All posts by Mr. MacKnight

Fall 2021: Hiatus

This site will again go dormant for at least one school year, as I am not teaching TOK in 2021-22.

In the meantime, enjoy the past posts and links.

However, please note that the TOK course has changed as of 2020-21. For example, the oral presentation has been scrapped. Do not use this site, therefore, for advice about course requirements.

Three articles about metaphors

Three articles about metaphors, from three different perspectives: an academic site, a business site, and a linguistic therapy site.

  1. “Your Brain on Metaphors”:
  2. “How Metaphors & Analogies Influence Your Thinking”:
  3. “The Magic of Metaphor”:

Assumptions, data, and calculations

The Human Sciences gather information through various means, but almost all of them involve three factors: assumptions, data, and calculations.

Errors can occur in any of these.

  • Assumptions can be wrong.
  • Data can be wrong, or incomplete. It can also include too many variables, making it very difficult to reach any firm conclusions.
  • Calculations can be incorrect. Simple arithmetical errors are rare in the computer age, but the choice of a particular formula (another kind of assumption) may lead to misleading results.

At one extreme, people may simply accept reports about social science research without questioning them.

At another extreme, people who become aware of the possible problems with social science research may decide not to believe any of it.

The wise middle position is to view the results of social science research critically and skeptically, but not to reject social science altogether.

The same wise middle position applies to all the other AOKs as well.

Mercator’s model of the world, and what we can learn from it

This BBC program—”Gerard Mercator: The man who revolutionised mapmaking“—is highly relevant to an issue that arises in many of the “Human Sciences”: the use of models to depict reality. Mercator’s map is a wonderful tool for navigators traveling by ship, because the parallel lines of latitude allow for accurate calculations of the best way to sail from Point A to Point B.

However, as an image of the world it is highly distorted, and illustrates the prejudices of Europeans. Europe appears to be much larger than it actually is, and is placed right in the centre of the map. Africa appears much smaller than it actually is. China is way off toward the edge. Greenland appears enormous. And so on.

These distortions would not be important if there had been other maps, equally popular and widely used, that put Africa or China or South America, say, at the centre, instead of Europe. But in fact Mercator’s image still dominates the view of the world in the West and because of this dominance, it has become, in effect, a tool of European colonialism.

In this sense, the story of Mercator’s map illustrates how important models can be in determining our view of reality, and perhaps distorting our view of reality. Conclusion? Regard all models critically! Analyze their assumptions, their omissions, the point of view they promote, etc.

In economics, for example, “gross national product” (GNP) is widely used as a measure of the economy. But what is included, and what is excluded, in the GNP? Why? Such questions can lead to a much deeper understanding than we can have if we simply accept the models presented to us.

For a more detailed discussion of Mercator’s map, try this blog post, “Your World Map is Hiding Something,” on the excellent Metrocosm web site created by Max Galka, who teaches “data wrangling and data visualization” at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I’m a social scientist”

Peter Navarro, an advisor to President Trump, made the news today by shouting at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading American expert on infectious diseases, about a drug that Trump thinks (without any scientific evidence) should be used to treat COVID-19.

Navarro is described on his Wikipedia page as a retired “professor of economics and public policy. . . . Navarro’s views on trade are significantly outside the mainstream of economic thought, and are widely considered fringe and misguided by other economists.”

Very few social scientists, of course, would join Navarro in claiming they should advise Dr. Fauci on the best way to treat COVID-19.

Henry David Thoreau: Do justice, cost what it may.

In 1846 the United States invaded Mexico. At the same time, the controversy over slavery, which would finally boil over in 1861 with the start of the Civil War, was already intense. Out of this moment came, among other things, Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” which would inspire both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau quotes “Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions,” who

resolves all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that “so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God. . .that the established government be obeyed . . . .”

Thoreau objects to this mode of ethical reasoning in vivid terms:

But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.


The (un)reliability of scientific journals

This article is rather technical, but a quotation near the bottom sums it up nicely:

Journal editors have expended much time and effort in teasing out how to handle authors’ and reviewers’ competing interests. They need now to concentrate on their own and those of their employers, lest we reach the dismal scenario described by Marcia Angell: “it is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine” [12].

Read the entire article here:

“The Golden Ratio: Design’s Biggest Myth”

The Golden Ratio is a staple of mathematics classes, art classes, and TOK textbooks. In this article by John Brownlee, however, he makes that case that the Golden Ratio is a load of rubbish.

. . . the idea that the golden ratio has any relationship to aesthetics at all comes primarily from two people, one of whom was misquoted, and the other of whom was just making s___ up.

Read the whole article here: .

If you want more, YouTube has a lecture by a Stanford mathematics professor, Keith Devlin, about the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers. Devlin is quoted by John Brownlee in his article. (The comments on the YouTube video’s page offer some interesting case studies in why people believe what they believe.)

