Do Nobel prizes distort public understanding of scientific knowledge?

171106 nobel-prize(Eileen Dombrowski from OUP blog) “Absurd.” “Archaic.” These are surely not descriptions most of us would apply to the world’s most celebrated prize in science. The Nobel Prize, conferring millions of Swedish krone (more than a million American dollars) and everlasting fame upon its recipients, honours the year’s highest achievements in knowledge. Yet even as it grips our imaginations, could this illustrious award simultaneously distort our understanding of how that knowledge works? Continue reading

SPOT and the cloak of invisibility: cognitive biases

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For the observer: a cloak of invisibility?

(Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) With a laugh, I pass on to you today a couple more cognitive biases, ones that students are likely to enjoy. We could, of course, despair over how deep our biases seem to go and what a challenge it is to achieve an open mind, but I find it curiously entertaining to learn about the quirky biases of our human minds. Maybe it even creates some patience with other people – those others who are so stubbornly wrong! – if we recognize that we are also naively wrong ourselves.

When considering reason as a way of knowing, we Theory of Knowledge teachers have long treated fallacies that derail clear thinking. When considering intuition as a way of knowing, we have a wealth of material in all the biases that kick in before we’re even consciously thinking. At moments, I’ve idly wondered whether we could teach the entire TOK course centred on confirmation bias, our tendency to notice and accept only information that reinforces what we believe already.   Continue reading

That event in the past: what do we make it signify in the present?

(Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) The Franklin Expedition just gets better and better. The present narration, I mean, not the actual expedition in the 19th century. No, that was a wreck in the icy north, costing the lives of all the men! But it’s a splendid example for Theory of Knowledge of the way the past can be reframed by our present interests. Continue reading

Sharing knowledge – effectively!

(Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “Alone we go fast, together we go far.” So goes the proverb quoted by a leading neuroscientist involved in a major new project bringing together 21 labs in Europe and the United States for research on the brain. The international team aims to discover “where, when, and how neurons in the brain take information from the outside world, make sense of it, and work out how to respond.” What’s interesting for the Theory of Knowledge classroom is the commitment undertaken by all the labs to work within a shared framework. Continue reading

Standing at the Centre of the World: TOK class discussion (with handout)

Daryl Duke 200 dpi

Standing at the centre of the world: it’s a compelling image. But just who or what is at the “centre”, and what does planting that centre do to our knowledge? Clearly, this question of “centrism” threads through the Theory of Knowledge course, and there are plenty of good entry points to take students into discussion of its complexities. For one such entry point, I’d like to suggest using the image above, with its claim, “Whoever holds a camera stands at the centre of the world.” Continue reading

PS to “This is the nature of science.”

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(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Yes, I too found the solar eclipse thrilling, and a little spooky. The summer sunshine grew dim and a chill settled over the garden. Curved bites appeared in the dappled shadows of leaves. Like many others, we peered at light falling through the pinholes of a homemade cardboard box to see the image of the bright circle of the sun largely blotted out by the dark shadow of the moon. Yes, it was thrilling – even though we were not ourselves placed along the swath named so resonantly “The Path of Totality”. Continue reading

“This is the nature of science.”

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Today I offer you morsels from a book I’m reading as a delectable snack for your mind. Beautifully written, it reminds me that, in our course, we look at areas of knowledge not just for their description and analysis but also for their wonder. In many ways, I feel TOK to be a celebration of what we can know, and what we do know — almost, at times, in spite of ourselves. Let this reflection on science by Carlo Rovelli give you a bit of refreshment as you guide your students to the kind of vast overview that we aspire to take in IB Theory of Knowledge! Continue reading

Indigenous Knowledge: not a separable area of knowledge

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) It’s easy to miss the point entirely when treating Indigenous Knowledge in TOK. It’s not a special “category” of knowledge, even though it is listed in our syllabus in parallel with other areas of knowledge. Clustering up indigenous groups across the world to look at their knowledge does not enable us to treat that knowledge as separate or separable from other areas of knowledge. I’m a big fan of treating Indigenous Knowledge — but specifically as a particular cultural synthesis of other areas of knowledge and as a cultural perspective within and upon the other areas. Today I’d like to bring attention to three current topics that clearly deal with Indigenous Knowledge but, on consideration, deal equally with history, anthropology, and archeology. I’ve included links to supporting resources. Continue reading

Controversy in the Canada Day Party: analyzing perspectives for understanding


(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Differing perspectives are easiest to see when they come into conflict.  As a result, it’s tempting for Theory of Knowledge students to seize on conflicts as topics for presentations — and for us as teachers to use them as class examples to illustrate differences in perspectives. As I’m about to do here!   I worry a bit, though, that, unless we treat perspectives with nuance and some empathy for the people involved, we could end up entrenching a binary vision of the world, and possibly a static one where we don’t reach beyond the conflicts into hope for the future.

A conflict in my own country this month over the meaning of Canada Day is a case in point: a specific event gave the media a story and focused attention on conflicting views. It’s a good example in various ways to take to a TOK class, but done well only if we place the skill of identifying perspectives within the larger TOK and IB goals of curiosity, openness and desire to understand. Continue reading

Love, betrayal, and physics: “Everything goes better with narrative”

170626lovepuzzle(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) It’s not true to say that all teaching’s better with stories – but there’s enough truth in this exaggeration that I feel like saying it anyhow, and I hope that even TOK teachers will forgive me my hyperbole. Stories can catch student interest, illustrate points, and open up lots of questions. I’ve just read one I like for TOK and wanted to pass it on to you. Read it, enjoy it – and bookmark it for future use!

Before you get your hopes up for a crime drama or a racy romance, I must concede that stories useful for Theory of Knowledge rarely contain these elements – though they often do contain mesmerizing mysteries. The title of the one I suggest today invites curiosity about love and betrayal: “Why I left physics for economics”. Its subtitle piques interest in human motivation and the flight from excessive order: “I recently decided to abandon the rules that govern nature for the rules that govern people and markets: economics. Why would I do such a thing?” Continue reading