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Ib Tok Essays 2009

Examples to Avoid in ToK Essays

In Theory of Knowledge we always encourage you to use original evidence. It's always more interesting when a student uses an example (a quote, a story, a fact) that we haven't heard of before.

Original "evidence" in your essays doesn't necessarily make them better essays, but it does suggest that you've taken some time with your research and not just using the first thing you found in a last-minute Google search.

The best examples can be the worst --because they're just so darn good.

So again we do tell our students to use "original evidence", but for the student it can be hard to know what is original. As teachers we might see some of the same examples used every year. But it would be hard for a student who is new to the subject to know to know which examples to avoid. 

Good examples of bad examples

The May 2016 ToK Subject report has come to the rescue, with a list of some common examples you might want to avoid. It's not mandatory to avoid these examples, but it could improve your mark.  

And just to be clear, these examples are in this list for a reason. They really are great examples, so you might decide you do want to include one of them in your essay. If you do, just be sure to explain it very clearly and use it in a way that it helps you answer the prescribed title.

Here's the official list:

1. Serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming

2. Mark Rothko and environmental influences on his work

3. String theory and the role of evidence in the sciences

4. Margaret Mead's perspective during fieldwork in Samoa

5. The human aspects of the story of the discovery of DNA and of its structure from Friedrich Miescher to James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin

6. Bloodletting as an example of an obsolete practice in medical science

7. The value of the Enigma code and the work of Alan Turing

8. Alchemy as the necessary precursor to modern chemistry

9. Pablo Picasso and Guernica

10. Vincent van Gogh and Starry Night

11. Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man

12. Isaac Newton and the compatibility of his scientific achievements and his religious orientation

13. Persistence of "anti-vaxxers" despite the exposure of Andrew Wakefield's claims in relation to MMR vaccine as fraudulent

14. The applications of imaginary numbers

15. Ludwig van Beethoven's deafness and reliance on "feeling"

16. Rounding of numbers (eg pi) as examples of simplification and inaccuracy in mathematics

17. Polynomials, factorisation and complexity

18. Music therapy as an application of knowledge in the arts

19. Different notations and ways of doing differentiation from Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz

20. Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb

21. The Hiroshima bomb versus nuclear fission reactors with respect to the value of knowledge

22. Work in number theory by Pythagoras, Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles

23. Membrane structure from Davson/Danielli to Singer/Nicholson and the fluid mosaic model

24. Galileo Galilei’s house arrest and Pope John Paul II's admission of error in 1992

25. Friedrich Wöhler’s blow to vitalism with the non-biological synthesis of urea

26. Atomic theories from John Dalton to JJ Thompson to Ernest Rutherford to Niels Bohr to Erwin Schrödinger

27. Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer on language and eye witnesses

28. Francesco Redi, Louis Pasteur and the disproof of spontaneous generation

29. Alfred Wegener and continental drift

30. Lera Boroditsky’s article on Australian aboriginal orientation

31. Caloric vs kinetic theory with respect to "natural selection" in scientific knowledge

32. Leonhard Euler's equation allegedly having value without application

33. Development of heliocentrism from Aristarchus to Copernicus

34. Thalidomide prescribed for morning sickness and leprosy

35. The outcomes of the work of Fritz Haber for fertilizer and explosives

36. The Riemann hypothesis, large primes and Internet security

37. The Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Nazism in Germany

38. George Orwell's perspective as presented in Animal Farm

39. Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment and wave-particle duality in physics

40. The ethics of Edward Jenner's work on smallpox and vaccination

41. August Kekulé's dream and the structure of benzene

42. Antonio Damasio and somatic marker theory

43. Fritz Fischer and the alleged causes of WWI

44. Occam's razor with respect to Albert Einstein’s special relativity and Hendrik Lorentz’s ether

45. Gregor Mendel and overly neat experimental results for segregation and independent assortment (also Robert Millikan and determination of the electric charge on the electron)

