Blog Archives

David Christian’s Big History of the Universe

Billions of years compressed into 18 minutes of TED Talkiness. David Christian gives us a quick run-down of the history of the universe.

This is a nice link to TOK, evolution, cells and diversity. If you study History or Economics, give it a go, too. Some of you might find this familiar if you have been to one of Andy Fletcher’s TOK Seminars. Why not stick on your phone or iPod and watch it during your holiday this week?

If that gets your inquiring mind in gear, Christian and his team have put together a free online course in Big History, which you can take here. With Big History, Scitable, Khan Academy,, Encyclopedia of Life, Learn.Genetics  and many more free content providers out there, are we starting to see the end of the traditional textbook? I hope so.

Guardian and Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize

If you’re in the UK, have a go at this science writing prize from the Wellcome Trust and the Guardian. The winners will have their work printed in the ‘Guardian’ or the ‘Observer’, receive a £1000 cash prize and benefit from a science writing workshop at the ‘Guardian’.

One category is for non-professionals and undergraduate students – that includes you, super-smart IB Biologists. The closing date is 20th May, so it’s perhaps not the best idea for students in their exams!

For the full introduction, go to the competition page. There is also a good piece, as well as some tips, on the Guardian.

Some resources that might help:

Scitable’s Scientific Communication Library

Peter Clarks’ Quick 50 Writing Tips

The science of scientific writing” from American Scientist


TOK: “Just a Theory?”

Here’s a good clip from Friends where Ross (a paleontologist) is defending the scientific evidence for evolution against Phoebe.

Grade 11 Students, the Evolution Core content is here: 5.4 Evolution (Core)

Now do some research: what is the linguistic distinction between theory and fact? How can different meanings of the word theory lead to confusion in non-scientists?

When you watch the clip, think about the use of language: from a scientific point of view, what is the difference between a fact and a theory?

Here is the definition of a scientific fact:

“any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted”

In contrast, here’s the definition of a theory from the Science Dictionary:

“A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. Most theories that are accepted by scientists have been repeatedly tested by experiments and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.See Note at hypothesis.”

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Look at these resources that outline why evolution is considered both a fact (that it happens, and its evidence) and a theory (the processes by which it happens):

Evolution: Fact & Theory, from ActionBioscience

Evolution as Fact and Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould

Evolution as Fact and Theory from Wikipedia

Fact or Theory? by John Pratt

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So now we’ve cleared up the issue of fact vs theory, we can move on. Think about how the scientific method works. If you need to, look at these resources:

Science as Falsification, by Karl Popper

Falsifiability (testability), via Wikipedia

Why is the the theory of evolution scientific?

Why was Ross right, from a scientist’s point of view, when he said “just a teeny-tiny bit,” at the end of the video clip?

What about the following theories – why do people have no trouble accepting that they are true based on scientific evidence, that they are empirical theories?

Gravity – Special Theory of Relativity – Plate Tectonics – Cell Theory

Why, then, are alternative creation theories considered unscientific?

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Evolution is one of those hot topics that seems to sit right in the space where science and religion don’t get along. It doesn’t need to. Science is about understanding the world we live in through reason, evidence and observation. Religion is an entirely different area of knowledge based on entirely different ways of knowing (emotion).

So can you believe in God and accept that evolution is true? Of course you can. And many religious leaders agree (here are more statements).

To finish off, here is Sir David Attenborough talking about the fact of evolution and how scientific progress is made through empiricism and falsification, and also how we as humans have abused our supposed position of ‘dominion’ to massively detrimental consequences:

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Extension: hunt out The Genius of Darwin on YouTube for more evidence and explanation. Here is a clip from the first episode:

It is one of the simplest ideas anyone ever had

Find out more about the term Occam’s Razor. How does it apply to the scientific method and reasoning as a way of knowing?

Michael Specter – The Danger of Science Denialism

Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?

With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.

As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”

“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”

From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)

*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.

Wade Davis – “The Plants Talk To Us” (TOK)

[Note: I wrote this in 2010 after seeing Wade Davis speak, and was reminded of it as I wrote Curriculum as a Compass?. I still love these stories – the ayahuasca one blows my mind. Stephen.]


I saw Wade Davis speak at the 2008 IB Regional conference, and he was brilliant. He gave an extended version of this talk from TED, and the focus on disappearing languages and cultures was brilliant. He really ventured into TOK, especially with the different ways of knowing demonstrated by various cultures.wayfinders_cover_1024x1024

There is a great example in the talk below of an amazonian shaman who makes a powerful psychoactive preparation of Ayahuasca, from a vine. Tryptamines are the active component and are similar to tryptophan (our famous amino acid/ end product inhibition exampleanimation). They act as neurotransmitters and include serotonin, which regulates mood. It is broken down by enzymes bound to the plasma membrane of cells in the digestive tract called monoamine oxidase (MAO), so can’t be taken orally. The amazing thing is the shaman uses a preparation from another plant that inhibits this enzyme, so that the potion can be ingested and is effective. This is amazing knowledge, gleaned from a totally alternative scientific method to the one we are used to, and demonstrates an advanced naturalistic intelligence.

