know very little about the history of religion” “science is very susceptible to the shifts and fashions and politics of the time” “Humankind is unique among animals in its capacity to grow knowledge. It’s also unique in its incapacity to learn from experience.” Also check out this article on Gray's new book.

Source New Humanist / New Republic

6. Successful failure

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs The natural sciences, reason

First order KQs Why did scientists test the effect of the drug ‘anti E-selectin’ in the early 2000s?

Second order KQs What represents a successful scientific research project? Does the production of scientific knowledge stem from positive or negative results?

What’s the story about? This article looks at how a supposedly failed scientific study on psoriasis led to much greater understanding of ‘T’ cells in the early 2000s. 

Analysing the story We looked last month at how failing to publish negative results of research leads to biases in how we understand science. This story looks at how negative results can actually lead to the production of new knowledge, so builds on the idea of how having a ‘binary’ approach to scientific knowledge (ie results either confirm or contradict our original hypothesis) is incomplete. How does this particular research project show that “we can learn as much from our failures in science as we can from our successes”? And is this true in all areas of knowledge?

Source Massive

7. Deadly virus

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, ethics

First order KQs Why did scientists recently resurrect the Horsepox virus?

Second order KQs Who should decide how scientific knowledge is produced and used? Do ethical considerations help or hinder us from producing knowledge?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the reasons behind a team in the US synthesizing a virus that has long been dead, and carrying out research on it. It then widens its considerations to all ‘dual-use’ research - studies that lead to knowledge that can do both a great deal of good, or harm. 

Analysing the story This story leads on to some great topics and questions for debate.At the heart of this story is a quote that students can focus on - “There are some things that we are better off not knowing.” In order to explore this, get them to discuss whether scientists should be subject to ethical limitations, and if so, who should decide on these - the scientists themselves, the government, or the people? Of course, answers should be fully supported with justification.

Source The Atlantic

8. Cooperation

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs Are intelligent people more cooperative?

Second order KQs Which AOK uses more convincing research methods - the human or natural sciences? What makes a theory in the human sciences convincing? 

What’s the story about? The story looks at the way researchers are looking into ways to promote cooperation between members of society, and the answers they are arriving at. 

Analysing the story This is a useful story demonstrating how the human sciences work. How have researchers gone about answering a (fundamental) question about the way society works - think in terms of how and why they identified the question, how were predictions made (why are these often different and contradictory?), how was the study carried out (putting research subjects into a hypothetical situation)? Overall, are you convinced by the answers they arrived at? If not, what should they have done differently?

Source The Conversation

9. Too much truth?

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, human sciences, ethics

First order KQs Why Gianfranco Pacchioni worried about the future of science?

Second order KQs Does increasing our access to knowledge always undermine that knowledge? To what extent should scientific knowledge be ‘filtered’ before it is reported? Does more knowledge mean better knowledge?

What’s the story about? In an interview with DW, Gianfranco Pacchioni, author of "The Overproduction of Truth", discusses the ways in which science is progressing, and how to find a balance between access to scientific knowledge, and ensuring the quality of that knowledge is still high. 

Analysing the story This is a useful and quite digestible interview with an expert on how scientific knowledge is developing. Students could focus on what Pacchioni says about the way scientific knowledge should be presented, and also on his opinion of ‘slow science’. He’s also quite interesting on the ethics of science - does (and should) this AOK have an ethical dimension to it? Finally, is he right to say that the image of science (rather than science itself) is under genuine threat?

Source DW

10. Ahead of her time

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences, language, emotion, imagination, RKS

First order KQs What inspired the artist Hilma af Klint?

Second order KQs How do the arts channel our understanding of the world? How does artistic ideas develop over time? In what way is visual art a language?

What’s the story about? The article looks at an exhibition in New York of the work Hilma af Klint, a turn of the century modernist painter, who considered herself so far ahead of her time that she stipulated her work should not be exhibited until 20 years after her death.

Analysing the story These wonderful paintings conjure up many feelings as you look at them, so students can give their impressions, and reflect on what impact they have on themselves. Then dig further: what does it mean to be ‘ahead of your time’ as an artist (linking this to artistic knowledge)? Think about the writer’s interesting comment at the end of the article - “Her century-old paintings come to us relatively unencumbered by critical or historical baggage” - and what it suggests about the role of the critic in informing us about art? And why should it seem surprising that these are the product of a woman - doesn’t art transcend gender?

Source New York Times

11. Language & landscape

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Language, IKS, natural sciences

First order KQs What is the rate that indigenous languages are disappearing? 

Second order KQs Do indigenous languages give us access to specific knowledge about the natural world? Does language determine knowledge? 

What’s the story about? This article discusses the relationship between indigenous languages, and knowledge about the natural world, arguing that the decline in the former affects the way we understand “ecosystems, conservation methods, plant life, animal behavior and many other aspects of the natural world.”

Analysing the story This relatively short article contains a lot of ideas. First, look at what it indicates about language and knowledge in general - do different languages support different types of understanding? Second, more specifically, what knowledge do indigenous languages in particular possess? Additionally, consider the empirical nature of indigenous knowledge via the video on the Ojibwe language. What does this reveal about the way indigenous people produce knowledge about the world, and the way their language supports this? Finally, consider the implications of the final thoughts of the article - “Once a language is gone, the traditional knowledge it carries also gets erased from society.”

Source The Conversation

12. Healthy hype

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, human sciences

First order KQs Does organic food help to prevent cancer?

Second order KQs Is our understanding of the natural world based on valid evidence? Should we rely on media sources to provide us with knowledge about science? Are we more prone to believe dramatic knowledge claims?

What’s the story about? The article examines the sensational claims currently being made about organic food, suggesting that it can help to prevent us from developing cancer. 

Analysing the story First look at what the article says about the scientific study carried out on organic food. Then compare this to the story found in USA Today - does this demonstrate that the media seizes on dramatic scientific findings, without critically analysing them? Or is Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz wrong, and there really is something here? What does this tell us about the way in which we acquire our knowledge about the natural world? And, finally, why is it so difficult to distinguish correlation from causation?

Source The Guardian

13. 'Living' history

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs History, emotion, imagination

First order KQs How accurate is the English heritage reenactment of the Battle of Hastings?

Second order KQs What insights do we gain about the past via an empirical approach to history? Is history only ever about interpretation?

What’s the story about? The article and photos look at an English Heritage reenactment of the Battle of Hastings of 1066, when the Normans invaded and conquered England. Those involved are asked why they get involved, and what knowledge these events give us about the past.

Analysing the story This is a great story about history, and the way we connect with the past. Consider the thoughts of one of the people involved in the event, who says, “You don’t need a formal education to learn about history”. Could a formal education even impede our understanding of the past? Is this empirical ‘living history’ approach a better way of exploring the past? Does it matter that certain details may not be fully accurate as another person puts it, “all we can say is this is our interpretation”.  

Source The Guardian

14. Contracting out our thinking

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Faith, reason, human sciences

First order KQs What are the main tenets of fascism?

Second order KQs Do we produce knowledge about politics in the same way as knowledge about religion? To what extent do we ‘contract out our thinking’ when forming our beliefs?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the way in which faith underpins certain political ideologies, and how supporters of more extreme political ideas “contract out their thinking”

Analysing the story This is a very interesting article which should generate a reaction amongst students, and could set up a great debate - which way of knowing do we primarily use to inform us about - and subscribe to - political ideology? Is it faith, in which case, is ‘knowing’ about politics the same as ‘knowing’ about religion? Or is the thesis of the writer flawed, and political extremism based firmly on rational thinking?

Source New Humanist

15. The study of ideas

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, imagination, reason, human & natural sciences

First order KQs How is mathematics traditionally taught?

Second order KQs How should we envisage the nature of mathematics in order to properly understand it? How does mathematical knowledge underpin other areas of knowledge? Should we always challenge our assumptions about the nature of knowledge?

What’s the story about? Mordechai Levy-Eichel considers various aspects of mathematics - its “joyful, beautiful” nature, its role in shaping modern society, and the way in which it often neglected when people consider the history of ideas.  

Analysing the story As with most Aeon material, this is quite a demanding source, although it’s worth the bother. Provide your students with some anchors to the article, and pose them questions to explore mathematics (and the development of ideas). For example, why does Levy-Eichel say that “Perhaps more than any other subject, mathematics is about the study of ideas.” Do you agree that mathematics is taught in a way that “obscures the actual insights and reasoning, the grandeur and insight, the excitement and frustration, that drive mathematicians.”? And do you agree that mathematics “like any literature, is created by human beings for their own amusement.”

Source Aeon

Quick stories

QS1 Dumbing down?

  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, memory, reason
  • KQs Is it possible to make claims about changing rates of intelligence over time?
  • Source Slate

QS2 Artistic predictions

  •  Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences
  • KQs Are artistic representations of the world useful in anticipating the future?
  • Source Big Think

QS3 Hidden agenda?

  •  Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences
  • KQs To what extent is science subject to non-objective agendas?
  • Source Al Jazeera

QS4 Alien language

  • Big Question Purpose & value
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences
  • KQs How do our assumptions about communication mislead us about the nature of purpose of language
  • Source Salon

QS5 Knowledge vs. data

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, history, reason
  • KQs What distinguishes knowledge from data? 
  • Source Big Think

September RLS 2018

1. Court of opinion

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, human sciences

First order KQs Who was in the wrong, and who was in the right - the umpire, or Serena Williams?

Second order KQs How do our perspectives shape the outcome of our ethical thinking? Are differences of opinions in ethics always caused by different perspectives? Does ‘truth’ exist in ethics?

What’s the story about? This is an interview with Billie Jean King on what happened during the 2018 women’s US Open, when Serena Williams was punished for various court violations, and eventually lost the match.

Analysing the story Was this sexism, racism, or just a tennis player behaving badly? How you answer that probably depends on your perspective, which makes this a great real-life situation to illustrate how our ethical judgements depend so much on our personal and societal background. Can we reach an objective answer to this question? And do our perspectives also inform the way we interpret the cartoon that was published shortly after the match?  Students should use this video purely as a way of beginning their assessment of this story - there are a lot of interpretations of what happened out there!
Source CNN

2. Patterns of history

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences

First order KQs What are the ‘politics of inevitability’?

Second order KQs What are the implications of basing our study of history on flawed assumptions? What determines the way in which we construct our visions of the past? Does history have ‘patterns’?

What’s the story about? This video features Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who talks about the way in which our assumptions about patterns in history mislead us as we try to understand this area of knowledge. His terms ‘politics of inevitability’ and ‘politics of eternity’ are worth processing.

Analysing the story This is a great video about the implications of misunderstanding history. Students can identify the big misassumptions that Timothy Snyder says people in the US and Europe make about ‘patterns’ of history, and how these mislead us when it comes to evaluating our present reality. Is he right that these misunderstandings are ‘dulling our minds’, making us unable to see the reality of the situation we now exist within?
Source Big Think

3. Roasted manatee

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Ethics

First order KQs In which country is ‘dog’ considered an acceptable dish?

Second order KQs Can consensus in ethics extend beyond cultural boundaries? To what extent is ethical knowledge consciously generated?

What’s the story about? This short article and podcast consider how different cultures have contrasting approaches when it comes to the ethics of meat-eating.

Analysing the story This is a fairly long podcast (around 45 minutes), but it really is worth the effort of listening to all it, as it considers many different perspectives - time, cultures, forms of evaluating acceptable behaviour - related to what is, and what isn’t morally acceptable to eat. Ask students to propose reasons why we/they don’t eat certain animals before listening, and then get them to evaluate what they’ve learned from the ideas of the different presenters. You could also get them to think more about what we consider to be ‘disgusting’ via this article, the reason why we experience this response, and how it influences our ethical awareness.
Source The Atlantic

4. False consolation?

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, language

First order KQs What was Sigmund Freud’s position on religion?

Second order KQs What is the purpose of religious knowledge? How has the purpose of religious knowledge changed over time? Does meaningful knowledge have to be true?

What’s the story about? This article considers the purpose of religious knowledge systems, running through various interpretations and theories on what this area of knowledge provides knowers with.

Analysing the story Get students to consider the different ideas that have been put forward by thinkers on the point of religious knowledge, and who proposed them, such as: explaining nature, civilising our natural behaviour, generating collective experiences, and its therapeutic power. Is Stephen Asma correct in identifying the last of these as the key purpose of religious knowledge? Do you agree that figures such as Christopher Hitchens got it wrong when they referred to religion as being ‘false consolation’?
Source Aeon

5. Political polls

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, mathematics

First order KQs How are political polls carried out?

Second order KQs How should we approach information about public opinions? How and why is public opinion research changing over time? How far can knowledge in the human sciences be represented in statistical form?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the reasons why political polls are often inaccurate - and why this problem is increasing in the Internet age.

Analysing the story Political polls are a major type of evidence used to study and understand this branch of human sciences, but stories about how unreliable they are appear after virtually every election. Should we put any store in the knowledge they provide us? Does this show that characteristics of society cannot be represented in this way? What does the article suggest in order to increase the reliability of poll reading - and do you find this convincing?
Source The Conversation

6. Mathematical solution

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics

First order KQs What is the Riemann hypothesis?

Second order KQs What is the role of individual knowers in producing mathematical knowledge? How easy is it to establish consensus in mathematics?

What’s the story about? This story looks at the claim by Sir Michael Atiyah that he has solved the Riemann hypothesis, a mathematical problem relating to prime numbers that has existed for more than a century and a half. It examines why this solution is unlikely to actually have been discovered.

Analysing the story This story is very useful in illustrating the complexity of mathematical knowledge, and why evaluating mathematical theories involves a lot more than just affirming that 1 + 1 = 2 (an example that should never be used!). In short, why is there so much doubt that a solution has been found, why will it take a long time to assess and judge Atiyah’s claim, and what does this all tell us about mathematical knowledge?
Source Science

7. Original thinking

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs The arts

First order KQs Do Hollywood sequels indicate a lack of imagination?

Second order KQs Is there a starting point to knowledge? Is knowledge always created by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’? Do original ideas exist?

What’s the story about? This fantastic little animation about originality in the arts was made a few years ago, but featured in Aeon in September. As the short accompanying article puts it, “Nothing has yet been said that’s not been said before.”

Analysing the story This poses some great questions about not only knowledge in the arts, but knowledge in general. If ideas and theories are always derived from prior sources, how do we ever come up with new knowledge? Should we be sceptical of claims of originality when it comes to knowledge? What drives development in (artistic) knowledge - shared or personal sources?
Source Aeon

8. How we live

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, the arts

First order KQs Which photos feature in the book Civilisation: The Way We Live Now?

Second order KQs Can you summarise how people live via photographs? What are the limits of the knowledge that can be conveyed by a photograph?

What’s the story about? This article reviews the book Civilisation: The Way We Live Now, which features photographs that deal with the theme of the state of human society in the 21st century.

Analysing the story First, students can consider the limits of what we can learn about society (or anything) from a photograph. Next, they can select which of the photos best sums up the state of human society in the 21st century. Finally, they could have a go at taking their own photo, or choosing one, that best sums up contemporary life - and explain why they made this selection.


Source The Guardian
 

9. Prize-winning imagination

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, imagination

First order KQs What are the Ig Prizes?

Second order KQs Which ways of knowing are most crucial to the production of scientific knowledge? Are outlandish approaches to knowledge the first step in producing mainstream ideas?

What’s the story about? The short article looks at some of the winners of the 2018 Ig ‘Nobel’ Prizes for science, awarded to scientific studies “as much for their hilarity as their scientific value”.

Analysing the story Whilst the Nobel Prizes for scientific discoveries receive all the attention, the Ig Prizes perhaps reveal more about the way in which science moves forward, and the role of imagination in helping to produce more understanding about the natural world and universe. Students can focus on different finalists, and think about what their work tells us. Which one shows the most impressive leap of the imagination?
Source Science
 

10. Raising the flag

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs Why was “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” taken?

