AREAS OF KNOWLEDGE: NATURAL SCIENCE

This unit of inquiry is first on the list in the Areas of Knowledge section for good reason. In its detail and specificity, it provides a benchmark for exploring all the other Areas of Knowledge. Through a series of generative meta-questions this unit allows students to explore and critique sometimes counterintuitive nuances of methodology in the Natural Sciences. 

Theory of Ignorance combined with this unit, will leave the students with a sense of both the Capability and Fallibility of the Natural Sciences. The intention has been to foster a critical, yet eyes-wide-open, confidence in the robustness of the scientific enterprise and its ongoing achievements. Students obtain further glimpses into what it means to dwell (cognitively) at the boundaries of Knowledge and Ignorance
 

CLASS ACTIVITY I: SCIENTIFIC METHOD  

Here are some questions to jump start whole class discussion:

  • In your IB science classes, are you doing any real science? 
     
  • Jot down in order the various subheadings you have actually used when writing up a lab report. To what extent does this align with what you already know about the scientific method?
     
  • Provide a real-life example of a lab you have actually done for each of the following criteria:

1. Lab worked well and you more or less knew the result in advance and got the data you expected.

2. You really could not predict what would happen in advance and obtained some interesting results.

3. The lab did not work or you got meaningless results.

Well before initial class discussion fizzles out, project this graphic. 

HYPOTHETICIO-DEDUCTIVE MODEL

  • What is the "hypothetico-" aspect of the model?
     
  • What is deduction? Where precisely is the "deductive" aspect of the model?
     
  • To what extent does this model portray the scientific method as a process of relentless question propagation?

Again, building on the momentum of student contributions, and well before the conversation falters, project this graphic.

 

  • Where precisely is hypothesis generation and where is there deduction in this model?
     
  • To what extent is this model of the scientific enterprise compatible with the previous one? 
     
  • Differentiate between Hypothesis and Theory in the Natural Sciences?
     
  • In general what is the relationship between facts, concepts and theory in the sciences?
     
  • What can we conclude from the two models of the scientific method about the permanence or certainty/truth of scientific facts. To what extent is your conclusion a strength, or a weakness, of the scientific enterprise?

Phew! By this juncture the class will have covered a lot of ground. Change the pace. Gently discombobulate the students with this delightful video snapshot of what spider taxonomists actually do. At the end, unsettle them further with the quote from Nobel Laureate physicist, Percy Bridgman.

The scientific method, as far as it is a method, is nothing more than doing one’s damnedest with one’s mind, no holds barred.
— P. W. Bridgman, Reflections of a Physicist (1955)
Static graphic of the animated, non-linear, pin-ball Science Flowchart created by Judy Scotchmoor and her colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Is this model/map/metaphor compatible with the other models on this page? What is lost when using only this static version of the flowchart?  

Static graphic of the animated, non-linear, pin-ball Science Flowchart created by Judy Scotchmoor and her colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Is this model/map/metaphor compatible with the other models on this page?
What is lost when using only this static version of the flowchart?

 

EDWARD O. WILSON Harvard myrmecologist (ant expert), sociobiologist, naturalist, conversationalist, advocate for biodiversity and champion of the notion of (Consilience) the unity of knowledge.

EDWARD O. WILSON

Harvard myrmecologist (ant expert), sociobiologist, naturalist, conversationalist, advocate for biodiversity and champion of the notion of (Consilience) the unity of knowledge.

Let your mind travel around the system. Pose an interesting question about it. Break the question down and visualize all the elements and questions it implies. Think out alternative conceivable answers. Phrase them so that a reasonable amount of evidence makes a clear-cut choice possible. If too many conceptual difficulties are encountered, back off. Search for another question. When you finally hit a soft spot, search for the model system―say a controlled emission in particle physics or a fast breeding organism in genetics―on which decisive experiments can be most easily conducted. Become thoroughly familiar with the details―no better, become obsessed―with the system. Love the details, the feel of all of them, for their own sake. Design the experiment so that no matter what the result, the answer to the question will be convincing. Use the result to press on to new questions, new systems. Depending on how far others have already gone in this sequence (and always keep in mind, you must give them complete credit), you may enter it in any point along the way.
— Wilson, E.O. (2008) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Random House, New York.

 

CLASS ACTIVITY II: WHY TRUST SCIENCE?

Our insights about what scientists actually do are further deepened by viewing the Academy of Sciences video, especially perusing the dynamic, pin-ball flow chart. Rather than continuing class discussion in the same vein, by addressing, say, the role trial and error in scienceor perhaps, those echoing words " it just keeps going ...keeps going ...keeps going"let's change the tactic again with an audio recording.

From the TOK teacher perspective, audio selections like this one taken from a TED Radio Hour podcast, provide an interesting alternative to viewing an entire TED talk.  The format is tightly edited and combines interview interactions with relevant extracts from the original TED talk. 

Students should listen to the following audio recording in silence. They should be primed with the following guiding question: 

  • What is the role of faith in the scientific enterprise?  Is any of it blind faith?  

To mix things up yet again, tell the students they will now have a spontaneous, graded strictly timed (20 minute), writing assignment, with a 400 word count maximum. Here is the prescribed title:

Professor Oreskes states that real science ultimately depends on "consensus" and an "appeal to authority," despite the fact that arguments based on consensus and authority are commonly dismissed as being logically unsound. Precisely what kind of consensus and what kind of authority is she advocating for scientific endeavor?

Hint: Think in terms of "wisdom of the crowd" vs. "a jury of geeks."

When the dust clears, students should be well on the road to awareness that a scientific mindset is about staying open and asking constantly "What else is possible?"  

Whether we call this "abiding by ignorance," "negative capability" or "doing one's damnedest with one's mind. no holds barred," such a mindset is by no means exclusive to the sciences. A version of it is applicable to every Area of Knowledge. 

Next, students will be ready for Nature: an encounter with a real science journal, which enables TOK students to glimpse the process of peer vetting and what it takes to get published in prestigious science journal.  

Other units of inquiry touched upon in this unit that will eventually merit deeper exploration include: 
Induction and Deduction, Informal logical fallacy, and Proof.

Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr (1930)

Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr (1930)