When he asked how they knew this and were able to combine these two extracts from the thousands available, they answered “The plants talk to us.”


Discussion and questions:

1. In what ways can this specific example link the elements of the IB Biology course together?

Think about cells, membranes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, innate vs learned behaviour, reward pathways, evolution, enzymes and inhibition, genetics and the universality of the genetic code, ecology and conservation.

2. Think about the statement “other people, with their differences, can also be right” (from the IBO’s mission statement). To what extent is the ancient knowledge of indigenous cultures an example of this? What further questions does this inspire?

3. To what extent are these ways of knowing demonstrated in the contrast between modern scientific understanding of the effects of the active ingredients and the ancient wisdom of the shaman: sense perception, reason and emotion.

4. Discuss the impacts of disappearing cultures on scientific knowledge and understanding. How could modern science & technology be used to help preserve cultures and wisdom?

If you liked this, find out more about becoming an ethnobotanist!


The Cove

Winner of the Sundance 2009 audience award:

Find out more about the cove here:

Official Website

If you get the chance to see it, think about how it links with the Ecology and Conservation unit:

What is happening in terms of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins?

Is this approach to the dolphin populations sustainable?

ToK Link:

The actions portrayed in the movie are considered by many to be unethical but by those committing them to be a necessary part of life. Think about what determines one’s set of personal ethics – what parts of our own lives might be considered unethical by others? Are there actions we carry out which are unethical but which we choose not to think about because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so?

International Mindedness:

How does this method of farming compare to intensive cattle and poultry farming in other industrialised countries?

Here’s a short clip of an intensively-farmed chicken’s life:

And you and find out more about it on Channel 4’s Hugh’s Chicken Run page.

The Memory of Water: Science or Pseudoscience?

“Can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience”

“What separates effective medicine from alternative medicine?”

This is an activity from the ToK and Biology section.

As you grow through Biology and ToK, you should develop your critical thinking skills and become more of a skeptic. Being able to answer these two questions is a skill that you can carry through life, helping you to make sensible decisions when faced with a range of seemingly convincing alternatives.

Medicine is a system of rigourous testing, evidence collection, statistical analysis and controls to ensure that a treatment is effective when recommended to patients. If it works and it is strongly corroborated, we call it medicine – it is available to professionally-trained medical doctors to use or prescribe for their patients.

Alternative medicine is simply that – alternative to medicine. It is not rigorously tested, double-blind controlled or statistically analysed. It is built on belief without true empirical evidence. One might believe it’s efficacy based only on anecdotal or circumstantial evidence, but this is not enough.

This activity links with unit 3.1 – Chemical Elements and Water.

Richard Dawkins’ recent series Enemies of Reason tackles these issues brilliantly, as does Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog. Start with this short clip of Dawkins explaining the idea behind homeopathy, a bastion of alternative medicine:

Homeopathic First Aid.
Homeopathic First Aid.
  • So why is it that people buy into homeopathy and alt med?
  • Have you heard of the placebo effect or the powers of suggestion and how they affect feeling?
  • Watch the whole episode (below) and think of reasons why a patient might feel better after visiting a homeopath than after a consultation with the doctor.
  • What is the difference between complementary and alternative medicine? Which might a doctor recommend as part of a treatment? Why?

To find out more about homeopathy and it central ideas:

Homeopathy from the Skeptics Dictionary

The End of Homeopathy? From BadScience

And lots of great information from Evidence Based Medicine First

Video Links

Watch the full series of Enemies of Reason on GoogleVideo:

Part 1: Slaves to Superstition

Part 2: The Irrational Health Service (includes the homeopaths)

Ogo-dear... Burrrp!
Ogo-dear… Burrrp!

And it’s not only homeopathy that abuses our sacred water. The oxygen-water companies are it too.

More than Water? From BadScience (download reading activity here)

Unless you have gills, it’s an expensive burp! from

So, when you read the magazines, watch TV or wonder about a miracle cure, anti-ageing cream, magical treatment or anything else related to unusual claims and you health, think: “Where’s the evidence?”

Now here’s a funny sketch from Webb and Mitchell:

Secrets of the Sequence – The Discovery of DNA

This 9-minute clip is an ideal ‘watcher’ to go along with the reader in the Course Companion – it tells the story of the discovery of the DNA double helix structure by Watson and Crick and how their discovery was dependant on the prior work of Rosalind Franklin and the compeitive/cooperative nature of research:

This clip  is taken from the vdeo lesson resource provided by Virginia Commonwealth University’s ‘Secrets of the Sequence’ website. They have 50 different videos, each with accompanying lesson plans and activities.

They also have a YouTube channel: VCULifeSciences.

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