Second order KQs In what ways can unreliable historical sources provide us with useful insights about the past? How important is it to be aware of the purpose of a knowledge source?

What’s the story about? This video analyses one of the most famous historical photo - “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” - taken at the end of World War II. It looks at the way in which the photo was doctored, and the reasons for the changes made.

Analysing the story This is a fascinating look at an iconic photo. Students can think about the importance of finding out that certain details were doctored, and how that changes our opinion of this event in history. Does it matter that this photo was staged? How much of our historical knowledge is based on flawed evidence?
Source Vox
 

11. Poverty porn

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, the arts, sense perception

First order KQs Are photos that feature human suffering immoral?

Second order KQs How do we reach judgements about ethical issues?

What’s the story about? The article considers the ethics of photos that feature suffering. It looks at some of the most famous ‘poverty porn’ images from history, such as the 1936 black-and-white photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, taken during the Great Depression.

Analysing the story We’re interested in this story not, of course, in terms of the rightness or wrongness of taking photos that are deliberately emotionally-manipulative, but in terms of how we arrive at a judgement on them. Does the end justify the means (in other words, do students take a consequentialist approach to ethics), or is there something inherently wrong in taking photos that may well be ‘fake’, and outweighs any positive results that the images may lead to (in other words, are students follow a deontological approach to ethics)? This will also clearly demonstrate the difference between first and second order knowledge in this area of knowledge. Finally, what does this show us about the need to visualise ethical issues in order to produce knowledge about them?
Source The Conversation
 

12. Sea slugs and memories

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Memory, human and natural sciences

First order KQs Can memories be transferred from one sea-slug to another?

Second order KQs To what extent can we extrapolate scientific knowledge from one field to another? Where is the line between speculation and prediction?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the recent research carried out on how memory works in sea slugs, specifically, whether it is possible to transfer memories created in one organism into another.

Analysing the story There’s quite a lot of technical detail here, but for us, the interesting question is, can you extrapolate the knowledge created in this study into an understanding of how the human brain works? This could get students thinking about the extent to which you can apply ideas and theories from one area of knowledge into other contexts.
Source Massive
 

13. Destruction of English

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs Why does Robert Fisk believe the English language ‘facing destruction’?

Second order KQs How can we tell if our ability to use written language is ‘declining’ over time? Are we in control of language, or is language in control of us?

What’s the story about? This passionately-written article by the journalist Robert Fisk looks at the how our ability to use language is declining, something he links to the way “words are being deployed not for their meaning but for their political usefulness.”

Analysing the story There are two basic premises in this article: first, that language-use is worsening; second, that this is happening deliberately, by business organisations and political leaders. This is a very different view of how language develops over time compared to some of the videos we’ve seen before (see Kory Stamper on her role as a lexicographer) - so which one is correct?
Source The Independent
 

14. Publication bias

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language, reason

First order KQs What is ‘publication bias’?

Second order KQs What role do negative results play in the production of scientific knowledge? How can language be used to ‘spin’ ideas in objective areas of knowledge?

What’s the story about? Aaron E. Cowell examines the extent to which the suppression of negative research results can lead to misunderstandings and misassumptions in the production of scientific knowledge.

Analysing the story Look at the four different problems that Cowell focuses on, and consider their significance: publication bias, outcome reporting bias, spin, and citation bias. What are his suggestions on how to fix these problems - and do they sound workable?
Source The New York Times
 

15. The anthropic principle

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, human sciences, religious knowledge systems, imagination, reason

First order KQs What is the anthropic principle?

Second order KQs What does the anthropic principle reveal about the way we understand the world? What are the implications of subscribing to the anthropic principle on our understanding of the universe?

What’s the story about? This long but engagingly-written article looks at the way in which the unlikeliness of our existence prompts us to believe that there is a purpose and plan behind the universe.

Analysing the story There is a lot to take in with this article - first, there is the concept of the ‘anthropic principle’, which is a useful concept for students to grasp (get them to distinguish between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ versions of the principle). Next, think about why we tend to think in this way, and how over time it was challenged by the work of thinkers such as Copernicus and Darwin. Finally, students can look at how this whole question brings together different disciplines and ways of knowing - science, philosophy, imagination, and reason.
Source Aeon
 

Quick stories

QS1 The origin of words

  • Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, imagination
  • KQs Can a ‘romantic’ approach to knowledge provide us with useful insights?
  • Source Aeon

QS2 Under a full moon

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs IKS, natural sciences
  • KQs What are the limits knowledge produced via a positivist approach?
  • Source BBC

QS3 Revolutionary mathematics

  • Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Mathematics
  • KQs How can a different approach to knowledge revolutionise an area of knowledge?
  • Source Smithsonian

QS4 Translations

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Language
  • KQs To what extent can words be translated?
  • Source BBC
     

QS5 Confrontational art

  • Big Question Purpose & value
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences
  • KQs How does art make people ‘confront their existence’?
  • Source BBC

 

August 2018 RLSs & KQs

1. Cancerous cells?

1. Anthropomorphised knowledge adsf

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, emotion, language

First order KQs Why did the orca mother carry her calf for more than two weeks after it had died?

Second order KQs Can we acquire knowledge about the world neutrally? Do preconceptions help or hinder our production of knowledge?

What’s the story about? These two articles consider the case of (depending on your perspective) Tahlequah or J35, the orca that carried her dead calf for over two weeks in an apparent act of ‘mourning’. They consider the extent to which we can model animal behaviour on our own.

Analysing the story Producing knowledge is done partly by modelling the experiences of others (be they part of the human or non-human world) on our own awareness and understanding of the world. This can have both benefits and drawbacks - our assumptions and preconceptions may be deeply misleading, or they may provide us with a helpful framework in order to support our conclusions. Which is the case with J35? Was she experiencing an emotional response that was akin to our own, or is it always inappropriate to assume that animals fell in a fundamentally different way to us? If you’re a member of theoryofknowledge.net, check out the new exemplar TOK presentation based on this RLS, which will be added to the site very shortly.


Source The Guardian & The Atlantic

2. Overstocked libraries

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences, emotion

First order KQs What does ‘tsundoku’ mean?

Second order KQs What level of meaning is left behind when we translate words from one language to another? Can we understand an idea without having a word for it? What do we translate - words or concepts?

What’s the story about? Both these articles look at culture-specific words that denote a specific emotion, concept, or idea. The Guardian picks out ten words from all over the world; Big Think focuses on Japan, and the idea of ‘tsundoku’, before looking at one or two other words.

Analysing the story This is a latest in a long line of articles celebrating ‘culture-specific’ terms. Do your students agree that these words really “speak volumes about the countries” which produced them? Can we talk about certain words being representative of another country - or is this just to generalise and simplify cultures and societies?


Source The Guardian / Big Think

3. Sacred colanders

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, language, human sciences

First order KQs What are the main tenets of Pastafarianism?

Second order KQs Does the intention of a conceptual framework determine its legitimacy? Do ‘religious’ concepts require a different approach to categorisation? Do genuine religious systems deal in moral knowledge, spiritual knowledge, or both?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the widely-discussed refusal of the Dutch Council of State to recognise the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ belief system as being ‘religious’, thereby disallowing a law student from appearing in her national ID photo wearing a pasta strainer on her head. It also considers the nature and purpose of religion, whether being a parady undermines its integrity.

Analysing the story This story goes to the heart of what religion knowledge systems are, and what their purpose is. ‘Members’ of the FSM claim that their ‘belief system’ is a genuine religion, but it was founded as a way of highlighting the problematic relationship between reason and faith. Does this undermine all their rights to be treated as a ‘proper’ religion? Does a religion have to have a clear purpose? What sort of knowledge production should characterise a religion?


Source Sydney Morning Herald

4. Art and astronomy

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs The natural sciences, the arts, imagination

First order KQs What type of work do the artists employed by NASA carry out?

Second order KQs Can the scale of astronomical discoveries only be understood visually? ‘Art makes you question the [scientific] reality around you.’ Do you agree? Are there different ways of understanding scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? Michelle Thaller looks at how, far from being contradictory, art and science can serve each other effectively when it comes to understanding the nature of the universe. The video also looks at the purpose of artistic knowledge, and how valuable it can be in helping us to understand science.

Analysing the story This video considers the quite surprising fact that NASA employ a team of artists to help visualise and communicate the knowledge they discover about the universe. Does this help to dispel the ‘myth’ that there is a clash between artistic and scientific approaches to understanding? Or do they still have a fundamentally different method when it comes to knowledge production?

Source Big Think

5. Linguistic wars

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs What is an ‘enthymeme’?

Second order KQs Do words have an inherent meaning, or do our perspectives determine them? Can - and should - words be interpreted in different ways?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the concept of ‘enthymemes’, a term first used by Aristotle to refer to the way words and ideas can be interpreted in different ways by different cultures. In this article, those cultures are interest groups, and how they conceive of the word ‘diversity’. It’s the basis of American identity for some, and the end of civilisation for others.

Analysing the story This is a great source for understanding not only how the meaning of words is mutable, but also how our perspectives prompt us to interpret language in a completely different way. What does this tell us about the level of ‘shared knowledge’ within language?  Do we, ultimately, all speak a different language? Can language ever provide us with a framework of consensus about the world, or does the fact that it is constantly changing prevent this from ever occurring?


Source The Conversation

6. Rational suicide?

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, reason, human sciences

First order KQs What is the legal status of suicide?

Second order KQs What is the role of reason in determining the morality of an action? To what extent can (and should) we escape our perspectives when exploring an ethical issue?

What’s the story about? The story looks at a debate raging in the US at the moment over whether suicide can be determined ‘rational’ or not. Not surprisingly, for such an emotive subject, the opinions and beliefs of the different groups involved in the debate are deeply entrenched.

Analysing the story Although we’re interested in second order knowledge in TOK, it’s always helpful to be able to apply a specific context in order to understand the concepts of TOK. This story looks at the ethics of suicide, and whether by conceiving of it as being ‘rational’ affords it moral legitimacy. Do students believe suicide is rational? How do their perspectives shape the way they view this issue? Check out the mention of logical fallacies in the article as well - is the ‘slippery slope’ argument ever valid?


Source New York Times

7. The right stuff

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, human sciences, emotion, reason

First order KQs What is ‘fundamental attribution error’?

Second order KQs Can religious approaches to knowledge help us to understand the nature of reality? Can we subscribe only to the ‘naturalistic’ aspects of religious knowledge systems? What are the implications to how we understand the world of the ‘illusion of the self’?

What’s the story about? Sean Illing interviews Robert Wright, an evolutionary psychologist, who has just written a book called ‘Why Buddhism is True’. As the article points out, truth in this sense means a “diagnosis of the human predicament [that] is fundamentally correct, and… a prescription [that] is deeply valid and urgently important.”

Analysing the story Regardless of your position on things like meditation and mindfulness, this is an interesting interview that deals with a number of very interesting and relevant concepts, such as the ‘illusion’ of the self, the relationship between awareness and morality, the difference between knowing and doing, self-centred judgements, the need for cognitive - rather than emotional - empathy. Are students convinced by this shifting of the debate that we’ve looked at via the ideas of Paul Bloom?


Source Vox

8. Catfishing

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs What are the keywords that reflect contemporary society?

Second order KQs Why do the meanings of words change over time? What knowledge is encapsulated in a single word? Can individual words give us an insight into modern society?

What’s the story about? Other stories this month consider how different cultures and groups have different ways of expressing ideas and interpreting words; this one thinks about how words change over time, and how certain terms help to reflect the reality of contemporary society.

Analysing the story There are some great words to consider here; do students agree that they provide us with genuine insights about contemporary society? Which words would they add? What does this tell us about the power of words, and the knowledge that they convey? Link this to story 5 - is the limitation of using language to understand culture the fact that words can always be interpreted in different ways?


Source BBC

9. The power of imagination

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Imagination, human sciences

First order KQs What causes aphantasia?

Second order KQs How crucial is the role of imagination in helping us to understand the world? How does imagination and memory combine? Can we only measure the importance of faculties when they aren’t present?

What’s the story about? This short article looks at the case of Mia Tomova, who has aphantasia, a condition which means she cannot visualise things in her mind.

Analysing the story It’s often when things are missing that we truly understand the role they play. In this case, the fact that Tomova is unable to imagine objects and people, in her mind that we can assess the importance of this ability. How does this change the way you understand this way of knowing? What are the implications of this - how much more difficult would it be in the production of knowledge to lack access this ability?


Source The Guardian

10. Lies, damned lies, etc.

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Reason, intuition, human sciences, emotion

First order KQs What are the key statistics of 2018?

Second order KQs Do statistics provide us with ‘truth’? Should knowledge claims be supported with statistical evidence?

What’s the story about? Tying in with a competition to come up with the most representative statistic of 2018, this short article looks at how statistics can contradict knowledge that we ‘feel’ is true, mentioning a few examples to support the “power of numbers to shine a light on fake news and bogus claims”.

Analysing the story All students should know the quote about lies and statistics; first, what did he mean when he coined this? Does the underlying assumption that statistics provide us with reliable, objective knowledge, successfully challenge Disraeli’s assertion? Finally, get students to participate in the competition to find a defining statistic - they can enter the competition by following this link. Finally, compare to story 8 - which sums up society more: words or statistics?


Source BBC

11. Back in the USSR

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, history

First order KQs Is Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau project "the most insane film shoot of all time"?

Second order KQs Can art provide us with genuine historical insights? Does the level of audaciousness in creating knowledge correspond to how much knowledge is produced?

What’s the story about? This amazing story looks at one of the most ambitious art projects ever carried out: the reconstruction of a 12,000-square-meter fake Soviet-style city, involving thousands of extras who spent 2 years living and being filmed by Russian artist and filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky. The second article considers the reconstruction of an area of Berlin behind the Wall.

Analysing the story The scale of the Dau art project is mind-boggling, both in terms of its conception and production. But is it more than just a grand creative statement? Does it, in other words, provide us with knowledge about human behaviour, society, and the past? Compare it to the reconstruction of the East Berlin residential block (see the Smithsonian article) - which project is likely to be more insightful, and why? Overall, does art support an understanding of the past, or overshadow it?


Source DW & Smithsonian

12. Meat?

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences

First order KQs Why has Missouri outlawed the labelling of lab-produced meat as meat?

Second order KQs Do we need a familiar reference point in order to understand something? To what extent does a label or name determine a thing’s reality?

What’s the story about? As the development of lab-grown ‘meat’ becomes a reality, this article considers what the product should be called. The decision is a rigorously debated one, with the State of Missouri prohibiting anything that does not come from “harvested production livestock or poultry” from being termed ‘meat’.

Analysing the story The importance of giving things labels is brilliantly highlighted in this story about lab-grown ‘meat’ - which, of course, is the moot point. Why is this such a contentious issue? What other examples are there of denotations of certain words being protected so vigorously? Is this about ‘knowing’ the world clearly, or are there other interests and considerations at play?


Source Vox

13. Predicting the future

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, imagination, reason, mathematics

First order KQs What are Yuval Noah Harari’s key predictions for the future?

Second order KQs In which areas of knowledge can we make accurate predictions about the future?

What’s the story about? The two articles look at predictions about human society, one made by Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens’ (in the Wired article), and the other made by an MIT computer in 1973 (see the Big Think article).

Analysing the story Predictions are a key TOK concept, and being able to make them is one of the reason why we produce knowledge. But how valid are they? Does their viability depend on the area of knowledge concerned, or on the method of making them, or both? Was Lao Tzu right when he said “Those who have knowledge don't predict. Those who predict don't have knowledge”, as one of the November 2018 PTs asserted?


Source Wired & Big Think

14. Solid surveys

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, intuition

First order KQs What proportion of Millenials do not believe that the earth is spherical?

Second order KQs How useful are surveys in providing us with knowledge about the world? Why has there been a resurgence in discredited scientific ideas?

