Getting it wrong, getting it right, and generating knowledge questions: “The Forgotten History of Autism”.

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Rarely does a 14-minute talk hit so many ideas we explore in Theory of Knowledge or treat them so engagingly. In his 2015 TED talk “The forgotten history of autism”, Steve Silberman hands us a splendid case study of failures and successes in the pursuit of knowledge, and the features that distinguished them. He treats central concepts such as classification (of conditions, of people) and identification of cause. Through his own storytelling, he conveys the humanity of the researchers – in both flaws and strengths – and the human impact of getting our knowledge claims right. At the same time, he comments on storytelling itself within knowledge and sets up, for a TOK teacher, an activity on identifying knowledge questions.


Clearly, I’m taken with this video. It’s possible, though, that I’m particularly caught by my personal interest in the anti-vaccination/anti-knowledge movement and by my own recent reading about autism. Or I could be affected by the second cup of coffee I’ve just had. Judge for yourself. It could scarcely be easier with a TED talk, given its accessibility as a video or as a podcast audio (podcast being my own method) and the availability of a transcript with timing.

For a TOK class, however, a video has to play a different role from videos in many other courses. Although it’s often useful to have explanations or interviews on a screen, in TOK we’re not out to convey information or “deliver” knowledge. We want to raise knowledge questions.

An exercise in knowledge questions

So, if you share my interest in using this video, here is a suggestion. Ask your class to pick out and formulate knowledge questions as they watch and listen. Give them a few minutes after watching it to read over the transcript and put their knowledge questions into words. Remind them that knowledge questions should be open (answers not implied) and general (applicable to many particular situations), and should be questions not about subject matter or information but about the process of knowing it or features of the knowledge.

This video hits enough possibilities for students to go in several directions as they write their knowledge questions. If they need some nudges, you might encourage them to base questions on a relevant idea that appeals to them within the following clusters:

  • language as a way of knowing — the effect of what we call things on how we understand them, and the effect on research and its conclusions of the concepts we use and the definitions we give them (“autism”, “neuro-diversity”; “diagnostic criteria”, reference to autism as an “epidemic”)
  • methods: difficulties of establishing causes — human readiness to believe a simple explanation (such as the false one that vaccination causes autism) rather than a complex one; influence of beliefs about cause (e.g. parents are to blame for being cold) on the availability of evidence (e.g. counter-evidence hidden out of shame) in the human sciences; role in the sciences of challenges to established explanations and change in methods and conclusions

As the teacher, though, you’re in a far better overview position yourself to introduce more reflective questions on the whole of Silberman’s talk. I suggest a closer look at the idea of storytelling and a reflective consideration of the role of questions in the construction of knowledge.

On stories

In his talk, Silberman uses the word “story” loosely as a version that links together different observations into an explanatory whole that affects our understanding. He speaks of three “stories”:

  • Kanner’s categorization/definition and explanation of autism from 1943;
  • the enlarged definition and understanding of autism in the late 1980s and early 90s initiated by research by Lorna Wing and Judith Gould, following from the work of Hans Asperger;
  • and the fraudulent and debunked link by Andrew Wakefield between vaccination and autism.

Are these three all “stories” as we normally understand the word?

It’s useful in TOK to preserve a distinction between narration and a general picture as different means of linking circumstances and events – sometimes expressed as a difference between stories and maps.

  • A narration or a story deals with or creates patterns over time, often connecting very specific particular events. We expect narration to be a component of history and literature, and to be a component of the sciences when dealing with changes or developments in the natural world or human society across time.
  • A general picture or a map creates or describes patterns that can be seen and applied broadly. We expect the general case to be central in the sciences, which aim to describe and explain how things are. They don’t tell just the particular story of a specific litre of water boiling at a precise temperature, but the general story of all litres of water boiling at that temperature.

For each of Silberman’s three “stories”, would accept his use of the word for the kind of knowledge that each one yielded? If all three – accurately or inaccurately – involve the creation of general cases, the broad explanations of science, then where does the storytelling lie? I think it’s useful to distinguish between stories of how people create knowledge (or revise knowledge, or reject knowledge claims), and the more general cases of the kind of knowledge that results.  The first often engages us, as Silberman’s account of Wing and Gould’s opposition to Kanner’s version of autism does here.  It gives us creation, discovery, process, human limitations, human achievement. The second, though, is the knowledge that is thereby constructed — in this case a general understanding of how things are, with the constant possibility of revision if we learn more, or learn differently.

On questions within knowledge

It seems to me that a final reflection is certainly stimulated by what Steve Silberman tells us in this TED talk. “Amazingly,” he says, “it wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers began to test Kanner’s theory that autism was rare.” For thirty years, it had been accepted – despite the existence of Hans Asperger’s alternative explanation of “autism as a diverse continuum that spans an astonishing range of giftedness and disability.” It took Lorna Wing and Judith Gould to push the change in definitions and understanding.

And perhaps this is good final reflection on the background on autism to which this talk introduces us: that knowledge doesn’t “just happen”, that it is constructed by human beings. Knowledge is built in response to the questions that we choose to ask and choose to pursue. We learn, in part, through asking the right questions.

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