Grisly and sensational: Jack the Ripper and TOK critical thinking

JacktheRipper1888(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OSC TOK blog October 2014) Have your students heard of Jack the Ripper?   If not, you’ll probably want to skip this activity. Even though it would still be an exercise in evaluating sources and evidence, a lot of the shiver would be lost – and hence the fun in class. However, if they have heard of the brutal serial killer who stalked East London, England, in the 1880s, this could be an engaging activity for early in the TOK course — to launch critical approaches quite broadly and plant vocabulary ready for more subtle application later on.

1. Read.

First, give the students the link to the newsflash from the British source The Daily Mail (bold face is in the original): WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Jack the Ripper unmasked: How amateur sleuth used DNA breakthrough to identify Britain’s most notorious criminal 126 years after string of terrible murders

 2. Discuss.

Questions: Do you believe this report? Why or why not?

Discussion should raise issues such as the reputation of the news source, the style of presentation, the apparent reliability of Russell Edwards (and his possible motives), the kind and quality of evidence.

3. Supplement with counter-claims from other sources.

When they’ve had a chance to do some questioning themselves, give them links to articles of skepticism and rebuttal which swirled on the internet and social media after the Daily Mail’s big story. The following would work well:

“Are YOU Jack the Ripper? No. And neither’s Aaron Kosminski”. usVSth3 blog. This blog post presents 4 numbered reasons for rejecting the story.

Christopher Moraff, “Jack the Ripper is Still at Large”The Daily Beast, 9.29.14  This blog post sums up reasons for skepticism in circulation on the web and provides background on the Jack the Ripper legend: “a cottage industry has grown up around the case. There are dozens of competing Jack the Ripper tours, websites, and books, most with their own self-appointed ‘expert’ attached; over the past century a string of hoaxes has duped more than a few of them into making claims about the Ripper’s identity that they later regretted.”

The same questions could be posed after students have read the rebuttals: Do you believe the report in the Daily Mail? Why or why not? This time, students are likely to modify or amplify their responses, and (most important) articulate better their grounds of (likely) rejection. The same critical analysis should be applied to the blog posts of rebuttal.

4. Link the activity to TOK knowledge questions.

Anyone with a copy of the IB Theory of Knowledge Course Companion can flip to chapter 3 “Seeking Truth” and substitute the current Jack the Ripper story for the short and generic one I’ve given on page 54, “VOODOO DOC DANCES UP A STORM”. The specific discussion questions on page 55 would need a bit of adaptation, but the same general TOK knowledge questions come up:

What characteristics of a source of information indicate reliability – or otherwise?

What characteristics of the presentation of information indicate reliability – or otherwise?

What characteristics of your own response show you an immediate inclination in yourself to accept or reject the story? Can you identify attitudes or values that might boost your critical thinking – or blind it?

broadest knowledge question, for reflection and possible writing: Does it matter if what we believe is true? Why or why not?

Early in the Theory of Knowledge course, I like to use stories that are absurd or dramatic to give students entertaining material that’s easy for them to question and easy for a teacher to debrief in TOK terms. Why not borrow for class some of the sensationalistic buzz that drives the tabloids and social media – and at the same time get to talk about it? Such material – and there’s plenty around! – helps to plant the analytical approach and the reflective questioning in order to build on it, in more nuanced and subtle ways, throughout the course.

References

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2746321/Jack-Ripper-unmasked-How-amateur-sleuth-used-DNA-breakthrough-identify-Britains-notorious-criminal-126-years-string-terrible-murders.html

http://usvsth3m.com/post/96977532433/are-you-jack-the-ripper-no-and-neithers-aaron

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/29/jack-the-ripper-is-still-at-large.html

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Chapter 3 “Seeking Truth”, Theory of Knowledge Course Companion, 2013 edition. Oxford University Press, 2013. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international

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