What’s the story about? This story looks at the results of a recent YouGov survey, apparently claiming that only 66% of millenials believe the earth is spherical. However, it also checks the way in which the survey was carried out, and evaluate this claim and others.

Analysing the story There are different levels to the story: first, consider the issue itself, why people don’t accepts the overwhelming (and relatively straightforward) evidence that the earth is spherical. Second, think about the way in which we have gathered this information: how useful is this survey, and surveys in general? Does this support or conflict with the assertion made in story 10 about statistical knowledge?


Source Scientific American

15. How vs. why

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs The natural sciences

First order KQs What are the two classes of questions identified by Peter Atkins?

Second order KQs Is the knowledge we find determined entirely by the questions we ask? Can all knowledge production be approached scientifically?

What’s the story about? Peter Atkins discusses why there are no ‘big questions’ about existence that science cannot answer.

Analysing the story As always with an Aeon article, this is a demanding read. However, its worth reading for the way in which the writer shifts the argument by recalibrating the questions we ask which can be just as simple as replacing ‘why’ with ‘how’. Are you convinced by his argument? Or do you think (as he points out himself) that he’s employing circular logic to arrive at his conclusions?


Source Aeon

Quick stories

QS1 Speed of death

  •  Big Question Reality check
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, sense perception
  • KQs Are concepts more easily grasped when they are measurable?
  • Source Big Think

QS2 Mathematics and DNA

  •  Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, natural sciences
  • KQs How does mathematics provide us with insight into the structure of the body?
  • Source The Conversation

QS3 Pragmatism primer

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs Reason, nature of knowledge
  • KQs Can the pragmatic approach to truth produce satisfactory knowledge?
  • Source Aeon

QS4 Demons or desire?

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, ethics, religious knowledge systems
  • KQs How does the way we frame a question about ethics change its nature?
  • Source The Conversation

QS5 Creating new knowledge

  • Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Reason, imagination, human sciences
  • KQs Can we organise way we produce new ideas into three categories?
  • Source Big Think

July 2018 RLSs & KQs

1. Cancerous cells?

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, intuition, reason

First order KQs What are the health risks of using mobile phones?

Second order KQs Should we rely on intuition to produce scientific knowledge? How subjective is scientific evidence? To what extent are scientific knowledge claims based on empirical, observable evidence?

What’s the story about? One of many articles published recently about this issue, Julia Belluz considers the evidence behind the claim that using cellphones can be damaging to your health, and the way that it can be very tricky to carry out scientific research.

Analysing the story The first order knowledge question is worth considering first - what’s the claim about the effect on our health of using a cell phone, and why is it being made? The crucial question for us in TOK is where this concern is coming from. Is it due to an intuitive sense that cell phones should be harmful? Or is there solid evidence? Students can then widen that to think about scientific findings in general - how are they made, and what drives them?


Source Vox

2. Science and diversity

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, mathematics

First order KQs What are Hannah Fry’s most notable achievements?

Second order KQs What are the implications of scientific knowledge being developed from one perspective? Is a surfeit of information a positive thing for understanding the world? How curated is the information we receive about the world?

What’s the story about? This is an interview with the British mathematician Hannah Fry, who discusses a variety of issues, such as the ‘anti-science’ movement, scientific breakthroughs, and why it’s important for scientific ideas to factor in diversity.

Analysing the story Students could work in separate groups, each one deciding whether they agree with Fry’s assertions on a specific topic, such as “Thinking critically doesn’t necessarily come naturally”; “almost all of the big, grand, challenges… are those that demand a scientific solution”; “our information is… all shaped and influenced by some kind of a mathematical algorithm”, and finally, diversity in science is essential to progress.


Source Wired

3. Historical paths

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Indigenous knowledge, human sciences, history

First order KQs What was the purpose of the South American saywas?

Second order KQs In order to understand the world, do we always need to draw on more than one area of knowledge? Should ‘history’ be envisaged as a single area of knowledge?

What’s the story about? This fascinating story looks at the way the Chilean anthropologist Jimena Cruz brought together a team of experts from different fields in order to investigate a series of ancient saywas, or markers, stretching from Southern Colombia to the middle of Chile.

Analysing the story This story reads a little like a detective story, and has a strong personal element to it, so students should find it engaging. They can focus on figuring out how the different academics worked together, and what expertise and skills they brought to the project. Then consider whether this is typical in this area of knowledge, and how it might differ in others.


Source The Guardian

4. Emoji support

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, emotion

First order KQs Which emojis are most commonly used by people on social media?

Second order KQs How have emojis changed the way we express ideas and feelings? In what ways does ‘Documenting how people use emoji to communicate… offers a new window into human behavior’?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the way in which emojis are often drawn on during times of disaster in order to express solidarity with those affected. It speculates on the reasons for this, and how emojis offer a different form of communication than words alone.

Analysing the story The article makes us consider the whole nature of language, and how the symbols we use convey knowledge. Why have we felt it necessary to invent a new type of language - particularly when it comes to the desire to express strong emotions? Is it because our pre-existing system didn’t function properly? Is it merely the product of new technology? Are we being manipulated? To what extent are we in control our language? Where are we going next?


Source The Conversation

5. First memories

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Memory

First order KQs Why do we create ‘false memories’?

Second order KQs What aspects of our memory can we trust? Is memory a useful way of knowing? Which areas of knowledge are most affected by the fact that memory is ‘reconstructive’?

What’s the story about? This very short article nonetheless poses an excellent question: what proportion of our memory (specifically our earliest memories) are actually fictional, and actually based on photographs and anecdotes?

Analysing the story This is a lovely way into a consideration of memory - teachers can ask students to share their earliest memories, and try to assess (perhaps with the help of parents and other family members) the accuracy of this knowledge. Did the events really happen? If not, what are the implications of this? Check out the reference to Elizabeth Loftus, one of our key thinkers in the Big Question framework, and definitely someone worth researching.


Source The Guardian

6. Scientific storytelling

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, imagination, the arts

First order KQs What is storytelling?

Second order KQs In what way is the communication of scientific knowledge like ‘storytelling’? What knowledge (and how reliable is it) is conveyed in a story? How important is ‘disinterestedness’ in the production and communication of scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? Nick Enfield muses over the paradox of scientists having an obligation to be both dispassionate in their pursuit of knowledge, yet able to convey knowledge that engages other people, and makes them realise the importance of that knowledge.

Analysing the story This article is useful not only for presenting students with a consideration of one of the central dilemma scientists face (presenting their ideas in both an engaging and strictly objective way), but also for its definition of storytelling. Does the communication of ideas always constitute storytelling?


Source The Guardian

7. Defending philosophy

Big Question Connections/Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural and human sciences

First order KQs Why have scientists such as Steven Weinberg argued that ‘philosophy is dead’?

Second order KQs What determines whether forms of knowledge lose their validity over time?

How important is it to have distinct labels for different types of knowledge?

What’s the story about? In this challenging essay, Bridget Falck considers the separation between cosmology and philosophy, and why claims that the latter has become obsolete are misconceived.

Analysing the story This article will put students in touch with the debate raging in the academic world today about whether science has replaced philosophy, and made it obsolete. First, who is making these claims, and why? Second, do the claims have any credibility, or does Falck (and others) successfully defend philosophy? Third, what does this tell us about the way knowledge develops over time?


Source Aeon

8. The invention of zero

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, language, imagination

First order KQs When was the concept of zero ‘discovered’?

Second order KQs Does the concept of zero prove that mathematics is invented rather than discovered? How did the concepts of zero allow us to develop our knowledge of mathematics (and other areas of knowledge)?

What’s the story about? Brian Resnick looks at the ‘ingenuity’ behind the discovery of zero, and the implications it had on widening our mathematical knowledge. He also looks at the ‘four stages’ of understanding zero, and how only humans are able to arrive at the final one of these.

Analysing the story First, students can focus on the mathematics: in what ways did the discovery of ‘zero’ change our approach and widen the potential of this area of knowledge. Then students can think about how this ‘discovery’ was made. Specifically, what role did imagination play (suggesting that mathematics requires much more than rational thinking in order to produce new ideas and knowledge)? Finally, how distinctly does this area of knowledge develop over time?


Source Vox

9. Accessing the past

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs History, reason

First order KQs Who was Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury?

Second order KQs How can we “use the present in the service of the past”? Can our own subjectiveness overcome the biases of primary sources? Is history flawed because it is based on so little empirical knowledge?

What’s the story about? Suzannah Lipscomb, director of a new exhibition on Elizabeth Talbot, a 16th century member of the English nobility, discusses the problems of making knowledge claims in history, such as not witnessing events first hand, and evidence supplied by unreliable witnesses.

Analysing the story This is a really useful article for students looking at history, and considering how we try to produce reliable knowledge about the past. Does Lipscomb successfully manage to resolve the criticism levelled at historians that: “You weren’t there. You don’t know”?


Source History Today

10. Liestyle products

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason

First order KQs What are the reasons for the success of Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop’ brand?

Second order KQs How crucial is the role of ‘fact checking’ in the production of knowledge? Are facts the only basis of reliable knowledge?

What’s the story about? This brief article, considers the role (or lack of a role) of ‘fact checking’ in producing and marketing the products for cosmetics and lifestyle brand, ‘Goop’.

Analysing the story We’ve featured ‘Goop’ before as a great example of a brand that makes pseudoscientific claims. This story can serve as an introduction to this concept, and lead students on to research of how many other ‘lifestyle products’ base the claims of their efficacy on similarly thin evidence, and what the implications of this are.


Source New Republic

11. Getting out there

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences

First order KQs What is ‘modelling and data synthesis studies’?

Second order KQs Do we need to ‘use our own eyes’ in understanding the natural world? What scientific knowledge is only accessible via empirical means?

What’s the story about? This is a great story on how we acquire information about the natural world, comparing ‘being out there’ in the field to ‘modelling and data synthesis studies’.  

Analysing the story This is a passionate article that reminds us that science is far from just being a rational, logical discipline, and requires knowers to ‘get out there’ and experience the natural world first-hand. Is this passion justified? In addition, this article can be compared to our story about Elizabeth Talbot, as a means of showing the difference between science (which is an empirical endeavour) and history (in which first-hand knowledge can rarely be obtained). Is one method of learning about the world more reliable than the other?


Source Massive

12. Musical score

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, mathematics

First order KQs In what ways is music based on mathematics?

Second order KQs Can mathematics be used to evaluate the arts? Can works of art can be explained quantitatively?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the details of a new book on the relationship between mathematics and music, considering the extent to which an understanding of one of these can allow us to gain insights into the other.

Analysing the story It’s well known that music is “fundamentally bound up with numbers”, and therefore has a very close relationship with mathematics. Does this mean, however, that we can use mathematics in order to evaluate music? Answering this question should lead students onto an interesting consideration of “where the measure of music ends and where our experience of it begins”.


Source New Republic

13. AI and memory

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Memory, technology

First order KQs How is technology being used to create fake videos?

Second order KQs How objective is the knowledge provided by our memory? Is the most important purpose of history to check our tendency to create fake memories?

What’s the story about? This comprehensive article on ‘false’ memory looks at how technology looks set to amplify the problems associated with this way of knowing operating re-constructively.

Analysing the story This is another useful article on the limitations of our memory, so could be compared to our other story on this topic. To kick this off, get students to watch the video of Obama, and then think about the implications of what’s going on. Then they should read through the rest of the article, and arrive at a conclusion about how to counteract the combined effects of our propensity to create false memories, and how convincing technology has now become.


Source Vox

14. Fallacy of obviousness

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, sense perception

First order KQs What is the ‘fallacy of obviousness’?

Second order KQs How does the production of knowledge depend on what we are looking for? What constitutes ‘obvious’ knowledge? What are implications of humans never observing things passively or neutrally?

What’s the story about? The Oxford academic, Teppo Felin, considers the claim that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’, based on evidence such as Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s selective attention test?

Analysing the story This is a long article, but students should not be put off - it offers a fantastic challenge of an experiment that has become regarded as a ‘classic’. First of all, students should clarify Felin’s thesis, focusing on the concept of ‘psychological priming’. Then they should consider the implications of this - is he right to say that “the current focus on human blindness and bias – across psychology, economics and the cognitive sciences – has contributed to the present orthodoxy that sees computers and AI as superior to human judgment.”? If he’s right, then this single flawed theory has undermined psychology for years. Are other areas of knowledge so fragile?


Source Aeon

15. Indigenous resurgence

 

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, indigenous knowledge

First order KQs What scale is the revival of te reo Māori?

Second order KQs What knowledge can an indigenous language convey that ‘new’ languages in a culture cannot? In order to fully understand a culture, do we have to speak its language?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the revival of the indigenous language of New Zealand, te reo Māori, and the reasons for this occurring.

Analysing the story This story provides a nice counterpoint to the story about the use of emojis - instead of a new type of language, we’re considering here an old one. Again, does this indigenous language offer a form of communication lacking in English and other non-native languages? Or is this interest primarily driven by cultural considerations, rather than a desire for a different form of self-expression?


Source The Guardian

Quick stories

QS1 Political optimist

  •  Big Question Perspectives
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, emotion, reason
  • KQs How does our political affiliation shape our optimism?
  • Source The Atlantic

QS2 World Cup reality

  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, emotion
  • KQs What ‘lens’ should we apply when trying to understand human behaviour?
  • Source New Republic

QS3 The world according to Bertrand

  •  Big Question Shared and personal knowledge
  • AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, reason
  • KQs Are religious principles determined by logical argument?
  • Source Big Think

QS4 Brainwashing myth

  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, language
  • KQs How do analogies shape the way we understand scientific phenomena?
  • Source Salon

QS5 Translating words

  •  Big Question Perspectives
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, the arts, human sciences
  • KQs Is objective translation of language possible?
  • Source History Today

June 2018 RLSs & KQs 

1. Scientific celebrity

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, emotion, intuition

First order KQs Why has Kat Von D decided not to vaccinate her unborn child?

Second order KQs On what do we base our scientific understanding of the world? Can the efficacy of scientific knowledge be definitively proven? Should public health decisions be taken by the public?

What’s the story about? The celebrity Kat Von D has decided not to vaccinate her unborn child, and via a series of self-promoting Tweets, has made that decision very public. This article looks at the implications of non-expert scientists making decisions about science.

Analysing the story This is the latest chapter in the story of people refusing to vaccinate their children. The primary question is, why is it happening? What is leading people to base their judgement on an intuitive feeling rather than rely on overwhelming expert opinion? Who should have the right to determine policy on this issue? Should we view scientific knowledge as being something other than provisional in order to counter what’s happening?


Source USA Today

2. Out-of-date dinosaurs

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, natural sciences

First order KQs In what ways is Fallen Kingdom out of date in terms of the paleontological knowledge it references?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between scientific knowledge and art that is inspired by it? Can we learn about science via the arts? Do artists have a responsibility to convey accurate knowledge about the world?

What’s the story about? This story looks at the way in which - in contrast to Jurassic Park - the latest Jurassic World movie draws on outdated scientific knowledge in order to construct its storyline, and how that undermines its integrity.

Analysing the story We’re less interested in the details of what Fallen Kingdom got wrong as we in the relationship between the movie industry (the arts) and paleontology (science). Does the former inspire the latter (see this article, which we featured in a 2015 edition of the newsletter)? Should knowledge within the latter be represented accurately, or is ‘artistic license’ an acceptable reason for taking liberties with scientific theories? More generally, can we learn about science from the arts - or is to do so always a dangerous route towards knowledge?


Source Smithsonian

3. Singapore summit

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs Was the Singapore Summit a success?

Second order KQs How do our personal and political perspectives shape the way we understand current affairs? Is is possible to arrive at an objective judgement about politics?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the details of the Singapore Summit, between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. It considers how any judgement we make on the outcome depends on our perspective.

