Extending Wednesdays

The Drake Equation

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from our Extending Ideas in Mathematics video, where renowned astronomer and former longtime SETI director of research Jill Tarter discusses the famous equation that Frank Drake developed in the 1960s to help us best assess the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. 

This intriguing topic naturally straddles a vast number of different fields, encompassing mathematics (through its pioneering use of statistical arguments), physics (through associated measurement and observational techniques), biology (definitions of life and intelligence), philosophy (the epistemic validity of such statistical techniques) and social and cultural anthropology (the validity of extrapolating the notions of intelligence and civilisation based upon our own experiences). 

While this wide variety of possible angles of attack might well raise suspicions about the likelihood of developing a suitably refined research question, more direct and focussed possibilities associated with this general topic include:

  1. An analysis of the current state of our knowledge of the specific parameters of the Drake equation
  2. An examination of its degree of recognition throughout the scientific community
  3. To what extent the biological category of “extremophiles” have changed the basic definition of life, together with specific examinations of extremophiles
  4. The rapidly evolving state of our understanding of exoplanets and related astronomical techniques for detecting them
  5. An assessment of how the prospect of extraterrestrial life influences the way we look at our own

Related resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal include the clips A Cosmic Perspective, Frank Drake’s Agenda, Fermi’s Paradox, Hunting Exoplanets, Technology as a Proxy, and the hour-long video SETI: Astronomy as a Contact Sport plus the accompanying eBook with lots of additional reference materials.

  If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

TOK Tuesdays

Searching for Nuance

While different people believe in widely varying approaches to preparing students for their TOK essay, one point all experts share is that it is a very bad idea for students to attempt to rewrite the title in their own words in an effort to increase their comprehension of what is being asked.


To answer that, it’s worth returning to the core theme of the first post in this series called Theory of Titles where I encouraged both teachers and students to use their imagination to consider what those who made the titles might have had in mind.   

Without trying to get too cute or self-referential about language as a way of knowing, the point to stress here is simply that words matter.   Those who created the titles didn’t just choose their words randomly or haphazardly, but rather as part of an explicit attempt to open the door to a wide range of subtlety and nuance deliberately crafted for the student to rigorously explore in her essay.   All of which implies that if students “reword” the titles, they will inevitably find themselves missing many of those vital nuances that a good essay needs to highlight and examine.

Sometimes people talk about “unpacking” the titles. Perhaps I’m being a stickler here, but it’s not the sort of metaphor that I like, because the very notion of “unpacking” implies to me that there’s one clear and obvious way to do things to get at the underlying essence of things. After all, when I unpack my suitcase after settling into a hotel, I certainly don’t expect to find anything more than what I put in there a few hours earlier, and I’m naturally confident that several minutes of careful effort will result in my re-establishing the same sort of order that I had at home before I left. 

But TOK isn’t like that at all.  Indeed, the whole point of the TOK essay is to demonstrate a capacity to meaningfully explore subtle and complicated issues from a variety of different perspectives.   That hardly means that one can’t have strong, well-constructed opinions or that all positions are equally appropriate or relevant: if that were the case, there would be no point in the TOK essay at all, as all grades would necessarily be the same.   

No, what it means is that a strong essay is one that successfully tackles the title in a way that focuses on the nuances of the related TOK concepts for which the specific wording of the title provides distinct clues. 

So what are those clues?  Where’s the nuance?  

Well, once again, the point of the exercise is for each student to carefully examine things so as to come up with his own conclusion.   But as usual, I’ll give you my personal take on things as a clear way to get the ball rolling and demonstrate more concretely what I’m talking about.

A general comment to make before I begin is that I tend to have a particularly strong reaction to blanket statements made in a supremely confident manner.   Whenever I’m presented with some smug fellow who stands up and unhesitatingly declares, “Obviously it follows that…” or “The only conclusion that can conceivably be reached is…” I feel a distinct urge welling up inside of me to smack him in the face, or at the very least find a compelling counterexample.  

If not properly harnessed, such sentiments can certainly get one into trouble.   But when it comes to TOK, these feelings are actually very helpful, serving as a personal warning system against invariably dubious claims – emotion as a way of knowing, if you will. 

Many TOK titles provoke precisely this sort of visceral response in me.  But of course, as I mentioned earlier, they were doubtless explicitly designed to do so, because a classic way of showcasing the need for nuance is to present people with concrete, jarring examples of where it is so obviously withheld.

Four of the May 2020 prescribed titles make me feel immediately uncomfortable in precisely this way: 2, 4, 5 and 6.  Let me take each in turn, highlighting the specific wording that makes me feel queasy.

