Category Archives: TOK & Pseudoscience
“Fame is easy to acquire, impact is much more difficult.”
Hans Rosling, 1948-2017 (Guardian, 2003)
Hans Rosling, public health guru, statistics wizard, creator of Gapminder and presenter of the best TED Talks of all time (playlist), has sadly died, way too young. Any long-term user of i-Biology.net will know what a fanboy I am, and there are many posts and pages on this site – from Bio content to MYP and TOK – that reference his work and talks.
He will be missed but his work, more important now than ever before, will live on.
We’re lucky to be in this world. Don’t be ignorant.
With the world at fever-pitch for humanitarian crises, discrimination, widening political divides and environmental problems becoming compounded, it can seem like we are powerless to make a change.
This might be even more true if you are underage, personally affected (directly or indirectly), a holder of a sensitive passport, living in a delicate location or even shielded from the reality of the situation by the privileged bubble of international schooling. But it does not need to be hopeless.
Our missions as IB schools and international schools around the world should be in clear focus right now. Our education, through the disciplines, service, TOK, approaches to learning and international mindedness is our toolbox as a global citizens.
You can help and give without putting yourself (or those around you) at risk. Here are some suggestions, framed through the Learner Profile.
Above all, be caring, empathetic and understanding. Care for yourself and others. Know that sometimes people do bad things from positions of ignorance and sometimes positive intentions have unintended negative consequences. Remember that all humans deserve empathy and understanding, that the world is our shared responsibility and that we can make greater positive impacts when we work together.
Keep learning, focusing on your studies and the goals ahead. Ensure you do the best you possibly can. We can have a greater impact in the long-run if we are successful, competent and educated. Through your lifelong studies you will become more knowledgeable and along the journey you may well hit upon valuable ideas and relationships, big and small, that may make a positive difference in the world.
Be Thinkers & Inquirers
As we drown in information and media, we may feel passionate, reactive or flooded with confusion. Knowledge is power, but understanding is powerful. Fact-check (try Snopes), and evaluate fake news. Consider the issues from different perspectives and try to understand why others might feel that way. Understand that global issues have multiple contributing factors, that solutions are interdisciplinary and that we need to be agile critical and creative inquirers if we are to move forwards with clarity. Don’t be ignorant about the world.
Be Principled Communicators
It is all-too-easy to add to the noise in reaction or from a position of excitement, but over-reaction or ill-conceived prejudice may cause more problems than we intend. In an age where populism and charisma seem to have more sway than facts, we need to practice our rhetorical skills, to present clearly and with compelling and supportable reasoning. Avoid logical fallacies and ad-hom attacks, focus on reason but understand how emotion, language and other ways of knowing influence the received message in our communication.
Be Open-Minded, Balanced and Reflective
We must presume positive intentions in those we meet and speak to, listen actively and practice empathy (video below). We must balance media types and viewpoints to understand multiple perspectives and break out of our bubbles and echo chambers. We must reflect on our learning, interactions and own prejudices, privilege and state of mind. We must ensure that we remain balanced, healthy and active – we can achieve nothing if we are burned out.
Hope motivates, educate for it. Remember too that we are living in a world that is better than it has ever been. Through science, reason, diplomacy and interconnectedness, we have greater health, wealth and potential. Although the noise of the awful deafens us to the good, we must find it and use the positive news as a beacon. You thought 2016 was awful? Well here are some counter-claims (with sources).
Be Courageous Risk Takers
We must take part in new things, broadening our horizons through service, travel and academics. If we live in a position of privilege, we should honour that, making the most of the hand we have been dealt. Don’t squander time or opportunities that millions of others are fighting for. Live a positive life and use our influence to better ourselves and others. Take risks academically, trying new ideas, thinking creatively and engaging with topics that challenge or frighten us.
BUT: seek reliable advice when taking action, ensuring the risks we take are managed, that we don’t cause harm to others in the process of trying to have a positive impact. Put the Service Learning Cycle to good use in planning your action.
It’s a delicate line, tread it with care. If you don’t know what to do but want to help, reach out to those that do: the charities and organizations that work in the issues day-in, day-out, service leaders in your school, reliable media. Many organizations will take donations directly and safely online, and so will accept the proceeds of your efforts.
If you need help finding reliable organisations, ask reliable sources.
- See PRI’s list of agencies supporting refugees
- Donate to your local or international environmental charities
- Find topics of specific personal connection and find out who is helping and how
How To Give through Biology4Good
Years ago, when this site started gaining popularity, I wanted to use its impact as a kind of personal service project. Now it seems like the right time to boost the fundraising efforts. Thanks to i-Biology users, we’ve raised over GB£5,600 (US$7,000) in donations for a selection of ten charities. 100% of this money goes directly to the charities, and UK taxpayers can also boost their donation (for free) with GiftAid.
If you use this site a lot – and I know, I’m sorry it has not been updated in a long time – please consider boosting this appeal. If you donate £20 or more through the list, I’ll give you access to a folder of powerpoints and IBBio resources.
Three charities on our list having a direct impact on the current humanitarian crisis are:
You might also choose to donate to HopeHIV, WaterAID, Marine Conservation Society, Tree Aid, AfriKids or Save the Rhino by visiting the team page here.
New from Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic, Before the Flood is a compelling and powerful climate change documentary. Where are we in the world right now with our understanding, challenges and potential solutions. What actions need to be taken right away?