Analysing the story What makes this a fantastic story for TOK is that it illustrates how difficult it is to arrive at objective knowledge in the human sciences (specifically, in political science), and could act as a useful stepping stone for considering this area of knowledge. Focus on the beginning of the article - what are the two conclusions one could come away with when analysing the Singapore summit? What might push you in these directions? Is this always the case when analysing politics (and human sciences in general)? Why is it so hard to get beyond our personal and cultural perspectives?


Source BBC

4. The scientific race

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences

First order KQs What form does competition take in the production of scientific knowledge?

Second order KQs Is the present-day set-up of science more or less conducive for the production of knowledge? Is the human tendency to compete with others a help or a hindrance to the acquisition of knowledge?

What’s the story about? The article considers the effect of competition on science, and how the race to publish first can undermine the integrity of scientific knowledge.

Analysing the story In a capitalist-democratic society, it’s common to view competition as being conducive to success, but are there limits or exceptions to this view? Get students to read through this article, and identify: a) The reasons why it’s becoming necessary to publish research data first; b) The problems that this leads to; c) Possible solutions. Overall, is science in crisis?


Source Guardian

5. Fake art

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs The arts

First order KQs How do you spot a fake work of art from the real thing?

Second order KQs Is the value of art an illusion? What is art? Do we judge art purely via its provenance?

What’s the story about? This story looks at the work of one of the world’s most accomplished art detectives, and how he decides whether a painting is a forgery or not. It also raises big questions about the nature of art, and the methods we use to understand and interpret it.

Analysing the story This story raises an interesting philosophical question, asked by the critic Aline Saarinen, and quoted in the article: “If a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?” If we (and the experts) can’t tell that a forgery is a forgery, is it still a forgery? Does it possess the same artistic value as the original? If not, why not - and does the answer to this question help us to understand the nature of art?


Source Guardian

6. Memory battle

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences, memory, emotion, ethics

First order KQs Why happened in Spain during the Civil War years?

Second order KQs Can we ‘choose’ to remember history in a certain way? How can we assess whose version of the past is more valid? How and why does the way we carry out history change over time?

What’s the story about? This (very) long but excellent article looks at the way the Spanish government and society has ‘handled’ its past, and the way this impacts on individuals whose families were caught up in the struggles that characterised the Civil War (and Franco) era.

Analysing the story History is about a lot more than just understanding the past, particularly when it comes to a difficult and traumatic event like the Spanish Civil War. How have the Spanish ‘handled’ their past differently to countries like Germany and Italy? What are the consequences of this decision? What does the article reveal about how our perspectives determine what we do with historical knowledge? Finally, should historical knowledge be politicized, and used to ‘atone’ for past problems, or should it remain a purely objective endeavour?


Source Smithsonian Magazine

7. Revisionist psychology

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs What conclusions did the Stanford Prison experiment reach?

Second order KQs Why do (human) scientific theories get reevaluated over time? What are the implications of faulty methodology being used to create knowledge in the human sciences? Who should arbitrate in disputes over (human) scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? Questions are being asked about the way the Stanford Prison experiment was carried out. These articles considers the details, as well as asking about the implications of the conclusions being wrong.

Analysing the story Students should use the different links to research the recent controversy regarding the Stanford Prison experiment. They should find out what has led to these questions being asked, whether they have been dealt with satisfactorily by Philip Zimbardo, and what the implications are if the conclusions he arrived at are flawed. Does this taint all the knowledge produced by psychology, as some suggest? Or, as the New York Times asserts, does the fact that controversy is occuring indicate the openness and objectivity of this human science? The main link with take you to the New York Times; see also Vox, and Big Think.


Source Vox + Big Think + New York Times

8. Sexist assumptions

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences, intuition

First order KQs On what basis do we believe that males are more promiscuous than females?

Second order KQs Should we always distrust intuitively-appealing scientific knowledge claims? Is quantitative data always required to support scientific knowledge claims?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the perils of applying knowledge about intuitively appealing and logical theories (in this case, “the differences in size and presumed energy cost of producing sperm versus eggs”) to human behaviour and psychology, and what the implications of that can be.

Analysing the story First of all, what is the evidence for males being more promiscuous than females, and why has both the scientific community and the wider public been keen to accept this? Secondly, what has led some researchers to question this evidence - and have they managed to ‘smash this myth’? How many other assumptions are there like this in science, and what are the implications of them existing?


Source The Conversation

9. Doctor of astrology

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason

First order KQs What astrological knowledge claim did Dr Oz Tweet?

Second order KQs To what extent is our approach to knowledge acquisition based on the appeal to tradition fallacy? How can language be used to detect pseudoscience?

What’s the story about? Dr Oz is an immensely influential popular scientist in the United States. This article examines the implications of him claiming in a Tweet that there is a relationship between our health and the position of the stars and planets.

Analysing the story It never gets boring exploring the reasons and effects of pseudosciences. First, what thoughts do students have on a White House advisor tweeting support for astrology? Secondly, analyse the way in which the appeal to tradition fallacy is used in the tweet - is this the reason for the existence of something that has no evidence to back it up? Do you agree with the closing line from the article - “Hope can be helpful. But it’s often a lie.”


Source Vox

10. Controversial oil

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Ethics

First order KQs What is the current legal status of cannabis oil?

Second order KQs What determines the inherent ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of an idea or concept? Should we regard the law as the most important determinant of ethical principles?

What’s the story about? The case of Billy Caldwell prompted a huge discussion in the UK and around the world about the legal status of cannabis used for medicinal purposes. It also prompts many questions about how we construct our ethical awareness, and the relationship between morality and the law.

Analysing the story This story is a fantastic way to examine the relationship between the law and morality, and which one informs the other. First, does this case prove that the law has to change to incorporate something that makes sense both practically and medically? To what extent do we consider what is morally valid that which is lawful? Or are there other more important considerations when we construct our ethical outlook on the world?


Source Huffington Post

11. Algorithms vs complexity

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, language, mathematics

First order KQs What is the definition of ‘political’?

Second order KQs How does the way we label knowledge determine the way we understand it? What are the implications of allowing algorithms to determine editorial content? Can “culture, politics, humanity” be evaluated by an algorithm?

What’s the story about? In an attempt to control the rise of ‘news’ written with a clear paid-for agenda, Facebook have added a ‘political’ label to content that appears on its social media platform, generated by an algorithm. This has had unintended consequences to our ability to access what’s going on in the world.

Analysing the story With so many people now using social media as their primary form of news, Facebook’s introduction of a ‘political’ label, generated by an algorithm, seems like a step towards weeding out ‘fake news’. But is this really happening? What are the implications of letting an algorithm determine the character of editorial content? Is this more evidence that we should never, ever trust social media to provide us with reliable knowledge about what’s going on in the world?


Source The Guardian

12. Shifting terrain

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language

First order KQs In what ways has language changed over the last 10 years?

Second order KQs How and why does language change over time? Are ‘language rules’ meaningless given the way language is constantly in a state of development?

What’s the story about? The wonderful John McWhorter reminds us (if we needed it) that language is a “constantly shifting terrain”, and to be expert language-users is to adapt with the changes, rather than react against them.

Analysing the story We’ve seen many times articles and sources explaining how the development of language over time means that we should be unafraid of the meanings of words changing. How does this impact on the way we use words to express ideas and knowledge? Why does the meaning of some words seem to become more powerful over time, and some words seem to lose their vitality?


Source The Atlantic

13. Inferences

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, natural sciences

First order KQs What is inference?

Second order KQs Does the way inference is used determine the key difference between mathematics and the natural sciences? Are mathematics and the natural sciences ‘moving apart’?

What’s the story about? This rather nice blog looks at the differences and similarities between mathematics and the natural sciences, and offers some very useful definitions for both these areas of knowledge. It also considers the role of inference in creating knowledge.

Analysing the story This provides students with a lot of ideas they can focus on and use. How does mathematics correspond to a ‘formal system’, and how does this set it apart from science? How does the tree metaphor help us to understand the nature of mathematics? How do inference rules work in both mathematics and science? Do you think that mathematicians and scientists will one day conclude that they have been “investigating the same tree of knowledge all along”?


Source Medium

14. Tragedy, faith, and computer worlds

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, faith, human sciences, technology, intuition

First order KQs Why do people become more religious in the wake of the tragedy?

Second order KQs Can we use computers to understand the type of knowledge provided to us via faith? Can human behaviour be modelled?

What’s the story about? Wesley Wildman explains how his team attempted to create an artificial world to study the way tragedy and conflict influences society’s religious behaviour.

Analysing the story The article provides a lot of detail on how computer simulation can be used to investigate an “extremely complex system”. The overriding question is, is this a valid approach - in other words, can the complexity of human life (specifically religion - but see also what we looked at in story 11) ever be satisfactorily modelled by a computer? Can we - and should we - base our understanding of behaviour on intuitively appealing theories (see stories 1 and 8 for the possible downsides of this)? Do you agree with the closing line - “Human simulation in action is messier than modeling bridges, but it can be a useful way for researchers to understand just why people behave the way they do”?


Source The Conversation

15. Imaginary elevator

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, intuition, imagination

First order KQs What was Einstein’s ‘imaginary elevator’ idea?

Second order KQs Are ‘thought experiments’ valid forms of acquiring knowledge? What evidence represents the definitive confirmation of hypotheses?

What’s the story about? Einstein, who famously argued that imagination was more important than knowledge, came up with many thoughts experiments and conjectures. Many of these have been ‘proven’ true, decades after they were first proposed. This short article looks at how his ‘imaginary elevator’ idea is the latest of these.

Analysing the story Thought experiments are imaginary and hypothetical situations that seek to provide us with knowledge about the real world, and help us to develop theories that can be applied to other cases. But do they really work? Can we base our understanding of the world on imaginary cases? Or does their efficacy depend on the area of knowledge they belong to - in which case, what determines this?


Source Big Think

Quick stories

QS1 Essential knowledge
  •  Big Question Value & purpose
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, natural & human sciences, imagination, emotion (etc., etc.)
  • KQs Is certain knowledge ‘essential’?
  • Source The Atlantic

QS2 Alien deduction

  •  Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Reason, natural sciences, the arts
  • KQs How can deduction be applied to big scientific questions?
  • Source Big Think

QS3 Network visualisations
  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Human and natural sciences, the arts, history
  • KQs How can network visualisations help us produce knowledge?
  • Source Aeon

QS4 Planning new knowledge
  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences
  • KQs Is new scientific knowledge planned or discovered?
  • Source Massive
QS5 Clever people
  •  Big Question Reality check
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences
  • KQs Can urban myths lead to the production of genuine knowledge?
  • Source Big Think

May 2018 RLSs & KQs 

1. Flat earthers

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, reason, intuition

First order KQs What evidence do ‘flat earthers’ base their beliefs on?

Second order KQs Is the purpose of knowledge power? What does the resurgence of belief in a flat earth tell us about modern attitudes to knowledge?

What’s the story about? This story recounts the author’s experiences at the first ever ‘flat earth convention’ in the UK, and examines the justifications used by the attendees to explain their belief.

Analysing the story The key question this article raises is why flat-earthers refuse to believe the scientific consensus about the shape of the earth. Do they raise any valuable points? This might lead you on to a consideration of the extent to which we have direct scientific evidence, rather than just putting our trust in the scientific community. You can follow the link to the convention, and see for yourself the sort of reasoning behind flat earthers’ beliefs (for example, here).

Source The Conversation

2. Shared vs. personal knowledge

Big Question Shared and personal knowledge

AoKs/WoKs Reason, human sciences

First order KQs What are Steven Sloman’s key contentions about knowledge?

Second order KQs To what extent do “social pressure influence our epistemological commitments”? Is there a dissonance between what we understand and what we think?

What’s the story about? Sean Illing interviews Steven Slocombe, on the topic of peer pressure the extent of our knowledge.

Analysing the story Students could be quizzed on the extent to which their beliefs are shaped by peer pressure. Do we have any beliefs that are contentious and controversial? Or is everything we believe in ‘socially acceptable’? Think also about the way the Internet affects our beliefs - do you agree with the comment that “our news is getting individualized makes it much worse”? How can we break through this phenomenon? Thinking more broadly, can invalid shared knowledge stifle valid personal knowledge?

Source Vox

3. Freedom of belief?

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Reason

First order KQs What examples does Daniel DeNicola give of “wilful ignorance and false knowledge”?

Second order KQs Is it wrong to “to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”? Do people have a responsibility to believe in certain things (and not in others)? What is the difference between belief and knowledge?

What’s the story about? The philosopher Daniel DeNicola argues that we don’t have the freedom to believe in what we choose; our beliefs must be supported by valid evidence.

Analysing the story This article could form the heart of a great debate - is DeNicola right, or is he wrong? Should we be allowed to believe in anything, even things that we can’t prove or justify? Does it depend on the area of knowledge?

Source Aeon

4. Vested interests

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences

First order KQs What is the double blind method?

Second order KQs How does researcher bias lead to flawed scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? Via a consideration of concepts such as the double blind method, Derek Beres considers how having a vested interest in what you are researching can influence the knowledge discovered.

Analysing the story What has happened over the last few decades within the scientific community that is raising questions about the efficacy of the scientific method? What is the solution? Overall, is it the system (ie the scientific method) or those operating the system (ie the scientists)?

Source Big Think

5. Messing with our emotions

Big Question Shared and personal knowledge

AoKs/WoKs Emotion

First order KQs How does social media rely on our emotional reactions for its success?

Second order KQs Can we accurately assess the extent our emotions are being ‘changed’ by social media?

What’s the story about? The writer Laurence Scott considers how our emotions are manipulated by social media, and the wider implications of this.

Analysing the story Scott argues that our emotional reactions are being limited to a number of options on social media - what are these, and why have they been selected? Can we say that this will have any effect on the way we understand and use emotion, and if so, how can we assess this? Overall, do you think discussions related to social media is prompted by genuine issues related to knowledge, or hype?

Source BBC

6. Cultural appropriation

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, ethics

First order KQs What is ‘cultural appropriation’?

Second order KQs What determines our assessment of whether something has been ‘culturally appropriated’?

What’s the story about? Inspired by the case of a graduating high-school student who wore a ‘Chinese’ dress, this article considers what is - and what isn’t - cultural appropriation, and why it’s so hard to figure this out.

Analysing the story This story highlights the complexity of knowledge, and how things that seem straightforward rarely are. What does it reveal about the difficulties of stating the provenance of knowledge, customs, and objects? Does the article prove that it’s futile to talk in terms of ‘cultural appropriation’? Or can knowledge be ‘owned’ by a specific group of people?

Source The Atlantic

7. Visible proof

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, sense perception

First order KQs How was Smallpox eradicated?

Second order KQs Do we only believe in things that we can see?

What’s the story about? The article celebrates the 38th anniversary of wiping out the Smallpox virus, and considers what it takes for people to be convinced of the efficacy of scientific knowledge.

Analysing the story The article is a reminder of how brilliant scientific discoveries are made, but it’s even more useful for highlighting how we arrive at judgements about knowledge. Focus on the line in the article asserting that “we’ve forgotten these achievements… because many people no longer see the diseases science helped stamp out” - what does this reveal about our beliefs, and the type of proof we require in order to truly accept something as truth? Does this apply more in science than in other areas of knowledge?

Source Vox

8. Image and belief

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs The arts, Sense perception, human sciences, reason

First order KQs What themes did the movie ‘Black Panther’ deal with?

Second order KQs Do we “we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection”? How important are movies in influencing our perception of people and things?

What’s the story about? The article considers the relationship between the images we have of people and things, and the perceptions we form.

Analysing the story There is a lot to this article, but students could concentrate on this line in the article: “Seeing is not just believing. Seeing changes what we believe, about ourselves and about other people, including constructions of race.” What does he mean in terms of the themes dealt with in this article? Can we apply this concept to other aspects of knowledge and understanding? And how do we arrive at the images in the first place?

Source The Conversation

9. The death of the critic

Big Question Authority Figures

AoKs/WoKs The arts

First order KQs Why did This is America make such an impact?