For the second title, my focus is immediately drawn to the notion of “a sharp line”.  How can we be certain that there is, in fact, a difference between a description and an explanation? To what extent are some “explanations” little more than mere descriptions?  And if there is a difference between the two, what is it exactly?  

In the fourth title, the word primarily responsible for my anxiety is simply “is”.   To what extent can we be certain of the role of anything? How do we know that the divide between justifying and understanding is as clear and distinct as is implied?  And what does it mean to “aid understanding” anyway? Is that the sort of thing that can be precisely measured?  

The two words that trigger my discomfort in the fifth title are “every” and “need”.  How can I be certain that every theory is “limited”, and what do I really mean by that anyway?  And then there’s “need”, a word which inserted here seems little less than the acme of hubris.   To what extent is it always necessary to have more than one theory in play?  I can certainly think of lots of examples where this is not the operating philosophy, so clearly there are many people out there who believe something quite different. 

The last title in this gut-wrenching series is the sixth one.  Here the obvious culprit is “wholly”, with honorable mention going to the twin notions of “present knowledge” and “past knowledge”, confidently asserted matter-of-factly as if I, and everyone else, would unhesitatingly be able to distinguish between them at any given moment.   Which, as it happens, we can’t. 

Then there are the two other titles that are a little less obviously disturbing, and therefore might require a bit more linguistic reflection to pinpoint the corresponding nuance. 

In the first title, I’d focus on exploring the difference between “what is” and “what could be”.   To what extent can we be certain that such a difference objectively exists? Under what circumstances is it even possible to have seen “what is”, and what are the constraints on “what could be”?  

Meanwhile, for the third title, the words that particularly spring out to me are “matter”, “influence” and “seriously”.   Why should we even care about “how seriously” others take our knowledge? Is a theory any less true or valid in the days when it is considered “fringe” than after it has become generally accepted?  What do we mean, here, exactly by “influence”? What are the factors at work that are responsible for changes in community attitudes and beliefs.  

Such are my thoughts.   As usual, opinions will vary as to whether my personal hunt for nuance has been successful.   

But all that really matters is that everyone embarks on her own.

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.


Extending Wednesdays

Bilingualism and Dementia


Welcome to the first of our Extending Wednesdays posts, where each week we’ll feature a different extended essay theme from Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. 

While Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal highlights over 130 themes and concepts to help students launch their extended essay investigations through the combination of our comprehensive Extended Essay Guide and 7 Extending Ideas videos, many subscribers have suggested that it would be very helpful to be regularly presented with specific ideas to get the most out of our database.  So that’s what these posts are all about.  

Each post briefly describes a particular extended essay concept suggested by our resources, while explicitly designating all the additional Ideas Roadshow resources on our Portal to assist those interested in giving the topic a closer look. 

Bilingualism and Dementia

Our first Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Extending Ideas in Psychology video where renowned York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok highlights her groundbreaking work on the link between bilingualism and dementia.

In Chapter 6 of the Ideas Roadshow eBook called The Psychology of Bilingualism, Professor Bialystok describes her findings that show that, on average, being bilingual delays the first signs of dementia about four to five years compared to monolinguals.

Professor Bialystok is internationally known for her pioneering work on how bilingualism impacts the brain, a notion that inherently relies on how our brains are shaped by our experiences, a concept known as “neuroplasticity”.

Her many experiments on attention and multitasking have led her to conclude that bilinguals typically have a more developed frontal lobe structure than monolinguals, the part of the brain that is associated with planning and so-called “executive control”.  

But understanding how this fits with dementia is not so clear.

The puzzle is that dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is initially a memory disorder.  It’s not a disease of executive control. How does an experience that boosts the front part of the brain protect us from a disease that initially strikes the middle part of the brain, since the memory disorders that are the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s come from the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe?

“The theory, yet to be confirmed, is that because the front part of the brain is typically more developed for bilinguals than monolinguals, it’s better suited to provide compensation for deterioration that arises elsewhere.  This increased ability for executive control comes in as a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’.” 

Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an examination of the current state of the theory of “cognitive reserve, a comparative examination of studies linking dementia to bilingualism, an analysis of research methods associated with such studies, suggestions for further investigations that might help distinguish between competing theories and interpretation, various other specific avenues of psychological research linking language with memory, and the use of fMRI and other brain diagnostic tools for psychological research. Given the natural overlap of many of these themes with neuroscience, some may be appropriate for a literature-based EE in biology. 

Primary Ideas Roadshow resources includes the clips Improving Multitasking, Measuring Brain Activity, Metalinguistic Awareness, Reducing the Mess and Taking the Right Path, the compilation videos Extending Ideas in Psychology and The Science of Language, the hour-long video The Psychology of Bilingualism and the eBook, The Psychology of Bilingualism.

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.