The full movie
is was available initially for free on YouTube, and their action website hosts more resources for use in class or discussions. Click here for other platforms where you can view, rent or buy the movie.
Timely and provocative, here is Sam Harris on facts, values, morals and perceptions. Jump here for lesson ideas. Trigger alert (it’s Sam Harris): some raw issues discussed.
This year’s TOK Questions are a great crop (I think) for connecting the sciences as an area of knowledge with many current and historical knowledge issues. Here’s a wee poster I made on PiktoChart for the questions. Which do you lean towards and why?
Another great Hans Rosling TED Talk, this time with his son, Ola. Here Dealing with misconceptions, bias, ignorance of global issues and a little formative assessment, they discuss how we can be better informed about the world, with a fact-based world view… and how we could (eventually) perform better than chimps on a global issues quiz.
This would make a great provocation for a TOK unit, or one in Geography or a Global Issues group. In our field of international education it might be useful for parent and teacher training, considering why we need to educate for global understanding, not just for disciplinary knowledge. Through a fact-based world view, we can develop truly internationally-minded, globally-engaged young inquirers, who recognise their biases and know how to learn more about the truths of the world we live in now and into the future.
I love the suggestion they have of a “global knowledge certificate” for agencies, schools and employers that is based on candidates taking a test on the fact-based world view. You read about the ignorance project here on CNN, or find more classroom resources (including a world-view card game) on Gapminder’s education page. The Guardian also has a selection of global development quizzes, which you can take for fun or in class.
There’s a good chance that you’d not be here to read this without the pharmaceutical industry designing and manufacturing the vaccines and medications you’ve used during your life – but how much do we know about where they come from?
In this thoughtful, well-researched and instructive book, Ben Goldacre* (doctor, evidence-based medicine proponent and author of Bad Science) outlines how Big Pharma works, but also what the issues are and how they can be fixed. He has a TEDMED Talk on the premise of the book (below) and takes care no to write a ‘hatchet-job’ on the industry, but to shine a light on the current state of clinical research and marketing.
I recommend the book to IB Biology and IB Chemistry students and teachers – read a copy before the next teaching cycle begins – as there are many sections of direct relevance to our courses that could be used as lesson ideas or real-world contexts for what we’re learning. It would make a great addition to the reading list for students, especially those intending to pursue medical, biochemistry or pharmaceutical careers.
In each chapter, Goldacre identifies a problem and gives a clear account of why it is a problem, using systematic reviews of academic literature and specific case studies to highlight each point. He makes it clear to the reader why these problems actually are problems, but also offers concrete advice or proposals on how to solve them.
Some highlights for the IB Biology course
Chapter 1 gets stuck in with statistical analysis and why systematic reviews of literature, meta-analyses and careful work with data are so important. It introduces the work of the Cochrane Collaboration and works through a neat illustration of the importance of considering all the data as more studies are carried out. The Cochrane Collaboration’s logo is itself a fascinating story, and you could model this in class with a simple set of investigations in the early stages of the course (see some ideas on the Statistical Analysis page).This video is very useful – from the Testing Treatments page.
The ideas and issues come thick and fast for the rest of the book.
As you read it, you will see many potential connections to the course, as well as to Theory of Knowledge. Here are just a few ideas that might spark discussion in class:
- What is the problem with missing trial data and publishing only favourable results?
- What does this publication bias do the reliability of the information we use to make decisions?
- How are drugs designed and tested (this is super interesting, going from in-vitro and animal testing to stage 1, 2 and 3 human trials, and has an obvious link to the IB Animal Experimentation Policy).
- What are the ethical issues with human testing, in particular the ideal/ representative nature of the patients used and the incentives they receive?
- What is the impact of outsourcing trials to other countries that might have different ethical codes?
- What are the ethical issues of randomising and controlling trials with humans, particularly in cases where there is a known drug that helps compared to a new drug?
- What are the roles of drugs regulators on medicine and are they working?
- How should trials be designed to give more valid and reliable data (for example, comparing the ‘new’ drug against the current best alternative vs placebo)?
- How could we use nationwide health records to conduct larger, simpler trials to determine which treatments really are most effective?
- How do the many branches of pharmaceutical marketing affect decision-making and how can we recognise and mitigate for this?
- How can we fix it all to keep medical innovation going whilst generating reliable, cost-effective data and drugs?
TED Talk: What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe
*Yeah, I know I’m a bit of a fanboy and have featured him on here a lot, but with this and Bad Science, he has produced a lot of useful content to connect to our classes.
Here’s Dr. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science giving his TED Talk, which is an eye-opener into what happens in academic research and drug testing. A good link with TOK here:
- How do research groups and journals decide what to publish – what is publication bias?
- What are the consequences of not publishing negative results?
- To what extent does publication bias affect other academic disciplines?
This is a really interesting dilemma. Evidence-based medicine works, that’s why it is called ‘medicine’. Sometimes publication bias leads into misrepresentation of data and drugs get approved. But it’s not the same as promoting pseudoscience – ‘fake’ medicines which we know do not work and are supported by no peer-reviewed, controlled evidence.
He also has a radio show/ podcast called The Infinite Monkey Cage, hosted with Brian Cox on the BBC. In this episode, Six Degrees of Separation, they discuss the connections of humans with Stephen Fry, Simon Singh and Alex Krotoski.