Second order KQs What gives people authority when it comes to artistic evaluation? Is the consensus truth test ever a valid basis of judgement?

What’s the story about? The article focuses on Childish Gambino’s song, This is America, and asks whether critics are being supplanted by other sources of knowledge when it comes to assessing the merit and worth of music.

Analysing the story This fascinating story poses many questions about ‘experts’ in the art world. There’s a lot for students to process. Do they agree that “criticism is cold, slow and distant”? What about, “once everyone can voice an opinion, their value is diminished”? And as social networks and fandoms replace critics, is our access to knowledge about the arts improved or undermined?

Source Wired

10. Galactic discovery

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences

First order KQs What new discovery about the galaxy have astronomers just made?

Second order KQs Is ‘crowdsourcing’ a reliable form of producing scientific knowledge?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the very recent discovery that thousands of black holes exist in the centre of our galaxy - based on data that we have possessed for nearly 20 years.

Analysing the story First, students can think about how crowdsourcing knowledge in the sciences can lead to genuine discoveries. After than, compare this article to the last one. Both deal with the ‘democratization’ of knowledge, although in two different areas of knowledge. In which does this work more effectively? Why?

Source Salon

11. Yanny vs. Laurel

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, human sciences

First order KQs What are ‘perceptually ambiguous stimuli’?

Second order KQs What do ‘perceptually ambiguous stimuli’ allow us to learn about the way we process sensory knowledge? Why do sensory illusions go viral?

What’s the story about? The yanny vs laurel audio illusion went viral last month; this article considers the reasons why.

Analysing the story Students will probably have come across this story; get them to think about what they hear, and why. Compare to what we learn about the importance of context when it comes to making sense of knowledge provided to us via our senses (see Beau Lotto et al): is that what is happening here? Why do we find stories such as these so fascinating?

Source The Guardian

12. Language and culture

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs Which phrases used commonly in the USA and UK actually originate from that culture?

Second order KQs What can we learn about culture from language use?

What’s the story about? The article looks at a new book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, and what our language use says about our cultural identity.

Analysing the story ‘Divided by a common language’ is a meme about the way the people in the US and UK use English differently. What does this article say about how language-use reveals cultural identity? Do you agree with these assertions?  

Source The Guardian

13. Universal language?

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, human science, intuition

First order KQs How have gestures developed over time?

Second order KQs Is knowledge based on intuition more universal than that based on reason?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the role of gesturing in how we communicate, and whether they are universal across different cultures and time periods.

Analysing the story This article could lead students on nicely to a consideration of the gestures they use, and the extent to which they are universal. Are they understood when they step into other cultures? Which gestures are particularly universal? Why? And why have gestured evolved more similarly than words and spoken language? What are the implications of all this in terms of the knowledge conveyed by language?

Source Aeon

14. War movies

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs History, the arts, emotion

First order KQs Which war movies does Antony Beevor rate highly?

Second order KQs Can artistic representations provide us with useful information about the past? To what extent should we consider the purpose of a knowledge source in order to evaluate its reliability?

What’s the story about? Antony Beevor, the distinguished historian, considers which war movies he considers are great, and which are turkeys.

Analysing the story Students could begin by thinking about the extent to which their own understanding of history is based on movies, books, and fictional sources. Is this the case for most people? To think about the implications of this, focus on this sentence in the article - “Analysing the story the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible.” Does Beevor’s article make them think movie producers and directors have more of a responsibility to present us with accurate knowledge about the past?

Source The Guardian

15. Storytelling

Big Question Purpose and value

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences, imagination, emotion, ethics

First order KQs What proportion of our time do we spend on fictional knowledge sources?

Second order KQs Can fiction provide us with an insight into reality? How important a source of ethical understanding is storytelling?

What’s the story about? David Robson looks at the role storytelling plays in society, and how traditional stories evolve over time to serve this purpose within each new generation.

Analysing the story Storytelling is integral to just about every human society that has ever existed, and the stories themselves are constantly evolving and adapting to the modern world. What exactly is their role in helping us to make sense of the world? Compare this to the last article: does it contradict what Beevor said, or do these stories deal with a different form of knowledge?

Source BBC

Quick stories

QS1 Unrequited love?

  •  Big Question Shared & personal knowledge
  • AoKs/WoKs Emotion, language
  • KQs Does love have to be reciprocated?
  • Source Vox

QS2 Lack of research

  •  Big Question Perspectives
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences
  • KQs How is scientific knowledge shaped by social and cultural paradigms?
  • Source Wired
QS3 The curse of knowledge
  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, the arts
  • KQs In what way are we ‘cursed by knowledge’?
  • Source The Conversation
QS4 Sartorial etiquette
  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences
  • KQs What proportion of communication is done without words?
  • Source CNN
QS5 Belief and understanding
  •  Big Question Shared and personal knowledge
  • AoKs/WoKs The natural sciences
  • KQs Is belief based on understanding?
  • Source Big Think

April 2018 RLSs & KQs 

1. The Moses Illusion

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Reason, language, intuition

First order KQs What is ‘knowledge neglect’?

Second order KQs Does diagnosing a problem about knowledge acquisition allow us solve that problem? Do we process the knowledge expressed within language via intuition or reason?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the extent to which people fail to pick up on factual errors about the world around them, even when they know the correct information. This is best summed up by the ‘Moses Illusion’.

Analysing the story Students may have already come across the Moses illusion, although it’s worth running it by them to check this. If they’re familiar with this question, you could get them to follow the link to the Scientific American article on cognitive miserliness. What are the implications of the way in which we often take shortcuts when it comes to reasoning? What examples can we come up with to illustrate this? And, can we overcome this flaw in the way we apply (or don’t apply) reason?


Source The Conversation

2. The oral historian

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Indigenous knowledge systems, history, language

First order KQs What stories did the Inuit tell of Sir John Franklin’s two lost ships?

Second order KQs How can indigenous approaches to knowledge provide us with historical and scientific insight? What are the implications of communicating knowledge via oral rather than written sources?

What’s the story about? Louie Kamookak was an Inuit oral historian, whose knowledge of traditional stories helped Canadian archaeologists locate the remains of two Victorian expeditionary ships. This article celebrates his life and legacy.

Analysing the story Many indigenous societies access information about their pasts via oral rather than written histories, but far from this leading to inaccuracies, this often preserves knowledge about what has happened more effectively. Kamookak’s abilities as an oral historian are a great example of this. What other advantages can students identify in not relying on written sources to convey knowledge and ideas (for some suggestions, follow this link)?


Source Guardian

3. Warriors

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History, memory, human sciences

First order KQs What roles have women played in the US military?

Second order KQs How can gender perspectives affect the way history is written? To what extent do traditional stereotypes affect the way we understand the past?

What’s the story about? We instinctively associate being a soldier with being male. This article looks at the implications of that bias, and what a group of female veterans is trying to do to enlighten us.  

Analysing the story Just as we saw with the Viking warrior story, our assumptions about gender roles in society - particularly ones associated with the military - can lead us astray when it comes to understanding the world. What is this group of women trying to do about this and why? And how can we avoid being misled by our biases?


SourceWashington Post

4. Rethinking time

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, natural sciences, language

First order KQs What are Carlo Rovelli’s key theories?

Second order KQs How has language shaped the way we perceive time? Can the use of models and analogies help us to understand time more effectively?

What’s the story about? Physicist Carlo Rovelli’s theories have many implications. One of them, as this interview considers, is to shift the way we perceive time.

Analysing the story The article doesn’t provide us with much evidence of Rovelli’s theory about time, beyond saying, “time is merely a function of our ‘blurred’ human perception” but this is a good starting point - perhaps students can think about why we conceive of time in the way we do. Another nice assertion to think about is when Rovelli says, “being wrong isn’t the point; being part of the conversation is the point.” Is this the key to understanding the world?


Source Guardian

5. Tree-ifying

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences

First order KQs How is a ‘tree’ traditionally defined?

Second order KQs In order to understand something, do we have to be able to categorize what it represents? What is the role of classification in knowledge?

What’s the story about? It seems straightforward to define what a ‘tree’ is. But scientists have not definitively decided on what that definition should be. This throws into question how we use language to classify and characterise living (and non-living) entities.

Analysing the story The word ‘tree’ is something you probably don’t think about - a word that (almost by definition) is completely lacking in controversy. But go through the article, and see how each characteristic that we associate with being a tree is subject to refutation. What are the implications of this? If this definition is flawed, how many others are? And consider the conclusion of the article - should we view the word ‘tree’ as a verb, so it becomes “a strategy, a way of being”?


Source The Atlantic

6. Faith and reason

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Faith, reason, religious knowledge systems, human sciences

First order KQs What proportion of society now have a faith-based approach to life?

Second order KQs What is the purpose of faith and reason?

What’s the story about? It may well be that the majority of young European society has rejected faith as an approach to knowing about the world. But Kenan Malik muses on the problem caused by the fact that we haven’t replaced that void with an application of reason.

Analysing the story At the heart of this story is the consideration of what religion is for, and whether an acceptance that we are controlled by God can be replaced by an application of human reason, particularly when it comes to morality. Is Malik right in saying that both these viewpoints have at their basis a faith-based approach to life - ie faith in God, versus faith in our own abilities?


Source The Guardian

7. Camelot revisited

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs History, memory, emotion, the arts

First order KQs How are key events from the past being portrayed on television?

Second order KQs Is history “less about what you do and more about what images people remember”? Why does our understanding of the past change over time?

What’s the story about? There are a slew of new TV and film productions featuring the Kennedy family. For a long time, they have been venerated and lauded. Now the narrative is changing - this article considers why.

Analysing the story This story is a very useful one in helping us to understand the way in which our opinions of historical characters change over time. The Kennedy family has long fascinated not just the USA, but the whole world. Although this doesn’t look like changing anytime soon, what is changing is what’s at the basis of that fascination. Rather than viewing the White House under JFK as ‘Camelot’, we’re now focusing on the seedier side of things. What movements going on today is driving this reassessment? Will this permanently change our opinion of this period in US history?


Source Vox

8. Work to be done

Big Question Shared and personal knowledge

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, reason, ethics, faith

First order KQs What doctrine do Quakers adhere to?

Second order KQs Does religious belief provide us with pragmatic truth?

What’s the story about? Nat Case considers how it is possible (for him, at least) to be both an atheist and a Quaker. As he explains, this has much to do with the search for ‘truth’.

Analysing the story This is a very thought-provoking article, which should get people considering the point of religious knowledge, and how integral believing in God is to being religious. First, how does he summarise the Quaker view of ‘truth’, and what its role is in their organisation? Second, what does he mean when he says, “theological differences are not necessarily an issue when there’s work to be done”? Finally, does he succeed in persuading you that not believing in God is perfectly viable whilst belonging to a Christian community?


Source Aeon

9. The Easter story

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Faith, logic

First order KQs What do Christians believe about Easter?

Second order KQs Can we make sense of a faith-based approach to the world? What is the relationship between faith and reason?

What’s the story about? Julian Baggini muses on the dissonance between faith and the rational mind when it comes to the Easter story, cautioning non-believers not to be lazily dismissive of concepts and explanations we consider implausible.

Analysing the story This is an interesting article largely because it is written by a non-theist, but one who is eager to understand religion, rather than write it off, and build bridges between those who believe and those who don’t. The key sentence to focus on is where Baggini says, “The Easter story thus ends up rather like quantum theory: if you find it easy to believe, you haven’t understood it. Illogicality is a design feature, not a design flaw.” What does he mean? Does this help us to understand (and accept) those who have decided that “faith is superior to belief based on evidence”?


Source The Guardian

10. Ikigai

Big Question Shared and personal knowledge

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, language, emotion, imagination

First order KQs What does ‘Ikigai’ mean?

Second order KQs Is the search for knowledge the search for meaning? Can understanding a concept specific to a different language culture help to change our perspectives?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’, and how understanding this idea could help us to lead a more fulfilling life.

Analysing the story Although Rob Bell provides us with an engaging ‘self-help’ video here, we’re less interested in that than we are with the idea of how certain concepts are culture-specific. Can we translate the idea of ‘ikigai’? Can we then apply it to our social situation? Or do such ways of viewing the world only function in their own literary and social point of origin?


Source Big Think

11. Angry art

Big Question Purpose and value

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences

First order KQs How have artists conveyed political and social commentary in their art?

Second order KQs Is one of the prerequisites of art is that it should ‘challenge’ our understanding of the world? What is the relationship between art and morality? How can the ‘pursuit of beauty’ be political?

What’s the story about? Focusing on the exhibitions in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this article examines the relationship between art and political commentary, and whether it is the artist’s responsibility to protest or entertain.

Analysing the story A nice way to kick off an exploration of either BQ2, or the arts, this story looks at whether art has a purpose beyond simply representing the world (albeit in a skilled and original way). Can/should artists escape their responsibility to use their talents to help comment on the state of the world? Does the perspective they provide us with help us to understand the human world?


Source CNN

12. Legal highs

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, human sciences, language

First order KQs Where does cannabis now enjoy a legal status?

Second order KQs How does a concept go from being understood as morally unacceptable to morally acceptable? Does the law determine our ethical framework?

What’s the story about? Now that in many countries marijuana is legal, our perception of this ‘drug’ is changing. This article examines the way in which this process is occuring.

Analysing the story The question of whether morality determines the law, or if it’s the other way around, is a fascinating one, and possibly the best real life situation to explore that is the use of drugs such as cannabis. Many people have strong beliefs about this substance, instinctively identifying its use as being something inherently ‘wrong’. So what happens when the law changes, and this drug is legally available? Does this inherent ‘wrongness’ change also? What does this tell us about the way we should construct our ethical principles?


Source The Conversation

13. Organ discovery

Big Question Representing knowledge

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language

First order KQs What is the interstitium?

Second order KQs How does the way we classify and label knowledge shape our understanding of the world?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the remarkable news that scientists have possibly identified a new organ in the body, that previously we have categorised as connective tissue.

Analysing the story Although this ‘discovery’ doesn’t alter our knowledge of the way the body works, it does mean the way we classify that knowledge will change. Students can focus on the section describing ‘what constitutes an organ’, and then look at ‘the point’ of making it an organ - what are the implications of revising our classification of the human body?


Source Popular Science

14. Faith in progress?

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History, human sciences, faith, reason

First order KQs What is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now?

Second order KQs Is belief in progress based on faith or reason?

What’s the story about? Steven Pinker’s new book builds on his previous one, The Better Nature of Our Angels, to further assert that we are living in a more peaceful time than ever before in history. This article examines the viability of that claim.

Analysing the story We’ve looked at this issue before, focusing on John Gray’s objections to Pinker’s thesis (indeed, it’s the basis of two of our BQ6 lessons). The simple question is, is Pinker right to make this claim? Or is he guilty of placing faith in a concept (progress), something that contradicts what he says was the key achievement of the Enlightenment? As the article puts it, “Many Enlightenment thinkers… understood that the impulse to see human history as a story of progress was closely related to Christian belief.”


Source New Republic

15. Yes we can!

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs The arts, human sciences, language, emotion

First order KQs How have political graphics changed over the last 10 years?

Second order KQs To what extent do new political graphics draw on emotion convey their messages? What does the new style in political graphics indicate about the way society processes information?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the development of a new style of political graphics, logos, slogans, and images that convey political beliefs with great impact and efficiency.

Analysing the story It takes a particular type of artistic talent to express political viewpoints concisely and comprehensively, often without using words. Students could examine these images (and more), and analyse how they convey their messages, and the way they manipulate our emotions and powers of reason. In short, why are these political graphics so powerful?