46. Jackson Pollock’s art and the use of WOKs

47. The Amish and rejection of modern technology

48. The Phillips curve and transient accuracy in economics

49. Lock-and-key and induced fit models of enzyme action

50. Spherical and hyperbolic geometries as perspectives in mathematics

51. Confirmation bias and persistent error in the accepted human chromosome number

52. CERN and the Higgs boson as applied knowledge

53. Standard rival interpretations of the Cold War: traditional, revisionist, post-revisionist

54. Albert Einstein and the cosmological constant

55. Edwin Hubble and expansion of the universe

56. Ignaz Semmelweis and childbed fever

57. Conventional current and electron flow

58. The Nanjing massacre and perspectives

59. Alfred Adler and schemas in psychology as the basis for perspectives

60. Biston betularia and industrial melanism as an example of natural selection

61. Detection of gravitational waves in accordance with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity

62. Feynman diagrams and quantum electrodynamics with respect to simplicity and understanding

63. Physiology from Galen to the discovery of blood circulation by William Harvey

64. The complexity of the chemistry of photosynthesis as presented at various stages of education

65. The patient’s “perspective” in connection with the use of placebos in medical testing

66. Heinrich Hertz and the subsequent application of radio waves


Here are some (possible) guiding questions to help you deal with the TOK Essay titles.

I have compiled a list of questions which should help students analyze their chosen prescribed title question (Nov 2009, and May 2010 session). The presented questions are meant as a source of inspiration. Some of you may think that simply answering these questions is enough for passing the TOK essay. Trust me, it’s not enough. And don’t say that you didn’t know. The purpose of these questions is to get you thinking about the prescribed title. I’m not saying that the questions are directly relevant for your particular approach to your chosen title question. I have to be honest with you: For many of these questions I myself do not even know an answer and maybe some questions do not even have a single, clear answer. Some of the questions may not even be relevant for your approach to the prescribed title! If you already have an approach to your prescribed title, then do not let these questions distract you. You must read these questions critically and reflect on them.

1. To what extent is truth different in mathematics, the arts and ethics?

  • What are different types of truth?
  • How can Plato’s characteristics of truth be applied to these areas?
  • (How) can the different areas of knowledge (math, arts, ethics) be linked to more than one type of truth each? Is there an overlap?
  • Are there some similarities relating to truth?
  • Is the concept of truth even relevant for these areas of knowledge?
  • In math, is there a difference between a formula being “true” and a formula being “correct”?
  • (How) can art be true?
  • How do we know that we have reached truth in these three areas?

Note: The question asks “to what extent”. It does not ask if truth is defined differently in these areas of knowledge. It assumes that it is. Do not simply show that truth is defined differently, because this is implied by the question. You have to explain how/to what extent truth is different. A balanced approach also includes similarities, and not only differences.

Related Posts:Mathematics | Ethics | Truth

2. Examine the ways empirical evidence should be used to make progress in different areas of knowledge.

  • How should (or should not) experiments and observation be used in science, history, ethics, arts, maths, human sciences?
  • Is it always a good idea to use empirical evidence in these areas? How can this type of evidence be used inappropriately?
  • What does “making progress” mean for the different areas of knowledge? How can you make progress in arts, science, ethics, histotry etc.?
  • How do you know that you have made progress in the different areas?
  • What are several ways in which empirical evidence can be gathered, and are all of these ways equally useful for the different areas of knowledge?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using empirical evidence in the different areas?
  • Is evidence (empirical or not) always needed to make progress in the different areas?
  • Can it be that empirical evidence is given too much / too little importance in some areas of knowledge?
  • What are the consequences if empirical evidence is used not properly in the different areas of knowledge?
  • Can it be that some people demand empirical evidence in areas of knowledge where empirical evidence is not able to give an answer?
  • Can you find examples where empirical evidence can be used in arts and ethics?
  • What are the differences between rationalism and empiricism?
  • When should rationalism be used instead of empiricism in the different areas?
  • What is “evidence”? Does every empirical measurement count as evidence?
  • What strategy are you going to use for “examining” the ways? What does “examine” mean?

Note: The question does not ask if empirical evidence should be used in the different areas of knowledge. It asks for the *ways* on how it should be used. If you write the essay like the following example, then you have misunderstood the question: “In science empirical evidence is very important. In ethics it is less important. In arts it is also less important.” Don’t simply categorize the areas of knowledge. Rather examine how empirical evidence should/should not be used in arts. How it should/should not be used in science etc. The emphasis should be on the “should be used”, according to the prescribed title.

