TOK Tuesdays

Exploring PT 5 – Everything’s A-OK

This is the fifth of six TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles. In each post I will highlight a few specific themes that students may wish to consider related to each title, themes that are fleshed out in considerable detail, together with specific examples, in the corresponding Titled Assistance video available directly on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. Subscribers might wish to regard these posts as high-level summaries of those videos, illuminating large-scale structural motivations that can further assist students both before and after watching the associated Ideas Roadshow Titled Assistance video. 

Today we tackle PT 5 for May 2020.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

In the video, as always, I explore many aspects and nuances associated with this title, trying to flesh out the various subtleties related to issues such as, What does it mean for a theory to ‘have its limitations? and, What, precisely, does it mean to ‘understand the worldin this context?  These are, of course, very important features of the title that must coherently be addressed by any student in her essay, as are the provocative words “given” and “every”. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about in this post.  

Instead, I’m going to make a lateral move to another aspect of the title before slipping into a higher-level view of things.   

First, the other aspect.  After the claim in quotations comes the obligatory “to-do” message to the student: Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. The student, and teacher, might be forgiven for simply glossing this last sentence over, unthinkingly chalking it up to standard TOK title format. After all, every title asks the student to do something, and while “discuss this claim” is clearly more general than “to what extent do you agree with this claim” or even “explore this distinction”, it seems very much of a piece with the general spirit of things.   

But that’s not the part I want to focus on here. For me, a genuine key to this title is the emphasis on “with reference to two areas of knowledge”. At first glance this, too, seems incredibly benign. After all, half of the titles specifically request the student to discuss matters with respect to two AOKs.  So why, on earth, should this stand out here?

The answer, I think, harkens back to the first TOK Tuesdays blog post I wrote at the beginning of October (Theory of Titles) when I stressed the value of trying to understand why the IBO TOK powers that be came up with these particular titles. What were they thinking? What did they have in mind? Why these titles and not similar options?  

My guess is that the titles that specifically ask students to invoke two areas of knowledge indicate those where, by and large, experts pursuing different AOKs will have strikingly different responses to the title in question.   That’s not to say, of course, that the other three titles don’t also present a divergence of views – of course they do – it’s just that, for the most part, that very divergence won’t be so strongly correlated with AOKs. 

And I would further claim that, of the three titles that specifically mandate comparisons across two AOKs, none reveals this correlation as strongly as PT 5. Which leads directly, I think, to an important “way in” to begin addressing the title.  

In other words, I would urge anyone thinking about PT 5 to step back for a moment before plunging into the details, and ask yourself to compare the reactions a typical physicist or biologist would have to the statement “Given that every theory has its limitations, we need to retain a multiplicity of theories to understand the world” with those of a typical historian or social scientist.   

My sense is that, while exceptions definitely abound, most physicists and biologists would strongly disagree with the statement. Some theories, they would admit, have their limitations, but that is more a statement of our current level of ignorance than anything else, and the hope and expectation is that, over time, those limitations will disappear as we better refine our theoretical framework. It is certainly not the case, they would say, that every theory has its limitations.  Most natural scientists would begrudgingly admit that “a multiplicity of theories” is logically necessary during our current period of uncertainty until we sort things out appropriately, but it is hardly desirable, let alone necessary – simply a consequence of not having everything figured out yet

On the other hand, your average historian would likely strongly concur with the claim that every historical theory has its limitations, recognizing two important points:

  • No matter how carefully we sift through the available evidence, there is still the overwhelming likelihood that we don’t have access to all the information necessary to make the best possible judgement.
  • Even those theories that we do develop based upon our available evidence are naturally subjected to our own biases and assumptions that resonate with our own sociocultural values and that historians of both the past and future will naturally come to strikingly different conclusions based upon different interpretations of the same evidence.   

Meanwhile, social scientists tend to come down on various different sides of this question, depending on a combination of their personal attitudes and what sort of research they conduct.  

One of the advantages of having a database filled with hundreds of specific insights of leading experts across different fields is that it’s pretty easy to move beyond one’s gut feelings and check to see if one’s expectations measure up with reality.  Which is why, in our recently released Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 5 video we chose examples from six different experts across the natural sciences, history and human sciences in a deliberate effort to further explore this AOK-related distinction.

Those unfortunate few who have yet to subscribe to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal will sadly not have the luxury of such concrete examples from expert researchers to support their arguments, but I would nonetheless urge them to trawl through books and YouTube videos to see if they could verify this AOK-related correlation for themselves.  

Because once you spot the roles that different AOKs play in this title, it’s almost like the essay writes itself. 

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 5 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”), Student TOK section and TOK Teachers section.  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 5 with 6 specific examples from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP video and print resources to highlight the concepts under discussion.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources. School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.