Source BBC

Quick stories

QS1 Big questions
  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs Why are does knowledge in the natural sciences seem to be encroaching on the field of philosophy?
  • Source CNN

QS2 Exploring religion

  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems
  • KQs Can we understand the religious experience via hallucinogens?
  • Source The Independent

QS3 Art history
  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts, history
  • KQs Has art ‘developed’ over time?
  • Source Aeon

QS4 Online Gods
  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, technology
  • KQs Can we model the development of religion via online games?
  • Source Nautilus
QS5 Ad hominem
  •  Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Ethics, reason
  • KQs What are the characteristics of an expert moral commentator?
  • Source New Republic (see also CNN)

March 2018 RLSs & KQs 

1. Falsehood flies

Big Question Representing reality / Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Reason, emotion, technology

First order KQs Which social media channel is most associated with misleading information?

Second order KQs Why are we more prone to ‘fake’ news than ‘real’ news? How valid are people’s judgements about what constitutes a reliable source of knowledge?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the work of three MIT researchers about the comparative speed with which both ‘fake’ and ‘real’ news spreads through social media. Their findings seem to confirm Jonathan Swift’s adage that “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Analysing the story This is of particular relevance at the moment, in the wake of stories such as Cambridge Analytica and the use of Facebook and other social media sites to spread manipulative information during elections. The obvious question it prompts us to ask is why fake news spreads more quickly than real news, but we should try to dig deeper - the article leaves a lot unclear, in particular, what type of ‘fake’ and ‘real’ news stories were tested in this research, and how exactly it was this measured, and whether we can rely on the methods used.


Source Wired

2. Cognitive offloading

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Memory, emotion, sense perception

First order KQs What is ‘cognitive offloading’?

Second order KQs How can we figure out which aspects of knowing to 'cognitively offload'? Which ways of knowing ensure a truer recall of events we have experienced?

What’s the story about? Brian Resnick looks at the effect that relying on photographs to help us remember places and events has on our capacity to remember. He concludes that overreliance can narrow our memory, and (perhaps) counterintuitively make us less able to recall the full experience that we’ve had.

Analysing the story First of all, this isn’t another article about how the use of technology (in this case, taking photos with a smartphone) is making us ‘dumber’ - as the author of the article is quick to point out, “Smartphone photography isn’t making us dumber. It’s shifting the way our minds work, refocusing our attention.” This is at the core of the article, and students can look for evidence of that ‘refocusing’. Think about it in terms of other sensory information (what things smelt, sounded, and tasted like), think also about whether it cuts out emotional recollections (what it felt like to be there). Overall, do students think that it’s preferable to have record of an event that offers a limited portrait of what happened - but which you can share with others, or be able to remember the full story, but only have that to ourselves?


Source Vox

3. Talking walls

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What constitutes historical evidence?

Second order KQs How can ‘ordinary’ objects provide us with insights into the past? What are the most effective sources of historical knowledge?

What’s the story about? This article considers how seemingly mundane objects - architecture, art, dress, furniture - can provide us with a huge amount of knowledge on aspects such as education, wealth, pleasures, loves, and the trajectory of people’s lives.

Analysing the story Students can start by listing the sort of evidence we use to gain information from the past. The article can then be used to extend the range of sources we generally associate with historians, to arrive at a much more diverse area of knowledge than we traditionally imagine. What skills does a historian require to investigate the past? Which types of sources are most insightful in providing us with evidence about previous societies and individuals?


Source History Today

4. Philosophical intuition

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Intuition, reason, ethics

First order KQs What is a priori justification?

Second order KQs To what extent do a priori justifications underpin the different areas of knowledge?

What’s the story about? Bruce Russell looks at the nature of a priori justification, and its relationship with knowledge. He concludes that “all of our justified beliefs are ultimately based on a priori justification.”

Analysing the story This is a good introduction to the nature of intuition, and the difference between it and reason (although be aware that in TOK our understanding of this way of knowing is closer to Kahneman’s than how philosophers approach intuition). How is ethics underpinned by a priori knowledge? Do you agree with Russell’s conclusion about a priori knowledge is the root of all justified beliefs?


Source Aeon

5. Beautiful bacteria

Big Question Purpose and value

AoKs/WoKs The arts, natural sciences

First order KQs How does Sarah Roberts ‘paint with bacteria’?

Second order KQs To what extent is the art about raising our awareness of the environment that surround us? How can the arts make us rethink our understanding of reality?

What’s the story about? This rather cool story looks at the work of the artist Sarah Roberts, who mixes bacteria with water colours to create ‘bio art’. Her motive is to build more awareness of these microbes that constantly surround us, but which we never see.

Analysing the story This very short article demonstrates how the arts can be used to grant us access to aspects of the world we are not usually aware of. Is this the key purpose of art: to increase our awareness of the nature of the world, and to make us recalibrate our understanding of existence? Or are other characteristics more important - in which case, what?


Source Wired

6. Inmate insights

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Emotion, human sciences

First order KQs What is ‘perspective taking’?

Second order KQs To what extent can we learn about psychology via simulated scenarios?

What’s the story about? The article examines the work of Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a Yale researcher, who spent time investigating prisoners with psychopathic tendencies in a maximum-security prison in Connecticut. Her particular focus was to try to understand how able they are at considering the thoughts of others - known as ‘perspective taking’.

Analysing the story Baskin-Sommers’s work is fascinating in its own right, and great fodder for a psychology lesson. For us in TOK, consider the way she produced her knowledge, and the opinion of other psychologists on the methods used. What does this indicate about the challenges of getting inside someone else’s mind?


Source The Atlantic

7. Saint Mary

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs The arts, history, religious knowledge systems

First order KQs What evidence do we have about the life of Mary Magdalene?

Second order KQs To what extent is our understanding of key events and figures from the past determined by popular culture? Can popular culture provide us with genuine insight into the world? What are the implications of viewing past societies through the lens of today’s society?

What’s the story about? The story considers the upcoming movie about the life of Mary Magdalene, which presents her as “an independent free-thinker” who played just as an important part in the story of Jesus as any of the apostles.

Analysing the story This is a great story for what it tells us about historical reputations and images. Think first about what we know (or what we think we know) about Mary Magdalene. What sources of information do we use (consciously or otherwise) to create this knowledge? Compare this to the fact that there is no reference to her in the gospels being anything other than an ordinary woman. Then think about the way this new film seeks to portray her. Will this reshape the way we understand her? Does history require this sort of revisionism to correct mistakes? And are films and art the best way of doing this?


Source BBC

8. A moral education

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Ethics

First order KQs How is ethics traditionally taught in schools?

Second order KQs Is consensus possible in ethics? Can ethical knowledge ever be regarded as objective truth?

What’s the story about? Michael Hand reflects on how - given the subjective nature of morality- we can agree in common aims and methods of teaching and learning about ethics.

Analysing the story This is a nice primer in ethics for students. Focus first on what Hand identifies as the problem facing us in terms of teaching ethics: what do people disagree on? Second, what are the usual responses to these problems, and why does he say they are flawed? Finally, what approach does he advocate - and do you agree with this? Can you come up with a better alternative?


Source Aeon

9. Visualising science

Big Question Presentation of reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, sense perception

First order KQs What cutting-edge scientific experiments are currently going on in universities?

Second order KQs How do we visualise scientific knowledge? Is knowledge harder to access when it is less accessible to our senses?

What’s the story about? This pictorial RLS presents a series of images taken from the research carried out by scientists at various different British universities.

Analysing the story It’s sometimes hard to visualise or imagine scientific knowledge, particularly at the more theoretical end of the spectrum. These images give us an insight into the nature of science by providing us with visual access to experiments and theories currently being carried out. Which image provides us with the most complete knowledge of science? Which is the most surprising?


Source The Guardian

10. Powerful landscapes

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs History, emotion, sense perception, intuition, imagination

First order KQs Which locations are endowed with a historical ‘power’?

Second order KQs Can we ‘feel’ history? Which ways of knowing create our feelings for a place?

What’s the story about? Eleanor Parker considers the way in which certain places, that have connections to defining moments in history, exude a certain ‘feeling’ that we experience via a different way of knowing than we usually associate with the pursuit of this discipline.

Analysing the story Students could consider (or even visit) a place where something significant has occurred. Which way of knowing do we use to get a sense of this event (see the ones mentioned)? Or is this all a red herring, and talk of places having a ‘feeling’ is misleading, and only due to the fact that we know something occurred there?


Source History Today

11. Bee language

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs History, language, religious knowledge systems

First order KQs How is the concept of ‘death’ expressed in Lithuanian?

Second order KQs How much can we learn about a culture’s past via its language? To what extent does language reflect cultural and historical identity?

What’s the story about? The article explores the way in which the Lithuanian language reflects its cultural past, specifically in terms of the country having only recently converted to Christianity, and before that, having interesting pagan beliefs and outlooks.

Analysing the story Students can focus on certain aspects of the language used by Lithuanians, such as the way they have an intriguing relationship with bees. They can also think about the different links between Lithuanian and other languages - as far away as India. Finally, there is a lovely phrase in this article, which students could consider - “the language acts a little like… amber”. What exactly does the writer mean by this?


Source BBC

12. Population bomb

Big Question Authority figures / development

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs What was the thesis of Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb?

Second order KQs Can we make predictions in the human sciences?

What’s the story about? This is an interview with Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University biologist, who predicted the “collapse of civilisation” in a book published 50 years ago.

Analysing the story The key question linked to this RLS - which ties in with prescribed title 4 for the November session - is, can we make predictions in the human sciences? Students can analyse what what Ehrlich based his prediction on, and the extent to which he got things right, and then compare our ability to make predictions in this area of knowledge to others.


Source The Guardian

13. Firehawks

Big Question Purpose and value

AoKs/WoKs Indigenous knowledge, natural sciences, history, language

First order KQs How did knowledge from the Alawa and other other indigenous people give biologists an insight into birds of prey in Australia?

Second order KQs Are Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge antithetical? Is the difference between Western and indigenous knowledge due to its nature or purpose?

What’s the story about? The article looks at how knowledge about the natural world within industrialised, large scale societies often takes its lead from what indigenous societies already know, despite being sceptical about the validity of indigenous knowledge.

Analysing the story This is a fantastic article about the relationship between ‘Western’ and indigenous knowledge, and the uneasy relationship that often exists between them. Focus first on how indigenous knowledge can help provide us with knowledge about the natural world, then consider how our incomplete written histories can be augmented by indigenous oral histories. The article also looks at how indigenous knowledge is based on ‘multiple ways of knowing’ - what are these? Finally, do you agree with the overall premise of the article that Western science is playing catch-up with indigenous knowledge?


Source Smithsonian

14. Thumbs up

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences

First order KQs When did the ‘thumbs-up’ emoji first appear?

Second order KQs To what extent do emojis ‘extend’ our language? Is language a shared or personal way of knowing? Why does the way we communicate develop over time?

What’s the story about? This straightforward but entertaining article looks at the way the ‘thumbs up’ emoji has become one of the most common ways in which we now communicate with each other online.

Analysing the story The key thing for students to consider is how the emoji is used, and the knowledge it communicates. Do students use this form of emoji - and for what reason? Why not use words instead? Finally, what does the writer mean when he says, “I love the ways our physical human reality clings on in even the most mediated technological environments”?


Source Wired

15. Singular they

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences, ethics

First order KQs What are the ‘grammatical rules’ about the use of the pronoun ‘they’?

Second order KQs Can we understand societal changes by examining language use?

What’s the story about? Stephanie Golden looks at how the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun seems wrong, but with time and more usage, will soon cease to grate. She uses this as a way of thinking about the development of language in general.

Analysing the story Begin by considering the phrase “Carey makes themself coffee every morning”, and how it makes us feel. Then consider what is going on in society that is driving the need for change in terms of how we use singular pronouns. What does that tell us about how changes in society lead to changes in language use? Do you agree with Golden’s assertion that “Language evolves, and no amount of fulminating, or imposition of rules, can stop it.”?


Source Aeon

Quick stories

QS1 Glacial language

  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences
  • KQs To what extent is language a reflection of changes in how we understand the natural world?
  • Source Smithsonian

QS2 Anonymous science

  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural and human sciences
  • KQs What will the effect of named peer review be on the creation of scientific knowledge?
  • Source Massive


QS3 Objective alcoholism

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs Is objectivity the key to reliable knowledge?
  • Source Vox


QS4 Alien imagination

  •  Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs Imagination
  • KQs To what extent is our imagination shaped by cultural factors?
  • Source Vox

QS5 Robust arguments

  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Reason
  • KQs Why is ‘refuting the central point’ the most effective form of argument?
  • Source Big Think

February RLSs & KQs 

1. Academia vs the law

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs History, language, ethics

First order KQs What role did Poles play in the Holocaust, according to a new Polish law?

Second order KQs In what ways are historians restricted by modern-day sensibilities?

What’s the story about? This story looks at reactions to the new law introduced in Poland that threatens anyone who claims there was Polish involvement in the Holocaust with up to three years in prison.

Analysing the story Start with the statement given by the spokesperson for Poland’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education at the end of the article. Does this prove that the new law will not impinge on historians hoping to research this era of Polish history? Or will the restriction create what one person described as “inner censorship”? Thinking bigger, should politicians and lawmakers be able to shape the way academics work, or will this always lead to problems in terms of the creation of new knowledge?


Source Times Higher Education

2. Dragon in the garage

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Reason

First order KQs What was Carl Sagan’s ‘Baloney Detection Kit’?

Second order KQs How does it affect our ability to make objective judgements about the world when we assume that we are right? How essential is the ability to falsify a claim to the acquisition of reliable knowledge?

What’s the story about? This short video features Michael Shermer outlining the ‘baloney detection kit’ inspired by the approach of Carl Sagan to finding out about the world. It also looks at the concept of falsification, and why this is a vital characteristic of any knowledge claim.

Analysing the story Go through each of Michael Shermer’s questions. What is the purpose of each one? How easily can they be applied to knowledge claims? How effective are they in producing reliable knowledge? Finally, to what extent is Popper’s idea of ‘falsification’ the centre of his ‘baloney detection kit’?


Source Big Think

3. Spoken language

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Language

First order KQs In what way do English and Mandarin have straightforward structures?

Second order KQs How can a language’s popularity affect the way it is spoken?

What’s the story about? This story examines the relationship between the complexity of language, and the number of people who speak it. It argues that the more the people, the more ‘shortcuts’ appear in a language structure; conversely, when only a few people speak a language, the more impervious it tends to remain.

Analysing the story This story actually fits into many of our big questions - it shows how mathematics can be used to investigate language, it shows how language develops over time, and it show show the extent to which language is shared determines its eventual form, any of which could form the basis of a class on language. If we’re going with the last of these, how does the number of people speaking a language shape its structure? And what does this reveal about the ‘living’ nature of language?


Source The Atlantic

4. Second Amendment debate

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Ethics,Human sciences, reason, emotion

First order KQs What effect do mass shootings have on the arguments of the pro- and anti-gun lobbies?

Second order KQs How do perspectives shape our ethical evaluations?

What’s the story about? This story, which is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in 2015, discusses the way in which it is possible to approach gun violence from two completely different perspectives, linking these to the contrasting “cognitive and emotional dynamics at work.” It looks at how a scientific approach can be taken to explore how people end up with very different conclusions to the same issue - in this case, gun ownership.

Analysing the story This story, of course, has much wider applications than this single issue - wherever there are strongly-held beliefs, the same cognitive processes are going on. Our defence mechanisms kick in when our ‘cherished beliefs’ are threatened. In this case, it is the much debated issue of gun control. How and why do both sides incorporate evidence in such different ways in order to support their position? And how valid is it to take a scientific approach (as outlined in the article) to assess the validity of each side’s reasoning?


Source Vox

5. End of the Grid Girls

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, human sciences

First order KQs Why have ‘Grid Girls’ been banned from F1?

Second order KQs How does ethical knowledge develop over time? How strong is the argument of ‘tradition’ in providing us with ethical knowledge?

What’s the story about? The links take students to a couple of articles about this ethical issue. One is from the Washington Post, and explains how and why ‘grid girls’ are being banned in Formula 1. The second - here - is an article from Autoweek, written by ex-Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda, who bemoans this change in his former sport.