Related Posts:[#37] What is Logical Positivism? | Sense Perception

3. Discuss the strengths and limitations of quantitative and qualitative data in supporting knowledge claims in the human sciences and at least one other area of knowledge.

  • Is quantitative data automatically more objective than qualitative data?
  • Why is it that many people trust quantitative data more than qualitative data?
  • For which knowledge claims is quantitative data better? For which knowledge claims is qualitative data better? What is “better”?
  • Is it really an either-or situation? Can it not be that qualitative and quantitative data are both necessary (to varying degrees) to support a knowledge claim? Which examples are you going to use?
  • How do we asses what a strength or a limitation is?
  • What are some consequences if qualitative data is used instead of quantitative data (and vice versa)?
  • What are some possible knowledge claims in human sciences?
  • Are all human sciences the same? Is it not possible to treat a particular human science (such as psychology) both in a very natural scientific way, “hard” way (neurophysiology, etc.) and in a “soft” way (psychoanalysis, counseling, etc.)? How do qualitative and quantitative data relate to these different views of the same area of knowledge?

Note: In order to get a balanced approach, one possibility could be to choose another area of knowledge which places a different emphasis on qualitative and quantitative data than the aspect of human sciences that you are going to cover.

4. How can the different ways of knowing help us to distinguish between something that is true and something that is believed to be true?

  • How can you be certain that something “is true”?
  • If something “is believed to be true”, is it then really not true?
  • What ways of knowing are you going to address?
  • Are these WOKs equally useful for distinguishing “between something that is true and something that is believed to be true” in all areas of knowledge (or are some WOKs better suitable for some areas than for others)?
  • What does the word “how” refer to?
  • Are there different types or categories of truth?

Note: The question explicitly asks you to address different ways of knowing. You should also include different areas of knowledge. One possible approach: How can sense perception, logics, emotion, language be used to distinguish between something that is true and something that is believed to be true in the sciences (you find the examples)? How can these ways of knowing be used to distinguish in Math, in Arts, in History, in Ethics, etc. etc. As counter arguments, you may want to include examples how they can not be used to make this distinction, but do not lose the focus of the question.

Related Posts:Truth

5. “What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions” (Michael Shermer, Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge?

  • How does Popper’s principle of falsification relate to the question?
  • Are there other areas of knowledge that also provide provisional conclusions?
  • Are really *all* conclusions of science provisional in real life, or is the provisional nature an ideal that scientists strive to reach?
  • What happens if a conclusion is final and not provisional? Is it then still scientific?
  • Can Popper’s principle of falsification (which is originally intended for the natural sciences) be also applied to other areas of knowledge?
  • Is every activity in which a provisional conclusion is reached, automatically scientific?
  • Does the question imply that conclusions reached in history, the human sciences, ethics, etc. are not provisional (i.e. are final conclusions)? Is this really the case? Do historians, for example, really reach final conclusions, which are not modified or replaced? Or could it be that the expression “provisional nature of all conclusions” has a different meaning in the sciences, history, arts, math, ethics, etc. (a language issue)?
  • Can you find examples where math delivers both provisional and non-provisional conclusions?

Note: Before you start, be sure that you understand what “provisional nature of all conclusions” means. In my view, a solid understanding of Karl Popper’s principle of falsification helps a lot in answering this question. Do not forget to include other areas of knowledge as well. One possibility could be to find provisional conclusions in history, the human sciences, etc. and contrast these provisional conclusions with those in science.

Related Posts:[#4] What is Falsification?

6. All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?

  • Is every criticism a rational criticism? What makes a criticism rational? What is rational?
  • What is critical rationalism (careful, the words are turned around)?
  • Who is the founder of critical rationalism?
  • Can you think of some knowledge claims too important/valuable/sensitive that they should not be rationally criticized? In other words, should it be a taboo in criticizing certain knowledge claims?
  • What criteria do you establish for deciding which knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism, and which ones not?
  • Should there be limits to the freedom of speech (freedom of expressing knowledge claims)?
  • Can you find examples where rational criticism of certain knowledge claim resulted in negative consequences for the person criticizing the claim?
  • What claims count as knowledge claims? Is every claim a automatically a knowledge claim? What characteristics make a claim a knowledge claim?
  • Is it a good idea to find knowledge claim examples from the different areas of knowledge and assess them if they should be open to rational criticism?
  • Should (certain) knowledge claims in Ethics be open to rational criticism? E.g.: “I know that stealing is wrong.” should this statement be open to rational criticism, or are there certain statements that should not be questioned.
  • Can you find examples of people who criticized knowledge claims and were therefore jailed? Was their criticism justified? Was the criticism rational?

