Redefining Progress

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The IB Diploma Programme’s Theory of Knowledge course seems to regularly make many people very uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because of the fact that there’s no “right answer”. Perhaps it’s because it’s so inherently interdisciplinary that it regularly pushes people well out of their subject-specialist comfort zones. Or perhaps it’s because all of the surrounding ambiguity can sometimes make us question if real progress in our understanding is even possible.

While I have certainly experienced the frustration associated with each of these factors, for my part it is precisely these reasons that make the Theory of Knowledge so important and interesting.

Rolling up one’s sleeves and learning the details of a particular theory or interpretation can certainly be stimulating and challenging in its own right, but the really fascinating part inevitably comes at the higher level: Why is this idea preferable to what came before? How can we be sure it’s correct? How does it fit in with knowledge in other fields? What sorts of new evidence could conceivably come along in the future that would make us change our mind again?

After all, those are the questions that really matter. Imagine for a moment that you suddenly had the chance to sit down and talk to Einstein. What would you ask him?

Well, you might dip a bit into his personal biography (Have you always been interested in physics? What did it feel like to come up with those equations? Did you ever meet Marilyn Monroe?), or get his perspective on the modern world (Did you ever think your discoveries would help people find the nearest coffee shops on their phones? How do today’s politicians compare with those you had to endure?).

But my guess is that after a few moments of such pleasant diversions, you’d quickly slip unthinkingly into a series of TOK-related queries: How do we know that nothing can go faster than light? Do recent observations of dark energy render your theory of relativity invalid? If not, which observations conceivably could and why? To what extent does understanding the laws of nature necessarily involve mathematics? What is the role of imagination and intuition in developing our understanding the world around us? Does science progress? Does it converge on truth?

In other words, you’d bombard him with a series of knowledge questions of wider and wider scope. Not because you would expect that even Einstein (even a magically resuscitated Einstein) would provide you with the answers, but because those are precisely the topics that chatting with one of the greatest minds of human history would merit.

Einstein is a particularly interesting person to consider from a TOK perspective, not only because of his enormous scientific accomplishments and charismatic international reputation, but because he also had a particularly strong influence on the perennial TOK question of how we define the scientific enterprise itself.

Karl_Popper2It was in 1919 Vienna that the young Karl Popper became so impressed by Einstein’s bold prediction of the bending of light that he developed his famous criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

“For a theory to be scientific,” said Popper, “it is not enough that there be verifying instances of its predictions.” After all, with enough hard work and resourcefulness, the determined proponent can always find (or at least make a strong argument for) a verifying instance of her theory somewhere. “No,” said Popper, “for a theory to be scientific, it has to make clear and concrete predictions that could well be wrong but are later confirmed to be correct.”

Or, as Princeton University historian Michael Gordin puts it: “In a sense it’s a very masculinist way of thinking, like gambling. He was impressed that Einstein risked something, saying: Light bends this much around stars. Go ahead and look. If it doesn’t, I’m wrong. For Popper, it’s the fact that Einstein risks everything that makes him scientific.”

Once Popper formally unveiled his “falsification criterion” more than 30 years later, it was a great success. For many people he had provided nothing less than a failsafe algorithm giving us a clear procedure for distinguishing between real science and its pseudoscientific pretender once and for all. “It’s a very appealing criterion,” admits Michael. “Except it’s got a few big problems.”

“The first problem is: How do you know that you falsified something? If every experiment that gets a null result falsifies something, then everything we know about physics and chemistry would be wrong if a high school student doesn’t do an experiment properly. But how do you know you’ve done the experiment properly, unless you get ‘the right result’?

“The second problem is that some clearly scientific fields, like evolutionary biology or cosmology, are naturally ‘historical’ and have a naturally hard time coming up with falsifiable statements. Suppose I have a theory of why the Big Bang was this way or that way. Where is my falsifiable statement?

“The third problem is that it requires you not to believe in truth. I can’t say that this chair is made of atoms. I can only say, Nobody has disproved the claim that this chair is made of atoms, yet. Most scientists would naturally say, ‘I don’t think that.’

“So, Popper’s bright line of demarcation is very appealing, and it’s gotten a lot of press, but it’s very problematic.”

Which brings us, quite firmly, back to where we started. Much to Karl Popper’s dismay, then, there is no easy, clear-cut way of distinguishing between what is science and what is pseudoscience. In the great TOK tradition, in other words, there is no “right answer”.

But discovering that is unquestionably a sign of progress.

Howard Burton,


To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see below a number of related expert resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers a dynamic IB-specific database of 500+ authoritative video and print resources featuring more than 80 world-leading researchers, including two Nobel Laureates, explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the Diploma Programme – please visit our new website  for further information.

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