Analysing the story There are one or two things students can do with these articles, and the issue at their heart. First, what does it reveal about the way (and rate) ethical changes occur? What is driving (excuse the pun) this changing attitude? Second, look at the second article, and think about the logic applied to the issue - which fallacies can you see?


Source Washington Post

6. Foreign imagination

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Language, imagination, memory, sense perception

First order KQs What proportion of people’s imaginationary skills were weaker in a second language?

Second order KQs To what extent do we need words in order to imagine?

What’s the story about? This story links several of the different ways of knowing, by looking at the way speaking in a second language hinders our ability to mentally simulate a sensory memory.

Analysing the story First, what does the study reveal about the relationship between language and these other ways of knowing? Think not just about the level of proficiency of the language you are using to imagine certain scenarios, but also about the type of language - for example, Spanish. Second, do you find this study convincing? Focus on how the research was carried out, the number of participants used, and the analysis of the data gathered.


Source The Independent

7. Do you speak Road?

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Language, intuition, human sciences, technology

First order KQs What are the ‘social signals and unspoken rules’ of driving?

Second order KQs To what extent is language intuitive, and based on unseen rules?

What’s the story about? Following up our story from last month about ethics and driverless cars, now we think about them in relation to ‘the language of the road’. The article explores the ways in which (human) drivers communicate using an intuitive and informal common language of the road, and the extent to which this will be accessible to cars driven by machines, rather than people.

Analysing the story This is a great story for both ethics and language, prompting us to ponder the nature of language (how much of it is written and unwritten; how much of it is based on rules, and how much of it is intuitive, etc.), and its role in defining ethical system. Finally, students can ponder the question posed by the writer of the article: “How much knowledge about our societal and linguistic values are built into the system? How can driverless cars learn to interpret hand and auditory signals?”


Source The Conversation

8. Regrettable lyrics

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Ethics, the arts

First order KQs What are some of the lyrics and songs that artists have later regretted?

Second order KQs To what extent do the arts define the ethical standpoints of the time?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the way morally-laden lyrics in a later social context can appear rather questionable, and are often disowned by their creators. It looks at songs by Katy Perry and  The Rolling Stones, and even goes back to songs created in the 1930s.

Analysing the story There is a very close relationship between the arts and ethics, as we have seen in many articles over the years - moral issues often represent the central element of themes explored by artists; similarly, artistic creations help to define the zeitgeist of society at any given time. Does the fact that musicians often regret the moral positions of their earlier work indicate that art imitates life, or that it’s the other way around? Are the arts a useful source of ethical knowledge, or does this prove that they are shaky at best?


Source The Guardian

9. Dictionary decline?

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language

First order KQs How do lexicographers trace the origin of words?

Second order KQs What is the role of dictionaries in language? How is technology changing the way we use and conceive of language?

What’s the story about? This ‘long read’ by Andrew Dickson is a very comprehensive exploration of the role of dictionaries (specifically, the Oxford English Dictionary), and their struggle to compete with online resources for language. This is a long article, which can be used to explore many different aspects of language.

Analysing the story The writer poses some questions about the difficulties of being a lexicographer, which, gets us thinking about the role of dictionaries in language. For example, “Which words do you include [in a dictionary], and on what basis? How do you tease apart this sense from that?” Then there is the problem of mapping a ‘living language’ - can this be done, given that it is changing all the time? How has the role of dictionaries changed over time (compared to the function of language)?


Source The Guardian

10. Finding 'yourself'

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Imagination, memory, human sciences

First order KQs How does ayahuasca affect the mind?

Second order KQs Do individual, separate ‘knowers’ exist?

What’s the story about? Writing in the first person, Sean Illing recounts his experiences in Costa Rica, where he took part in a hallucinogenic ‘ayahuasca retreat’. He talks about the knowledge that was revealed to him, and the effect the ‘trip’ had on his life and his relationship with other people.

Analysing the story Get students to think about what that little word ‘self’ means. Then they can ponder Illing’s experiences, linking it to what he says about there not being a ‘fixed self’. As he says, the problem with this ideas is that “If you’re experiencing something, then there must be a “you” doing the experiencing. But the “you” in this case is just an abstraction; it’s in your mind, not out there in the world.”


Source Vox

11. Defending Icelandic

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Language, indigenous knowledge systems

First order KQs What is ‘digital minoritisation’?

Second order KQs Do you need to understand a culture’s language to properly understand its heritage? How does the development of a language depend on its online presence?

What’s the story about? Icelandic is a ‘very special language’, as this article shows, creating new words in a very dynamic way. But it’s under threat from the Internet - so what does that show about the role of language in the digital age?

Analysing the story What does the article show about the relationship between language and the development of technology? Specifically, think about ways in which technology can support a language, and how it can also undermine a language. Will the cultural identity of Icelanders ensure that it survives?


Source The Guardian

12. Plant consciousness

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language

First order KQs Why have some people claimed that plants are conscious?

Second order KQs How can simplifying scientific knowledge mislead us?

What’s the story about? Recent stories in the press have given the impression that it’s possible plants are ‘conscious’ organisms. This story examines where this concept was ‘lost in translation’ from the original research, to its appearance in the news.

Analysing the story The story considers the dangers of taking complex scientific concepts, and repackaging them for a non-expert audience. First, students can think about the specifics of this case - what was ‘lost in translation’ from the original study, to the representation of that study in the New York Times? Then they can grapple with the question - how should scientific knowledge be represented in the regular press? In other words, how should you balance the need to publicise important scientific ideas with the problems associated with simplifying those ideas?


Source Massive

13. Your blue and my blue

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, human sciences

First order KQs How have philosophers traditionally viewed colour?

Second order KQs Which approach (philosophical, scientific, artistic.) should we take when we try to understand ‘colour’?

What’s the story about? Mazviita Chirimuutu looks at the nature of colour, arguing that the way we usually label and understand it needs to be updated.

Analysing the story The writer says: Think about what Chirimuutu says - “In my view, colors are not properties of things, they are ways that objects appear to us, and at the same time, ways that we perceive certain kinds of objects.” What exactly does this mean, and how is this different from the way we usually conceive of colour?


Source Nautilus

14. Truth demon

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, reason (etc.)

First order KQs What is the ‘Truth Demon’ test?

Second order KQs Is there a satisfactory way of testing what we really believe? What is the difference between belief and knowledge?

What’s the story about? As it explains in the introduction, this article is all about discerning what you really believe, from the ideas that you might have for other motives. It offers some truth experiments to help identify your ‘true’ beliefs.

Analysing the story This article could help to introduce the TOK course, by getting students to consider what they ‘know’ themselves. It links to big questions like, what is knowledge, what is belie and what’s the difference between them, as well as how do we assemble our beliefs, and the reasons behind them.


Source Aeon

15. Dutch directness

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Language, human sciences, emotion, ethics

First order KQs What is meant by ‘Dutch directness’?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between truthfulness, empathy, and language?

What’s the story about? Olga Mecking examines the way in which in Dutch culture - particularly Amsterdam - communication is carried out in a very ‘direct’ way, and ‘truthfulness comes before empathy’.

Analysing the story Language obviously differs from culture to culture in more ways than just different vocabularies and grammar structures. This article shows how the use and application of language is quite different between societies. This begs the question - which comes first, behavioural norms, or language? And what role does the way we use language play in defining the community and its ethical values?


Source BBC

Quick stories

QS1 Burnt toast
  • Big Question Connections
  • AoKs/WoKs Human sciences
  • KQs How can knowledge created within one way of knowing help to explore that of another?
  • Source Independent

QS2 Self-taught expert

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs Can real knowledge be ‘self-taught’?
  • Source Washington Post

QS3 Pizza art
  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts
  • KQs Can the arts make us reconceive a familiar object?
    Source DW

QS4 Fries and baldness
  •  Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs How does hope hinder our acquisition of knowledge?
  • Source Reuters
QS5 Good vs Evil
  •  Big Question Development
  • AoKs/WoKs Ethics, the arts
  • KQs Is our perception of morality becoming more black and white over time?
  • Source Aeon

January 2018 RLSs & KQs 

1. Self-driving ethics

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Ethics

First order KQs What sort of ethical decisions will self-driving cars make?

Second order KQs Does ‘strippping away’ the context of an ethical decision reveal the moral core? What are the characteristics of effective ethical decision-making? Are hypothetical situations ever helpful to us in learning about the world?

What’s the story about? This story begins as a consideration of how self-driving cars will make ethical choices, but it quickly moves on to think about ethics much more broadly, and the validity of tests such as the (in)famous ‘trolley problem.

Analysing the story This is a great, topical issue: ethical decisions are increasingly being made by algorithms and computers. But it’s a lot more than that. Look at how the article argues that context completely undermines hypothetical evidence in arguments. Do you agree? Does this explain why we don’t like hypothetical examples in TOK? Finally, how does this link back to the self-driving car (focus on that phrase, “sensitivity to empirical detail”)?


Source Vox

2. Scientific love

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Natural & human sciences, language

First order KQs What claims did ‘eharmony’ make about its dating service?

Second order KQs What makes something ‘scientific’? Why is a scientific approach to knowledge viewed as being desirable?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the reason why the dating website ‘eharmony’ is being banned from referring to the ‘scientifically proven’ way in which it matches up its users.

Analysing the story The first thing to think about with this story is why it should matter. That word ‘scientific’ is a very sensitive one - should we ‘protect’ it in this manner? Second, look at the methods employed by eharmony to match up its users. What do they lack that would have made them ‘scientific’? Or is such an approach impossible when it comes to dating? Can the same be said of human sciences in general?


Source Huffington Post

3. Human plague

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What is the evidence that humans - rather than rats - spread the Black Death?

Second order KQs How do new theories take hold in history?

What’s the story about? It’s one of the most widely-known facts in medieval history - the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century was spread by fleas that were carried on rates. Except, new evidence suggests that it isn’t true...

Analysing the story This interesting article raises quite a few questions. First, if the historical and archaeological evidence does not support the theory that rats spread the Black Death, why do we all think that’s the case? Second, what led to historians questioning this knowledge - and could it indicate that other historical theories are based on unreliable evidence?


Source The Independent

4. Street epistemology

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Reason, faith, human/natural science

First order KQs What is a ‘street epistemologist’?

Second order KQs How objective are we about our ‘beliefs’? Does self-defensiveness always indicate a poorly-formulated opinion?

What’s the story about? The article focuses on the work of Anthony Magnabosco and other ‘street epistemologists’ as they explore the basis of our most deeply-held beliefs, and the extent to which it is possible to alter those beliefs when it is revealed that they are incorrect.

Analysing the story This is a nice introduction to the nature of epistemology, and very topical in this era when so many people seem to have strongly-held, but weakly-supported ideas and outlooks (or perhaps that has always been the case). What does it reveal about being ‘open-minded’ - are you willing to change your beliefs if you find out they are based on flawed evidence, or would you simply view a challenge to what you believe as being a threat? How can we become more ‘humble’ about what we believe, and what are the advantages of doing so?


Source Massive

5. Screen-time

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Intuition, emotion, reason, mathematics

First order KQs Why have Apple investors been complaining about the effect of smartphones on young people?

Second order KQs What makes a person more of an expert on a subject - having a financial or scientific involvement?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the call by Apple investors to deal with the threat to teenage mental-health posed by the overuse of smartphones. Except, there is no clear scientific (that word again) evidence of any link between the two.

Analysing the story It’s fast becoming a truism that screen-time is bad for you, and it’s intuitively attractive to link mental well-being with the amount of time you spend in the virtual, rather than the actual, world. However, there is little solid evidence that this is actually the case. So why do people believe it, and what evidence do they use to support the idea? And linking this to our big question, who should be regarded as an expert on this issue?


Source Wired

6. Myths of 2017

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Reason, human & natural sciences

First order KQs Which 8 common beliefs does Vox think should be discarded in 2018?

Second order KQs Do we use reason to inform us about the world? How do we choose what second-hand knowledge to believe?

What’s the story about? Vox publishes a similar story to this every year, calling for certain flawed ideas about the world to be discarded. These eight ideas relate to a number of different fields, such as science and health.

Analysing the story This story leads on to some simple questions. Which of the ‘bad ideas’ do you subscribe to, and why? Are you convinced that they are myths rather than facts? Why are they commonly believed? Which one do you find the most surprising - and why?


Source Vox

7. Exploring seeing

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs The arts, sense perception

First order KQs What themes are explored in Bridget Riley’s new exhibition?

Second order KQs Is the purpose of art to make us see the world differently?

What’s the story about? This story looks at a new exhibition of Bridget Riley’s artwork at the David Zwirner Gallery, London.

Analysing the story See also this story on Bridget Riley from a few years ago. This could just as easily link to Big question 1 (Reality Check) because to Riley, as Jonathan Jones puts it, “art is not a picture nor a political comment nor a splurge of self-expression. It is a way to explore seeing.” What exactly does that mean, and how does she go about doing that?


Source The Guardian

8. Early humanity

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human & natural sciences, language

First order KQs What new theories are being presented to explain the development of early human life?

Second order KQs Is more evidence always helpful to learning about the world? How does using different terms shift our understanding of a phenomenon?

What’s the story about? Bernard Wood and Michael Westaway explore the latest evidence about human origins, and how our ideas have developed over time.

Analysing the story The story is interesting for us initially because of what it says on the relationship between the amount of evidence, and the way in which more of it makes clarity less feasible. Is it helpful to have more evidence about phenomena? How and why has our understanding of humanity evolved over time - and in what way is this linked to what is going on in contemporary society?


Source The Conversation

9. Genius

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs The arts, imagination

First order KQs How did Beethoven and Picasso come up with their achievements?

Second order KQs Is creating new ideas a “process of derivation and extrapolation”? Do Eureka moments exist?

What’s the story about? In an extract from their new book, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt consider where creativity comes from, and its relationship with pre-existing ideas and theories.

Analysing the story Focus on the statement in the article: “new ideas always have a family tree”. What examples are given to prove this? Are there any exceptions? Does the concept of ‘original thought’ exist? Link also to ‘Extra story 2’ - where did Tesla’s ideas come from?


Source The Guardian

10. Economics rebooted

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs What is economics?

Second order KQs What transforms the way we pursue knowledge in the human sciences? Is this the same as the natural sciences?

What’s the story about? This detailed and challenging article examines the reasons why many people feel that economics needs a ‘revolution’ in terms of how it pursues knowledge, comparing that to the way in which physics changed completely with the discovery of quantum theory at the beginning of the 20th century.

Analysing the story Look at the problems that have been identified with economics - why are there calls for it to change its approach? Can a human science be viewed in the same way as a natural science - in terms of how new theories can revolutionise its methods and approaches? Consider also the purpose of economics: how does its nature change when we shift the reason for its existence?


Source Aeon

11. Smell and language

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, language

First order KQs How are smell and language linked in the brain?

Second order KQs How does our relationship with the natural world determine the accuracy of our sensory knowledge about it?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the way in which different societies around the world have different abilities to identify and describe smells. It is based on studies into how hunter-gatherer societies are much more adept in this respect that industrialised, larger-scale societies.

Analysing the story Does the research prove, as Anna Franklin asserts, that “how people talk about their perceptual experience of the world is shaped by how they live”? Can research like this arrive at solid conclusions, or is sense perception too subjective to be meaningfully measured? Assuming the research is solid, what does this indicate about the relationship between the society we live in and the way we identify and describe sensory knowledge?


Source The Guardian

12. Recidivist rules

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics, ethics, technology

First order KQs How does COMPAS predict whether someone will reoffend?

Second order KQs Can ethical knowledge be objectively calculated?

What’s the story about? The story looks at a new algorithm-based tool, COMPAS,  that is supposed to be able to calculate (ie predict) a defendant’s risk of committing another crime. However, it seems that the tool is no more accurate than “random volunteers recruited from the internet”.