“The core of the scientific method”

. . . Ask a question and then investigate what the answer is. That’s the core of the scientific method—formulate a question, come up with a hypothesis, make a prediction based on that hypothesis, then test to see if that prediction holds. Not only is that a good way to do research, it is also a great way to present your research to others. Start off with your question! That does a lot of things. It clarifies in the reader’s mind what the purpose of the study is. It helps the reader to relate the study you’ve done to the things that interest them. And it helps you and the reader have a way to see if the study you’ve done has accomplished something. And remember—a study that disproves your hypothesis may be just as interesting and useful as one that confirms it.

Good advice for any essay writer, writing about any subject—including TOK students writing TOK essays!

TOK Orals on the Internet: Beware!

Tim Sprod, highly experienced TOK teacher and co-author of one of the best TOK textbooks, recently posted this comment to the IBO’s “Online Curriculum Centre” TOK forum for teachers:

The examples of TOK presentations to be found with a search engine should – in my opinion – NEVER be taken as good exemplars. While there are a few that are good, most of them are not – not good, and in most cases, not TOK presentations. If you are looking at them to find good examples, then you presumably don’t yet have the ability to sort out the good from the bad.

All the ones I have seen that are pre-recorded videos (as opposed to videos of live presentations) have been, to put it bluntly, rubbish – they do not meet the criteria in the TOK Guide, no matter how much the students putting them up claim they do.

If you read recent subject reports, you will find that too many of the presentations that have been sent in for sampling are simply not meeting the specifications laid out in the TOK Guide. (For example, see the May 2013 SR, p 18, pp 20-21, p 22 under General Comments). Not all teachers seem to understand what these are. A lot of these non-TOK presentations seem to make it onto the web. I did an extensive search for good TOK presentations earlier in the year, and found very few.

[Clarification. The official example of a TOK presentation found on the OCC is, as Mark says, “not-so-good in many ways”, but it is a not-so-good TOK presentation, as opposed to a non-TOK presentation.]

In short: don’t go there.


Thoreau on democracy

“After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts—a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O’er the grave where our hero was buried.

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.”

—from Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)


From the IBO TOK Guide (first exams in 2015):

How does language shape knowledge? Does the importance of language in an area of knowledge ground it in a particular culture? How are metaphors used in the construction of knowledge?

Language can refer to the mental faculty which allows people to learn and use complex communication systems, or it can refer to those systems themselves. Language consists of a system of signs with agreed or conventional meanings combined according to a set of rules for the purposes of communication, formulation of ideas, storage of knowledge, or as a medium of thought. The term “signs” can be interpreted very broadly to include letters, symbols, sounds, gestures, images, and even objects. Language is a crucial part of our daily lives, but is also filled with potential problem areas, for example, ambiguity, sarcasm, irony, and translation issues.

Language plays an important role in communicating knowledge. However, some see language as having an even more central role, arguing that language doesn’t just describe our experiences of the world but in fact actually structures those experiences. In the section on the knowledge framework there is a discussion about whether certain types of knowledge are actually constituted by language—the idea that language is part and parcel of the knowledge claim itself and not merely a description of something that exists independently of language. The view that facts about the world might be determined by language is called linguistic determinism.

Page Smith, American Historian

His most disputed work was “The Historian and History” (1964), a witty indictment of American historians. In the book he observed wryly that there were then 15 “trained and presumably productive” people with doctorates in the field for every year of the nation’s history.

That is far more than is necessary, he argued, especially when most were absurdly overspecialized, slavishly addicted to textbooks in their areas and [sic] foolishly pretended to objectivity.

Most highly touted “new interpretations,” he declared, are “often no better than the old, and not infrequently a good deal worse.”

Championing a story-telling approach to historical writing, he argued that “great history has always been narrative history, history with a story to tell that illuminates the truth of the human situation, that lifts spirits and prospects to new potentialities.”

“Something stronger than reason”

Pierre smiled, Natasha began to laugh, but Nicholas knitted his brows still more and began proving to Pierre that there was no prospect of any great change and that all the danger he spoke of existed only in his imagination. Pierre maintained the contrary, and as his mental faculties were greater and more resourceful, Nicholas felt himself cornered. This made him still angrier, for he was fully convinced, not by reasoning but by something within him stronger than reason, of the justice of his opinion.

—from Leo Tolstoy, “War and Peace”

Benjamin Franklin on the value of Reason

Benjamin Franklin—printer, entrepreneur, scientist, inventor, community organizer, revolutionary, diplomat, celebrity—wrote one of the earliest autobiographies. In it he tells a story from his youth that neatly illustrates the value of reason in our lives.

I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.


“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

Does Robert Fulghum begin to make a case here for a universal ethical code?

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

[Source: “ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN” by Robert Fulghum.  See his web site at]