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Top IB Examiner guides you through the most popular TOK May 2023 Essay Title

If you are an IB student looking for some guidance in your Theory of Knowledge (TOK) essay, you would have probably searched “TOK tips”, “TOK help”, “TOK hacks” and the like on Google. You would have probably chanced upon a number of websites that offer free but very generic advice which claims to be but is really not helpful.


Let’s see if I can do better. By way of background, I was an IB student myself back in the day. I scored a perfect 45 points with A for TOK and A for the extended essay. I am now an IB teacher and examiner at a top IB World School. One of the subjects I teach of course is TOK. For obvious reasons, I would not be able to disclose my real identity but I will dig into my experience as a teacher and former IB student and reveal some valuable tips and tricks for your TOK essay. Think of me as your capped and masked hero for the TOK.


For the sake of relevance and interest, I will provide TOK pointers in the context of perhaps the most popular May 2023 TOK Essay Title:


Is replicability necessary in the production of knowledge?

Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge?


Paragraph 1: Introduction which defines key words, states the two Areas of Knowledge (AOK) you are exploring and your thesis statement

Important Terms ​

Definition / Scope

1

Replicability

Replicability is achieved when the same experiment under the same conditions can be repeated by anybody at any place and the same observations and results are obtained.


Replicability is the cornerstone of natural sciences. It is the science’s claim to objectivity which makes conclusions drawn from experiments verifiable or in Popper’s view, falsifiable.


2

Necessary

​Necessary connotes a high standard. Compare necessary to sufficient and ask yourself if replicability is a must have or good to have in the production of knowledge. If replicability is not possible, can anything short of replicability be sufficient in the production of knowledge?


Can it be argued that replicability is one of degree?


3

Production of Knowledge

​Production of knowledge is the process to generate new and correct information about the world we live in. This helps us understand more about the world we live in.

Use a table such as the one above the plan and define your key terms. Once you have done so, you can use what you have written to set out the parameters of your essay. Once you have done that, you just need to state the two AOKs you have chosen to explore the question. For this particular question, I would recommend choosing natural and human sciences. End the first paragraph by stating your thesis statement which can look something like this:

Replicability should not be necessary in the production of knowledge. In the natural sciences, replicability can lead to consistent and verifiable results which become enshrined as laws. However, laws in the natural sciences too can and have be subsequently proven false, debunked and replaced. In the human sciences, replicability in the strictest sense of the word is arguably not achievable as its findings are based on the subjectivity of induction and generalisation. That notwithstanding, human science research also has rules and a system and knowledge produced following those rules and system is considered good and accepted.

Paragraph 2: State your Knowledge Question (include your 1st AOK)


There are many ways to do it but I always encourage my students to phrase the knowledge questions by beginning with “to what extent.”

To what extent is scientific knowledge considered good and accepted if experiments and experimental findings cannot be repeated?

Paragraph 3: State your Knowledge Claim + Explanation + Example (1st AOK)


When you answer your knowledge question, you are stating your knowledge claim. While I appreciate there will always be nuances, do not be afraid to answer your knowledge question with a simple yes or no. For example, for this question, you can simply say:

In natural sciences, knowledge would scarcely be considered good and accepted if experiments and experimental findings cannot be repeated.

You would then need an explanation to support your claim:

The natural sciences deal with a subject matter that is not ‘live’ and would thus contain no elements of subjectivity. Experiment conditions can be controlled and accounted for. This is opposed to dealing with human behaviour in the human sciences. Thus, the natural sciences have always boasted about its inherent objectivity which in turn subjects them to a stricter standard. Consequently, a scientific hypothesis is only proven if results obtained can be repeated and thus verified.

Follow up with an example after your claim. You can give an example of good and well- regarded knowledge in physics, biology or chemistry which came to be because the experiments are repeatable. In the natural sciences, there is also a peer review system where other researchers would check the work of one researcher by repeating the experiments he or she had conducted. For those of you who take any of the sciences for your IB course, you would also have a practical component where you conduct experiments and are expected to achieve the same result as your peers from any part of the world.


Paragraph 4: Counter-Claim + Explanation + Example (1st AOK)


There are always two sides of a coin. Your essay would need to consider both these sides. Since you have earlier claimed that replicability is important for knowledge production in the natural sciences, it is now time to consider the opposing side. Here is a suggested counter-claim:

However, even long-standing knowledge in the natural sciences has been debunked which goes to show that replicability should not be the hallmark of science. Implicit in Karl Popper’s idea of falsifiability is the notion that knowledge in the natural sciences is not immutable and cast in stone. New observations can subsequently prove such knowledge false.

A common example students like to use to show the lack of absolute knowledge in the natural sciences is the replacement of Newton’s theory of gravity with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Here is a short excerpt from an insightful article taken from Forbes:

“On May 29, 1919, the world changed forever. For hundreds of years, Isaac Newton's theory of gravity — the law of universal gravitation — had gone unchallenged, as its predictions matched every observation or measurement that had ever been made. But a mismatch between Newton's predictions for the orbit of Mercury and what astronomers saw surfaced in the mid-19th century, and scientists struggled to explain it.


Perhaps we needed to modify the laws of gravity, after all. Evidence mounted when special relativity came out, demonstrating that there was no such thing as absolute distance. Newton's theory predicted an instantaneous force, again violating relativity. In 1915, Albert Einstein put forth a new alternative theory of gravity: General Relativity. The way to test it against Newton's theory was to wait for a total solar eclipse. 100 years ago today, Einstein was proven right.”


Credit


Paragraph 5: Evaluate the Claim and Counter-Claim (1st AOK)


An evaluation after the counter-claim is absolutely critical to your essay. Otherwise, you would sound like you just contradicted yourself.