Analysing the story This story clearly links to our first one, although the tone of this article is far less positive in terms of algorithms being used to make valuable ethical decisions. The problems associated with COMPAS seem to indicate one of two possibilities - either this is a issue that is too complex be predicted accurately in this way, or COMPAS is flawed. Which of these is more likely, and why?


Source The Atlantic

13. Prime numbers

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Mathematics

First order KQs What is the new (known) highest prime number?

Second order KQs Is all mathematical knowledge of practical value?

What’s the story about? Oliver Roeder looks at the discovery of the largest ever prime number, and how such discoveries have proceeded over the years. He also considers why we are impelled to continue looking for these special numbers.

Analysing the story This is a short, fairly straightforward story that prompts us to ask the question, ‘why bother?’ Does knowledge have to have a practical use to be valuable? This article, also linked in the story, suggests a few reasons...


Source FiveThirtyEight

14. Evolution and existentialism

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Ethics

First order KQs What are evolutionary biology, and existentialism?

Second order KQs How does the way we conceive of ourselves shape our questions about the universe? What insight into ethics and philosophy does an understanding of evolutionary biology give us?

What’s the story about? This is another challenging Aeon article that looks at a huge range of ideas and thinkers to explore the way in which having an understanding of evolutionary biology shapes the our philosophical and moral outlook.

Analysing the story There is so much to this article, it’s difficult to narrow down some individual questions. Try to figure out what it tells about the following - the value of knowledge, what human nature is and how it relates to the way we view the world, equating ‘natural’ with ‘good’, the role of language in shaping our natures, and finally, how understanding evolution impacts on what we should aspire towards.


Source Aeon

15. Quarterback science

Big Question Authority figures

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language

First order KQs What are Tom Brady’s ‘12 Principles’?

Second order KQs Can empirical knowledge blind us from scientific reality?

What’s the story about? This story analyses claims made by Tom Brady about how he has been able to maintain such a long career in professional football, and continue to compete with athletes much younger than him. It focuses on his book ‘The TB12 Method’, considering whether or not it is based on pseudoscience and commercial interests, rather than genuine scientific knowledge.

Analysing the story Tom Brady’s extraordinary achievements are also, arguably, what makes it difficult to understand the way the human body works. The origin of his abilities is much more likely to be genetic rather than environmental, but somehow this is far less satisfactory. Read through the article, and consider whether his theories are convincing or not, and compare to other famous figures who offer controversial (ie pseudoscientific) theories on the way nature functions. Ultimately, who should be considered the authority on these ideas and theories?


Source FiveThirtyEight

Quick stories

QS1 Alternative knowledge

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, indigenous knowledge, language
  • KQs Who decides (and how) what ‘alternative’ medicine is?
  • Source Massive

QS2 Modern Prometheus

  • Big Question Knower/s
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, technology, imagination
  • KQs Where do ideas come from?
  • Source The Conversation

QS3 Chocolate is healthy

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences
  • KQs How are popular ideas on science constructed?
  • Source Vox

QS4 Brilliantly bad art

  • Big Question Authority figures
  • AoKs/WoKs The arts
  • KQs Who should evaluate the quality of art?
  • Source The Conversation

QS5 Classification

  • Big Question Representing reality
  • AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, language
  • KQs How fundamental to our understanding of science is language?
  • Source The Atlantic

December 2018 - RLSs & KQs 

1. Critical Acclaim

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs The arts

First order KQs How were 2017’s movies received by the critics?

Second order KQs Why do art critics have different opinions? Is it possible to approach the arts objectively? To what extent do (and should) we draw on our own experiences to make judgements about the arts?

What’s the story about? Alissa Wilkinson looks at why people end up with completely different opinions about the same film (hence the question forming the title of the article - “Did we see the same movie?!”) . This leads her on to ponder the ‘shifting’ nature of the arts, and the extent to which we analyse films via our own experiences and perspectives.

Analysing the story This is a great article to use to introduce the nature of knowledge in the arts, and the extent to which we use our own perspectives in order to arrive at a critical judgement of what we see, read, and hear. What does Wilkinson mean when she says that art does not exist in a vacuum? Do you agree that it matters about the gender and ethnic background of the creator of a work of art? And finally, does the article give any insight into whether we can talk about some opinions about art being ‘better’ than others?


Source Vox
 

2. Lone historian

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs History

First order KQs What are the typical research methods of a historian?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between shared and personal approaches to knowledge in history? Can lone researchers produce genuine knowledge?

What’s the story about? Eleanor Parker considers the truth behind the idea of ‘lone researchers’ in history, and the extent to which historical knowledge is shared by professionals in this area of knowledge.

Analysing the story This is a clear and straightforward article on shared and personal knowledge, which will act as a nice introduction to this Big Question within the context of history. To what extent does this relationship differ compared to other areas of knowledge? Can we talk about ‘personal knowledge’ at all in history - is everything, ultimately, shared?


Source History Today 
 

3. Immediacy versus peer review

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Human sciences

First order KQs How does peer review work in the human sciences?

Second order KQs Is peer review integral to the production of accurate knowledge in the human sciences? What is (and should be) the role of interpretation in the production of human sciences knowledge?

What’s the story about? The article looks at the seemingly impossible task of keeping up to date with the production of knowledge in the human sciences (specifically, politics), and ensuring that that knowledge is properly checked and peer-reviewed.

Analysing the story We’ve seen a lot of stories recently about the way in which there is a crisis in terms of peer review in the natural sciences, but the problem is arguably even more acute in the field of politics, where events move even faster. Do you believe that publishing before peer review has occurred allows knowledge to be relevant and up-to-date, or fatally undermines what appears? Should political scientists avoid social media altogether? Do we need peer review? This article prompts a lot of questions about the human sciences!


Source FiveThirtyEight
 

4. Storytelling

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Imagination, emotion, indigenous knowledge systems

First order KQs What is the ‘evolutionary cheesecake’?

Second order KQs Which areas of knowledge does storytelling help us to understand? Is there is a clear line between fiction and non-fiction?

What’s the story about? The article ponders the question - “But why do we spend hours listening to and telling stories, often of exploits that never even happened?” It looks at a variety of different cultures, thinking about the way fiction and imagination is used to understand the origins of both the human and natural world.

Analysing the story This article breaks down the barrier between fiction and non-fiction, looking at how made-up things can help us to grasp concepts that are based very firmly in the real world. Is fiction an essential part of understanding reality?


Source The Conversation
 

5. Treachery of images

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs The arts, language

First order KQs How did Rene Magritte influence other painters and artists?

Second order KQs Is art about “communicating thoughts through paint”? Does art help us to understand reality, or does it just create another layer of imagery?

What’s the story about? Cath Pound looks at the work and legacy of the Belgian artist Rene Magritte, focusing on his famous painting The Treachery of Images (or This is Not a Pipe). In her article, she considers how his philosophical approach to visual art changed the way we view and understand reality.

Analysing the story This is a very nice introduction to the work of this influential artist and thinker, and for us it is packed full of interesting points to consider. What can we learn about the subjectivity of artistic knowledge? What did Magritte mean when he said “we should question the veracity of the words, not the image”? Why are questions more effective than answers in producing knowledge?


Source BBC
 

6. Familiarity bias

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Language, reason, emotion

First order KQs What is the difference between ‘fluent’ and ‘disfluent’ thoughts?

Second order KQs How do our feelings guide us about our thoughts? What are the implications of having biases towards familiarity?

What’s the story about? Derek Thompson talks about our need for ‘aha’ moments, which he understands as transition moments between disfluent and fluent feelings. He then goes on to discuss how we form biases towards ideas and things that are familiar to us. Finally, he thinks about the responsibilities of media organisations in identifying ‘fake news’.

Analysing the story Derek Thompson introduces an interesting concept at the beginning of his talk - that we ‘have feelings about our thoughts’. Do you agree with this, and what are the implications of this? Is he right about the transition point between disfluency and fluency forming ‘aha’ moments? And finally, what about his ideas on familiarity bias - are you biased towards things you are familiar with? What are the implications of this? Can (/should) we overcome this bias?

Source Big Think

7. Evolution of mass

Big Question Development

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, intuition

First order KQs How has our understanding of matter changed over time?

Second order KQs Do new scientific discoveries answer questions, or just create new ones? What develops over time - our understanding of phenomena, or our expression of that understanding? How should we make use of intuitive knowledge when it comes to producing knowledge about the universe?

What’s the story about? This article looks at how our developing understanding of the nature of matter has changed the way we understand the concept of mass. It arrives at a “conceptually shocking” realisation about the nature of mass, and one that is completely counter-intuitive.

Analysing the story This is a fantastic example of how our developing understanding of something creates more questions than it answers. Begin by thinking in terms of that first order question - “how has our understanding of matter changed over time?” Then Work your way through the different questions that are thrown up by this development of knowledge until you finally arrive at the conclusion that “Mass becomes… a physical manifestation of energy, rather than the other way around”.


Source Nautilus
 

8. Sensitive words

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences

First order KQs Which words have been (purported) banned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

Second order KQs What is the relationship between political agendas and scientific research?

What’s the story about? This article looks at the imposition of a ban on certain words by the Department of Health and Human Services on officials working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Words such as “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “vulnerable,” are allegedly the ones affected.

Analysing the story Although it seems that the word ‘ban’ is an exaggeration (as the article points out, it’s not so much a ‘ban’ as ‘instructions for usage’), this article shows the importance of language-use in the sciences, and the way in which political agendas (on both sides) can influence the way scientists do their jobs. Why might these words be considered sensitive? Why should we be more careful about the way we use language in the sciences than in other areas of knowledge?


Source New York Times
 

9. Sound science

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences

First order KQs Why does the term ‘sound science’ have an agenda?

Second order KQs Does the fact that scientific knowledge is ‘provisional’ undermine its credibility? How does the way in which we understand the nature of science determine what we expect from it?

What’s the story about? This story looks at calls to reform science from two very different directions - the first group, from within the scientific community, termed the ‘open science’ movement; the second group, motivated more by politics, termed the ‘sound science’ movement. Both movements seem on the surface to want similar, reasonable things, but in fact their motives are vastly different.

Analysing the story How could anyone argue against science being ‘sound’? It seems on the surface to be a perfectly reasonable demand. However, as this article points out, the concept of ‘sound science’ is a political invention for those who seek to “amplify uncertainty, create doubt and undermine scientific discoveries that threaten their interests.” How does understanding the history of this term help us to discern its real meaning? How is ‘sound science’ based on a fundamental (and quite possibly, deliberate) misunderstanding of the nature of science?


Source FiveThirtyEight
 

10. All in the mind

Big Question Reality check

AoKs/WoKs Natural sciences, intuition, imagination, sense perception, reason

First order KQs What are ‘thought experiments’?

Second order KQs Can we produce certain knowledge via ‘thought experiments’? Is rational knowledge more valuable than empirical knowledge in the sciences?

What’s the story about? Dan Falk looks at the extent to which empirical experimentation is integral to science, and whether more rational ‘thought experiments’ can provide certain knowledge. This is a great article to introduce the idea of rational and empirical knowledge, and the type of knowledge we deal with in science.

Analysing the story Look though the article and find the ‘thought experiments’ described by Falk. Do these prove that we can use “pure introspection” to arrive at scientific knowledge? Or do they simply provide “bring vivid pictures to the mind’s eye”, without giving us genuine knowledge? Why do you think this such a hotly contested issue?


Source Aeon
 

11. Orwell vs Wells

Big Question Purpose & value

AoKs/WoKs Natural and human sciences

First order KQs What were George Orwell and HG Wells’s views on the role of science?

Second order KQs What is the purpose of scientific knowledge? To what extent does scientific knowledge provide society with an answer to all its problems?

What’s the story about? The story looks at the contrasting views of George Orwell and HG Wells on the role of science in society.

Analysing the story We invoke the name of Orwell to refer to anything that is sinister and authoritarian - such as the supposed banning of those words in story number 9. So it’s worth considering what his views of science actually were - which this article does by contrasting his opinions with those of HG Wells. Which one’s approach do you find more convincing?


Source The Conversation
 

12. Resulting fallacy

Big Question Perspectives

AoKs/WoKs Reason, language

First order KQs What does the term ‘resulting’ in poker mean?

Second order KQs How valid is it to evaluate a decision based on its anticipated outcome? How can changing our mindset change the way we evaluate our decision making? How will our decision-making improve if we cease being ‘resulters’?

What’s the story about? This fascinating story looks at the work of Annie Duke, a former ph.D. psychology student turned professional poker player. In a conversation with Stuart Firestein, she discusses the difference between luck and skill, and making the wrong evaluation of our decision-making based on ‘resulting’

Analysing the story What does Duke mean by ‘resulting’, and why does it apply to poker, rather than, say, chess? What are the implications of being a ‘resulter’, and how can we avoid it undermining the way we understand the world, and make decisions?


Source Nautilus

13. Divine delivery

Big Question Knower/s

AoKs/WoKs Religious knowledge systems, faith

First order KQs How has the concept of a ‘virgin birth’ been portrayed in different cultures?

Second order KQs To what extent are religious knowledge systems based on ‘storytelling to express unfathomable concepts’? To what extent do different religious knowledge systems ‘borrow’ ideas and concepts from each other?

What’s the story about? In this seasonal article, Marguerite Johnson explores the concept of ‘virgin births’ in Christian and non-Christian cultures, and what this tells us about the nature of the divine.

Analysing the story What does the article indicate about the way religious knowledge systems develop over time? To what extent do different religions borrow ideas and concepts from each other? Lastly, what’s your position on the final question posed by the article?


Source The Conversation
 

14. Conspiracy thinking

Big Question Representing reality

AoKs/WoKs Reason, emotion, human sciences

First order KQs How does social media provide traction for conspiracy theories?

Second order KQs Do conspiracy theorists apply too much, or too little, critical thinking?

What’s the story about? This disturbing article looks at the way some people prefer to see the victims of mass-shootings as purveyors of elaborate hoaxes, rather than human beings who have been caught up in tragedy. The big question, of course, is ‘why’?

Analysing the story Why are some people keen to apply a conspiracy theory in order to explain events? Are conspiracy theories always the result of personal and societal biases - or can they actually lead us to discover genuine knowledge? Finally, what is the relationship between social media and conspiracy theories - can it help dispel them, or will it always fuel them?


Source The Guardian
 

15. Neuron knowledge

Big Question Connections

AoKs/WoKs Imagination, intuition, the arts, natural sciences

First order KQs How did Santiago Ramon y Cajal change our understanding of neuroscience?

Second order KQs Can artistic approaches to knowledge lead to scientific insight? Do artists 'see' more than other experts?

What’s the story about? This story looks at the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and his representations of the human brain, for which he was called the ‘father of neuroscience’.

Analysing the story What is interesting about this story is the way Cajal approached the brain in a completely new way. Read the article, and explain how he drew on imagination, intuition, and artistic methods to build up a much clearer understanding of the structure of the brain, and the way neurons work. Does the eventual acceptance of many of his ideas prove the integrity of these methods?


Source Massive
 

Quick stories

QS1 Common language
Big Question Purpose & value
AoKs/WoKs Ethics, language
KQs To what extent can a common language resolve ethical issues?
Source Guardian

QS2 Trust issues
Big Question Knower/s
AoKs/WoKs 
Natural sciences, reason
KQs How open-minded should scientists be?
Source Nautilus

QS3 Conspiracy thinking
Big Question Representing reality
AoKs/WoKs Human sciences, history
KQs Is belief a matter of choice?
Source Salon

QS4 Emotional colours
Big Question Knower/s
AoKs/WoKs Sense perception, emotion
KQs Do colours have characteristics - in which case, what are their origins?
Source New York Times


QS5 Words and understanding
Big Question Development
AoKs/WoKs Language, natural sciences
KQs Do terms for concepts help or hinder our understanding of the world?
Source Salon