Should we avoid or embrace bias? An analysis using the “TOK method”

Photo by SHaHraM Anhari on Unsplash

Every IB student knows about TOK. But if you ask them what TOK is exactly, or what they will learn in TOK classes, not many are able to come up with an answer.

TOK, short for Theory of Knowledge, is a required core subject of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP). To complete TOK, students need to write a 1,600-word essay using examples from specific areas of knowledge, on any one of the 10 titles prescribed by the IBO for each exam session.

According to IB’s official website, TOK is designed to provide “an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know.”

What does that mean, exactly?

Allow us to demonstrate with a real TOK title that IB released for May 2021. In this article, we will break down the steps on how to approach something like this:

“Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.”

Step 1

To dissect this title, let’s start with some keywords in it. “Bias?” “Commendable goal?” “Positive role?” It might be helpful to first explain how we should understand these abstract concepts, to give context to your arguments later.

For example, bias could refer to cognitive bias, like the Halo Effect (the tendency for positive impressions of a person, company, brand or product in one area to positively influence one’s opinion or feelings in other areas). It could also refer to social bias like sexism or forecast bias in statistical studies. Wikipedia alone lists more than 10 types of biases, including some “good biases” that bring us positive impact or convenience. Therefore, we need to tell the examiner which angles we will use to demonstrate our arguments.

Step 2

After explaining the keywords, we need to ponder the hidden questions related to how we acquire, know and implement knowledge. Some questions for this title can be:

  • Is bias always a bad thing?
  • What role does bias play when we seek knowledge?
  • In what circumstances is bias beneficial for obtaining or spreading knowledge?

These questions can help us better interpret the statement in the title, helping us choose an area of knowledge (AOK) which we will draw examples from, and our stance on the statement — agree, disagree, or somewhat neutral.

Step 3

Next, as in most academic arguments, we need to state our claim, evidence, counterclaim and its evidence for each of the areas of knowledge we have chosen, to show that we have thought about this title deeply and comprehensively.

Let us demonstrate this process with “human sciences” as the Area of Knowledge.

Claim: People’s cognitive bias is a main research subject in behavioral economics and social psychology. (Bias plays a positive role)

Evidence: Before Nixon visited China and Moscow in 1972, the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted an experiment and asked participants to estimate the success rates on a number of agreements proposed by the Nixon administration. After Nixon’s return, they asked participants to recall their earlier estimation.

The experiment found out that people tend to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they actually were, a phenomenon later coined “Hindsight Bias.” In these situations, we shouldn’t avoid biases but expose them through experiments, so that we can be more aware of our cognitive limitations and make better decisions.

Nixon’s Visit to China

Counterclaim: On the other hand, it doesn’t mean all biases in human sciences are necessary or positive for us.

Evidence: During the 2016 United States presidential election, the mainstream media and major polling agencies all predicted Hillary Clinton’s win but found out they were completely wrong. That was because they made a false assumption about the important role ethnic diversity played on the election — they overestimated the voting rate of minority groups but underestimated the enthusiasm of white voters. These biases led to the failure of the polls, leaving Americans with little faith in the polling system.

Conclusion: Based on what we have discussed above, we can conclude that in the field of human sciences, bias can play a positive role in our pursuit of truth and knowledge, but at the same time can seriously impact the reliability and accurateness of knowledge we have obtained.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Step 4

TOK requires students to “discuss the statement with reference to two areas of knowledge,” so you could apply a similar structure and reasoning method to the other area as well. At the end of the essay, you need to compare and contrast the different role bias plays in the two areas of knowledge you have chosen, summarize your arguments and restate your thesis statement. Then, a comprehensive and logical TOK essay is born!

Takeaway

We know that the course content of TOK is hard to grasp and many students have no clue what to write when they receive essay titles. Hopefully this article will give you some direction and confidence when you take on the TOK essay. We also encourage you to apply the “TOK mindset” in real life and try to see things from different perspectives. This will not only help you collect materials to use in TOK essays, but also make you a more objective, logical person — which might just be the educational goal of IB.

Be true to education; be true to yourself.