Note: Give a balanced answer. The question asks you to answer “to what extent” you agree. It does not ask you if you generally agree or disagree. Maybe you could start out brainstorming some knowledge claims that are so important to you (or the society you live in), that they should not be open to rational criticism because this rational criticism would have negative side effects.

7. “We see and understand things not as they are but as we are.” Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.

  • What two ways of knowing are you going to address in this essay?
  • Does the word “see” only refer to sense perception? Are the “things” only physical objects or can they also be abstract concepts such as ideas, attitudes, theories, opinions, etc.?
  • Is this really an either-or question between the “thing” and us? How could both factors contribute to our understanding (the thing in itself and our own nature)?
  • What does “understand” mean? How do you know when you have understood something?
  • Which areas of knowledge are you going to address and what are the “things” in these areas? How do these areas of knowledge relate to the ways of knowing?
  • How can different people understand the same “thing” differently? What aspect in the nature of the person is responsible for the different view of the “thing”?
  • Can you find examples (from the different areas of knowledge) where the “thing” contributes more and examples where “we” contribute more in understanding the “thing”?

Note: This is an old philosophical debate. Is the world as we perceive it and understand it (not only sense perception!) a product of our mind or is there a real reality out there? Or is it a combination of both? Give a balanced explanation: is the nature of the “thing” really irrelevant for understanding something? The question asks you to discuss, it is not a yes/no or either/or question. This means that you have to show both sides of the debate (which sides?).

8. “People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events” (adapted from John Gray, Heresies, 2004). In what ways and to what extent would you say this claim is relevant in at least two areas of knowledge?

  • What is an event?
  • Does the term “event” only relate to historical events?
  • What role does the interpretation of events (not only historical) play?
  • Can the result of a scientific experiment also be considered an “event”? What are the “events” in math? Do “events” also exist in math?
  • How does the concept of reductionism relate to the title?
  • What does the word “need” mean? Is this context, is the title normative or descriptive? What do the terms “normative” and “descriptive” mean?
  • What makes an event chaotic? I do not only mean chaos theory.
  • Is an event chaotic because we humans consider it chaotic, or is it a characteristic of the event? Or both?
  • Can the “order” that the question talks about also be considered a form of simplification? If yes, how?

Note: I think it is important to clarify what the words “order” and “chaos” mean for the areas of knowledge in question. Maybe you can find examples from the different areas of knowledge where people tried to impose order on the things that they observed.

9. Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.

  • What are the differences between discovering and inventing? Are the two words used interchangeably sometimes (is it a language issue)?
  • Is it possible that different areas of knowledge contain both elements, discovery and invention?
  • Which areas of knowledge are you addressing? Can you find examples?
  • If you make a scientific discovery and a historical discovery, is the word “discover” used the same way?
  • What are some common characteristics (and differences) of discovering and inventing?

Note: You are to “discuss” the claim. This means that you should weigh the evidence. If you only try to “prove” that certain areas of knowledge are invented and others are discovered, then you do not discuss the claim (e.g. “Math is invented, science is discovered”). Also try to establish some criteria to distinguish a discovery from an invention. Is there an overlap?

10. What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations?

  • What is an “explanation” in the first place?
  • What is the importance of cause and effect in the history and science?
  • What role does the interpretation of empirical evidence play in history and science?
  • Does (to what extent does) the interpretation of evidence count as an explanation?
  • Can (to what extent can) Karl Popper’s principle of falsification (of scientific theories) be applied to history as well?
  • Is the word “explanation” used differently (or similarly) in science and history?
  • How is a scientific explanation different/similar to a historical explanation?
  • On what basis are you going to compare history and science?

Note: The essay specifically asks you to address history and science. This does not mean that you should completely ignore other areas of knowledge. Are there some things that history and science have in common and makes them different from other areas of knowledge? As always, do not forget to explain the terms of the prescribed title: What is an explanation? Do not give me a dictionary definition.

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