Let’s return to the present essay that we are planning out together. The Newton-Einstein example above shows is that even theories which have been well regarded after passing the replicability test have also, albeit many years later, been proven wrong. So what do you think this means for the body of scientific knowledge that we have now? This is the question you would need to reconcile after exploring the counter-claim. Your answer to this question would make for a good evaluation of your claim and counter-claim in the natural sciences. A hint I can offer to you is to think about Popper’s theory of falsifiability. Perhaps, falsifiability can reconcile the problem here? Perhaps the hallmark of natural sciences should not rest on replicability but rather falsifiability?


Paragraph 6: State your Knowledge Question (include your first Area of Knowledge (2nd AOK)


After your evaluation on the first AOK, you can now move on to your second AOK. You need to repeat the same steps as above.

To what extent is knowledge in the human sciences considered good and accepted if experiments and experimental findings cannot be repeated?

Paragraph 7: State your Knowledge Claim + Explanation + Example (2nd AOK)


You are free to disagree and propose your own knowledge claim but here is an example of a possible knowledge claim:

In the human sciences, knowledge can still be considered good and accepted even if experiments and experimental findings cannot be repeated.

You would need to explain your claim:

Unlike the natural sciences, human sciences deal mostly with live subjects such as animals and humans and so inevitably there will be some form of subjectivity. As much as researchers can try to control experimental conditions, they would not be able to fully control the subject. Moreover, human behaviour is arguably not objectively observable. These are the common criticisms levelled against the nature of human science research. But it does not mean that human science research does not follow any systematic rules and methods. Research in the human sciences is also systematic and researches are increasingly expected to include reflexivity in their works. In this regard, researchers discuss the subjectivity and other shortcomings of their research so that the value of their research or the knowledge produced from that research can be appreciated in that context.

I do not foresee it being too big a problem finding an example or two for this claim. All you need to do is to go online and search for any research in psychology or economics and find one where the authors openly discuss about the subjective issues with their work. Bear in mind that subjectivity is not rooted in the test subjects. Subjectivity can also stem from the researcher themselves in the form of bias.


Paragraph 8: Counter-Claim + Explanation + Example (2nd AOK)


To mount a counter-claim against research in the human sciences, you would need to poke holes in the manner such research is usually conducted. In doing so, you would also be questioning the validity of the research. Here is an example I think of which stems from sampling techniques and generalisability:

In the human sciences, replicability in the strictest sense of the word is arguably not achievable from quantitative and qualitative research in the human sciences. Qualitative research involves interviewing people who might not always tell the truth. Quantitative research involves choosing a sample frame to conduct surveys and the sample frame might not be representative of a larger population. Because of the problems of qualitative and quantitative research in the human sciences, any exercise of induction and generalisation would not be meaningful. Moreover, the same experiment and findings might not yield replicability because of how subjective they are. As a result, the value and validity of research in the human sciences are doubted.

Off the top my head, an example I can think of is a piece of research published in the 1990 by a sociologist named Saunders. In his work, he considered the growth of home ownership in Britain and its consequences for peoples’ daily lives. His principal method of enquiry involved local surveys of 450 households in three working-class towns: Burnley, Derby and Slough. He generalised from his empirical findings in three towns to British society as a whole. However, his sample size was criticised as far too small to make any meaningful generalisations.


A word of caution: do not use this same example. For TOK, you are encouraged to use recent examples and not one which took place way before you were born.


Paragraph 9: Evaluate the Claim and Counter-Claim (2nd AOK)


Just like we did for the 1st AOK (natural sciences), we need an evaluation to reconcile the claim and counter-claim for the 2nd AOK (human sciences). Here, you could question what exactly replicability means? In the strictest sense of the word, replicability in human sciences is not achievable. The same findings from one group of people from one specific area might not be replicable to another group of people from another area. Does this immediately fail replicability? Does this instantly and always mean that the findings from human science research has no value? Answer these questions and you have you a thought-provoking evaluation.


Paragraph 10: Conclusion


We are now left with the conclusion of the essay. In the conclusion, we have to tie together the discussions we made in both the AOKs. A sample of what I mean by reconciling is shown as follows:

In conclusion, replicability should not be necessary in the production of knowledge. If we take a strict definition of replicability, knowledge from both the natural and human sciences would not pass muster. This is most certainly not an acceptable result. In the natural sciences, even long-established laws and theorems have been debunked by a mismatch of what scientific laws predicted and what was actually observed. This is the same in the human sciences where generalised predictions do not always comport with observable data. As such we need to think of knowledge as what is regarded as good and well accepted knowledge. In this regard, both the natural and human sciences by their very natures should play by their own rules and system. In the natural sciences, good and well accepted knowledge can be thought of as knowledge that came about from objective observable data and has not yet been proven wrong (ie., falsified). In the human sciences, good and well accepted knowledge can be considered as knowledge that resulted from rigorous and honest experimentation. Given the inescapable subjectivity of human sciences, researchers have to be as rigorous in deciding and executing their research methods. They also have to be forthcoming and reflective about the limitations of their research and findings. This would help researchers and consumers of research to consider the implications of these issues and how the research was conducted and the substantive findings and conclusions that emerged.

Before I end, I just want to remind you that there are many ways to skin a cat. What I have written above is not the only method or the only perspective on the essay title. You might have your own views and ideas and you are encouraged to explore them! What I would say you can and should follow regardless of the line of argument you are taking is the templated structure of the TOK essay. The structure here is the gold standard. All my students use a similar structure and though we have never met, I too would urge you to follow this same structure to score your A.


All the best!







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