Science and Prediction: ToK Presentation REVIEW Science and Prediction Overview: Overview Scientific Theory and Prediction This presentation was given by three Ethiopian students studying in Ghana. It was awarded a grade A. The duration of the presentation is 38 minutes – rather too long but it is offered here as an exemplar because of the quality of the content. Introduction: Introduction Part I: 0:00 to 1:22 The presentation begins with a description of the real‐life situation. This concerns the seismic event that triggered the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. The presenters claim that the earthquake epicenter had, in terms of established tectonic theory, an unexpected location. This choice of central example as a real‐life situation is highly appropriate as it was one of the defining global events in the students’ lifetimes, even though they had no personal experience of the tsunami. The theory of plate tectonics also connects to the students’ academic experience through the IB Geography program. A mismatch between established knowledge and actual specific events immediately raises questions appropriate to TOK enquiry. Setting the Stage: Setting the Stage 1:22 to 4:00 From this real‐life situation, the presenters extract an excellent knowledge issue – asking if the ability to use a scientific theory to make predictions is a valid measure of the worth of that scientific theory. This knowledge issue is shown to arise directly and naturally from the chosen real‐life situation and can be posed with regard to other scientific theories, so it is a very fruitful springboard for the presentation to come. Clear daylight is evident between the real‐life situation and the knowledge issue. These attributes show how the requirements of criterion A have been fully met. Setting the Stage: Setting the Stage 1:22 to 4:00 Two key terms in the knowledge issue are theory and prediction, and the presenters are keen to explore what they might mean. Two minor opportunities are missed when discussing “theory”. Firstly, while the candidates allude to the different meanings of “theory”, they do not clearly articulate how the addition of the word “scientific” makes a significant difference, and secondly, the Wikipedia definition that is quoted specifies “in advance”, so to speak, that a scientific theory must have predictive power. This would have been an ideal chance to challenge the Wikipedia definition (“Let’s see whether Wikipedia is right about this.”). However, a helpful starting default position is established in connecting the success of scientific theories with the ability to explain and predict. Links: Links 4:00 to 7:15 The presenters then establish a link between the ability to predict and the discernment of patterns in data, and succeed in showing how pattern‐seeking is relevant to the development of tectonic theory, which also functions as an explanatory framework for continental drift (the point could have been made that, without the mechanism of plate tectonics, the idea of continental drift – not itself really a “theory” in the scientific sense, as suggested by the candidates – was, historically, extremely hard to accept). Problems: Problems 7:15 to 10:30 A set of potential problems with scientific theories is then presented – difficulties that may interfere with successful prediction. Again, the presenters return to their real‐life situation to show how some of these difficulties have been recognized and addressed in the field of plate tectonics. Although at this stage the presentation material has not been fully developed, the candidates have succeeded (a) in cementing the connection between real‐life situation and knowledge issue, (b) in keeping the real‐life situation central to the work, and (c) in showing the practical consequences that flow from theoretical and methodological problems. Connections: Connections 10:30 onward The candidates then proceed to apply their list of theory strengths and problems to a number of other theoretical constructs drawn from Biology, Chemistry and Economics. This is largely an effective strategy for developing the implications of the central knowledge issue, as the other theories play a double role – they act (a) as examples that deepen our understanding of the nature of theory, and simultaneously (b) as other real‐life situations to which the insights of the analysis can eventually be applied. In this way, the treatment of biological evolution, chemical elements and molecular shape, and the economic relation of inflation and unemployment contribute toward a high level of achievement in criteria B (the treatment of knowledge issues) and C (the use of examples to demonstrate the significance of the topic). Slide 9: The entire presentation focuses on the natural and human sciences. Although it would have been possible to extend the analysis to theories in the arts or ethics, etc., limiting the scope to two Areas of Knowledge permits the candidates to reserve space (or time) for an exploration of them in considerable depth. Thus a superficial treatment that tours around the traditional TOK diagram is avoided. Slide 10: There follows a brief summary of the examples selected by the candidates. The theory of evolution by natural selection is central to Biology. It has powerful explanatory power but very restricted predictive power – this is because of the complexity of the subject material and the impossibility of knowing all the initial conditions that would precede any given evolutionary event. In Chemistry, the classic example of Mendeleev’s insight in grouping known elements according to their properties is discussed – the logical processes of induction and deduction being involved in the construction of the periodic table and the predictions that follow from it. VSEPR is a useful means for deriving the expected shape of chemical compounds, but it does not yield quantitative results, and there are situations in which the theory fails. Economists face additional problems in formulating theory – due to the behaviour of humans as sentient beings, and due to the fact that, unlike atoms, human behaviour can change over time. Slide 11: The candidates make attempts to link the material to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but they perhaps would have been better advised to think about uncertainty in general and the tools that scientists have developed in order to measure it (to be certain about uncertainty). They also make an effort to pin down the origin of predictive weakness by analyzing the traditional scientific method, with rather limited success. Finally, the presentation comes full circle by returning to the real‐life situation in an attempt to apply what has been discovered about science and prediction. Conclusion: Conclusion This presentation illustrates well the four aspects that are summarized in the presentation diagram. A distinct and specific real‐life situation is identified and a clear, relevant and singular knowledge issue is (a) extracted from it. The knowledge issue is (b) developed or explored through the use of examples and arguments (using a checklist of particular challenges to the formulation of theory that raises subordinate knowledge issues as the presentation progresses). The findings of this exploration are (c) applied back to the original real‐life situation (this is done on at least two occasions, retaining a strong focus on it) and (d) applied onward to other real‐life situations (in this case some of the examples are also real‐life situations that can benefit from the analysis).