Under what circumstances can we be certain that non-specialists understand a given human sciences theory?
An essential component of TOK is to consider the real-world application of theories. Do our models correspond to what we actually find in the real world? What sort of real-world evidence exists that can convince us that our theories are correct, and why?
Looking to concrete applications of our theoretical frameworks in the real world is an essential way of obtaining evidence for their validity. But what happens if “the real world” actually warps our theoretical frameworks out of recognition. What happens if when we think we’re actually implementing or testing our theories, we’re really doing no such thing?
While any theory can certainly be distorted or misinterpreted by other specialists (sometimes deliberately so), this sort of thing most often happens when non-specialists naively try to implement research knowledge that is directly relevant to them, a state of affairs which more often than not happens in the human sciences.
Carol Dweck, a renowned social psychologist from Stanford University, has spent much of her research career demonstrating how students can dramatically increase their learning potential by switching from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset”.
One key aspect of her theory is that the type of praise that educators give students has a significant effect on their mindset, with praising the effort that led to success much more likely to lead them towards a growth mindset, while simply praising the success itself, or – worse still – the student’s intelligence, is much more likely to reinforce a fixed mindset.
Professor Dweck has good reason to believe that her psychological theory holds water, given that it has been rigorously tested in a number of extensive experiments by both her and others.
The problem, however, is that the greater the public recognition of her mindset work is, the more often it is likely to be misinterpreted.
This brings us to an additional feature of the overlap between TOK and the human sciences that is sometimes overlooked. Normally, we’re primarily concerned with the question of to what extent we can be certain that our theoretical HS frameworks are valid – perhaps there are different sociocultural factors which render them inappropriate in certain instances, or perhaps the evidence that we rely upon contains some hidden assumptions and biases that render our conclusions suspect, or at least limited.
But now we have something else to consider: even when we’re confident that our theoretical models are valid, to what extent can we be certain that non-specialists are applying them correctly in the real world? After all, for a HS theory to have genuine impact, it’s not enough for it to be “abstractly true”. It has to be applicable, not only in principle, but in practice. Which means, in turn, that we have to turn our attention to the overlap of not just psychology and TOK, but also language, the media, and much else besides.
For additional examples of how TOK overlaps with psychology, language and the media, see Ideas Roadshow TOK Connections Guide for Psychology and Ideas Roadshow TOK Connections Guide for English A: Language & Literature, directly available in the Teacher Resources section and the Student TOK section on our IBDP Portal.