AREAS OF KNOWLEDGE: HUMAN SCIENCES

Everyone knows that the social sciences are hypercomplex. They are inherently far more difficult than physics and chemistry, and as a result they, not physics and chemistry, should be called the hard sciences. They just seem easier because we can talk with other human beings but not with photons, gluons, and sulphide radicals.
— Wilson, E. O. (1999: 99) Consilience. Random House, New York.
The IS-LM (Investment Saving – Liquidity Preference Money Supply) macroeconomic model: The IS curve moves to the right, causing higher interest rates (i) and expansion in the "real" economy (real GDP, or Y). The investment/saving (IS) curve is a variation of the income-expenditure model incorporating market interest rates (demand), while the liquidity preference/money supply equilibrium (LM) curve represents the amount of money available for investing (supply). Image and caption: Macroeconomics-Wikipedia

The IS-LM (Investment Saving – Liquidity Preference Money Supply) macroeconomic model: The IS curve moves to the right, causing higher interest rates (i) and expansion in the "real" economy (real GDP, or Y).

The investment/saving (IS) curve is a variation of the income-expenditure model incorporating market interest rates (demand), while the liquidity preference/money supply equilibrium (LM) curve represents the amount of money available for investing (supply).

Image and caption: Macroeconomics-Wikipedia

We will not explain Agincourt by the physics of the longbow, or September 11 by the neurology of psychopathology.
— Gould, Stephen Jay (2003: 225) The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities. Three Rivers press, New York.

 

CONSILIENCE OF KNOWLEDGE

Over the years as a TOK teacher I have come to see that the various Areas of Knowledge--even seemingly disparate disciplines such as philosophy, neuroscience, math and the arts--are by no means parallel and forever incommensurable. A consilience of knowledge seems possible in an interconnected universe, though not in a strictly reductionist, hierarchical sense.

As we ascend hierarchical levels of sciences—from physics through chemistry, to biology—and eventually enter the human arena, subject matter becomes ever more complex, messy and unpredictable. 

In the hard sciences consensus with regard to objective, singular explanations, compatible with the grand edifice of science as a whole, is often attained. In the humanities, individual subjectivity and the interaction of multiple human agents in unique contexts, necessitate a more pluralistic mindset.

In the grand sweep of history incommensurable ideas and values often collide. For example, in consideration of what makes a just society, freedom and liberty will always clash with the need for order and justice. We are left to grapple with hard choices that involve losses for every gain. In the human sciences, as well a in history, practitioners must weigh conflicting evidence and be ever mindful of the legitimacy of their sources. Consensus is difficult to achieve given the contingent and highly contextual nature of their subject matter and a methodology that is often in narrative as well as analytical mode.

Isaiah Berlin. Photo: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis  

Isaiah Berlin. Photo: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis  

READING ASSIGNMENT: Isaiah Berlin on pluralism

As a prelude to the class activities and the written assignment that arises from them, students should read on their own time, the following perspective from Russian/British political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin (1909-2005). Berlin witnessed the Russian revolution as a young child and his prolific academic writing often critiqued of the ravages of 20th Century totalitarianism. Isaiah Berlin on pluralism is a part of the very last essay written by Isaiah Berlin, published in the New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, Number 8 (1998).


CLASS ACTIVITY I: HIERARCHY OF KNOWLEDGE

In advance of the class, print (or write in bold pen) on letter-sized paper the following Areas of Knowledge.  Keep AOK Group One and AOK Group TWO separate initially.

Just before you are ready to start the activity, rearrange the furniture in the classroom so that there is a large area of clear floorspace in the middle. (Arrange to move temporarily to an nearby open space of this is not practical.)


AOK GROUP ONE

Psychology

Physics

Biology

Logic

Chemistry

Mathematics
 

AOK GROUP TWO

The Arts

Paleontology

Geology

Religious Knowledge Systems

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

History

Ethics

Paleontology

Geology

Geography

Cosmology

1. Begin by placing the six AOK Group One pages randomly on the floor space. Call on a student volunteer to arrange them in a hierarchy so that, where possible, each discipline builds on the next. Call on volunteers sequentially to improve/refine the arrangement; asking each in turn to justify any moves. Invite critique from the class as the activity progresses.

2. Next integrate the AOK Group Two pages; one at a time, calling on a different student each time, again inviting discussion/critique.

This activity was inspired by two previous TOK prescribed essay titles. The first asked if there was a "reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” The second required them to evaluate the claim that "there is no such thing as a neutral question." The latter, of course, plays into the conundrum of where to place most of the AOK Group Two disciplines!

By the time all the pages have been placed some lively discussion will occurred. Although the concepts will arise spontaneously, do not hesitate to hone student thinking by clarifying "Reductionism vs. Holism" and "emergent properties." 

 

CLASS ACTIVITY II: KNOWLEDGE QUESTIONS

Print out the Knowledge Questions in advance on letter-sized paper as in the first  activity. Printable pdf. of AOK and Knowledge Questions.

Use the raucous farmyard animal noise technique as in The Map is not the Territory and Problem of definition: beef and cows to arrange students in five groups. Before they begin, give students a heads up that they should keep in mind, for specific questions, what they learned in What do little kids know? and Cognitive bias. 

Once the groups are settled (having cleared the floor space, there may be creative opportunities for seating) hand out a printed Knowledge Question for each group.

Every four minutes rotate the Knowledge Questions sequentially, until each group has encountered all five. Be strict about the time. Use a bell or novelty sound effect and, to avoid the frustration of cutting of conversation abruptly, provide a one minute warning. 

  • Economics has been called "the dismal science" and social scientists are sometimes told they have "physics envy." Explain the negative implications of these two accusations and provide a robust counter to them.
     
  • To what extent do natural scientists and human scientists interpret the word "science" differently.
     
  • In the various social sciences what specific precautions must be undertaken to ensure the validity of quantitative surveys and qualitative narrative-based questionnaires?  
     
  • In theoretical systems like the IS-LM macroeconomic model (above) the assumption has been that human players are always rational and will act to maximize their self interest.  To what extent do Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky's findings on heuristics and irrationality undermine this?
     
  • In the human arena everyone has free will and unique story to tell. How then is it possible that theoretical predictions from models in the social sciences reliably conform to the actual data, often year after year?

 

CLASS ACTIVITY III: WRITTEN ASSIGNMENT

Students have a full week to craft a formal written response to one of the five questions. Specific academic disciplines should be mentioned where relevant, and real-life examples used to enrich argument and counterargument. Maximum word count: 800.

Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus declared: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing." This inspired Isaiah Berlin's famous essay: The Hedgehog and the Fox. Photo: Robert E. Hunter

Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus declared: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing." This inspired Isaiah Berlin's famous essay: The Hedgehog and the Fox. Photo: Robert E. Hunter