Sunday, September 30, 2012

Science vs Philosophy

Undeniably, the success of the scientific method in uncovering truths about the world around us has led to paradigm changes in other subjects - particularly those that involve the study of human behaviour such as psychology. New subjects (such as political science) have come into existence as a result and scientific thinking has even taken a foothold in artistic subjects, for example when literary theory in its current form began to become accepted the mid-twentieth century.

This is a transcript of a conversation between philosopher Julian Baggini and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss taken from the British newspaper, The Guardian. Baggini suggests that the creep of science into other subjects has begun to undermine them and that philosophy in particular is suffering as a result. It is interesting to compare their thoughts to those in previous articles I've posted on the subject of science vs religion.

Science vs Philosophy

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Game Theory

I've posted about Game Theory (the application of mathematics and reason to optimise decision making) before. It was a term coined by mathematician John von Neumann in 1944 and is now used in fields as diverse as economics, political science, psychology, logic, biology and military stretegy.

I came across a really nice example recently. It is a situation known as the 'prisoner's dilemma' - where two subjects have the choice to cooperate (which is in the best interests of both), or attempt a gamble to win everything for themselves. This is the classic version of the dilemma quoted by Wikipedia:
"Two men are arrested, but the police do not have enough information for a conviction. The police separate the two men, and offer both the same deal: if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates with/assists his partner), the betrayer goes free and the one that remains silent gets a one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail on a minor charge. If each 'rats out' the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept secret from his partner. What should they do? If it is assumed that each player is only concerned with lessening his own time in jail, the game becomes a non-zero sum game where the two players may either assist or betray the other. The sole concern of the prisoners seems to be increasing his own reward. The interesting symmetry of this problem is that the optimal decision for each is to betray the other, even though they would be better off if they both cooperated."
Here is a clip from the British TV game show 'Golden Balls'. The only twist on the classic version of the situation above is that both contestants are allowed to speak to each other prior to making their decisions. The guy on the right has obviously read about the Prisoner's Dilemma before and has a strategy sorted out in order to optimise his chances of winning the money (or at least not losing it). His partner seems to be left in a state of panic.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Introduction to Sense Perception

I rediscovered this document I made a long time ago as a cover lesson when I was going to be absent. After reading it again, I thought it stands up quite well as an introduction to sense perception and a means to start thinking about various aspects and problems of perception. I made it for my own students who are all bilingual and fluent in English and Spanish.
Perception Intro

Monday, September 10, 2012

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has made it its mission to expose what it considers to be fraudulent or misleading behaviour by people in positions of influence and power. In his most famous cases, Randi turned his own attention to faith healers, and in particular Peter Popoff.

Recently the JREF has focused on practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). This has become a hot topic in the UK, where healthcare is publicly funded through the National Health Service (NHS). Despite vocal opposition by the British Medical Association, many medical practices now offer alternative treatments such as acupuncture or homeopathy and homeopathic hospitals have been founded in London, Liverpool and Bristol.

The British government currently provides financial support for alternative therapies amounting to around £4 million per year (source The British Homeopathic Association), and many argue that this is a good deal in terms of the perceived benefits. There is significant celebrity endorsement of CAM, and Prince Charles has been particularly outspoken on the issue. There exists, however, no credible scientific and statistically significant evidence that CAM works any better than placebo (as reported exhaustively by Dr. Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science blog).

Many people would say that it is an individual's right to believe what they like, and even if these beliefs turn out to be based on untruths they may still be sources of comfort, especially in times of distress (a relativistic point of view). The placebo effect is powerful and little understood and therefore it could also be argued that it is beneficial to allow or even encourage people to maintain their existing beliefs, particularly in relation to their own health. This does sound somewhat patronising, however, and is suggestive of willful support of public ignorance.

In the article below, Dr. Steven Novella (member of the JREF and clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine) proposes that CAM should be considered not just to have no medical merit but to be actively dangerous to public health. He discusses a real life situation in which a woman with a cancerous growth decided to consult a practitioner of alternative rather than conventional medicine.
Is It Dangerous to Believe in CAM?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ethical Orientations

One theory of ethics proposes that there are two basic ethical orientations: the ethic of care and the ethic of justice. The former is based on the importance of relationships and individual responsibility, while the latter is based on the application of a sense of fairness or law. Proponents of this idea would hold that your ethical orientation can be determined by the way you approach ethical dilemmas, although they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The questionnaire below is an attempt to allow you to determine your own ethical orientation:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Prescribed Essay Titles 2012-2013

The IB has just released the TOK essay titles for completion for the May 2013 session. I've reproduced them in English and Spanish below, together with the guidelines:

Your theory of knowledge essay for examination must be submitted to your teacher for authentication. It must be written on one of the six titles (questions) provided below. You may chose any title but are recommended to consult with your teacher. Your essay will be marked according to the assessment criteria published in the Theory of Knowledge guide. The focus of your essay should be knowledge issues. Where appropriate, refer to other parts of your IB programme and to your experiences as a knower. Always justify your statements and provide relevant examples to illustrate your arguments. Pay attention to the implications of your arguments, and remember to consider what can be said against them. If you use external sources, cite them according to a recognized convention.

Note that statements in quotations in these titles are not necessarily authentic: they present a real point of view but may not be direct quotes. It is appropriate to analyse them but it is unnecessarily, even unwise, to spend time on researching a context for them.

Examiners mark against the title as set. Respond to the title exactly as given; do not alter it in any way.

Your essay must be between 1200 and 1600 words in length, double spaced and typed in size 12 font.

  1. In what way may disagreement aid the pursuit of knowledge in the natural and human sciences?

  2. "Only seeing general patterns can give us knowledge. Only seeing particular examples can give us understanding." To what extent do you agree with these assertions?

  3. "The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility." Evaluate this claim.

  4. The traditional TOK diagram indicates four ways of knowing Propose the inclusion of a fifth way of knowing selected from intuition, memory or imagination, and explore the knowledge issues it may raise in two areas of knowledge.

  5. "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." (Christopher Hitchens). Do you agree?

  6. Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.

  1. ¿De qué maneras las diferencias de opinión pueden ayudar en la búsqueda del conocimiento en las ciencias naturales y humanas?

  2. "Solo la observación de patrones generales nos puede dar conocimiento. Solo la observación de ejemplos específicos nos puede hacer comprender". ¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con estas afirmaciones?

  3. "La posesión de conocimiento conlleva una responsabilidad ética". Evalúe esta afirmación.

  4. El diagrama tradicional de Teoría del Conocimiento indica que hay cuatro formas de conocimiento. Proponga la incusión de una quinta forma (escoja entre intuición, memoria o imaginación) y explore las cuestiones de conocimiento que puedan surgir en dos áreas de conocimiento.

  5. "Lo que puede ser afirmado sin pruebas también puede ser descartado sin pruebas." (Christopher Hitchens). ¿Está de acuerdo?

  6. En la búsqueda del conocimiento, ¿podemos saber cuándo fiarnos de nuestras emociones? Considere la historia y otra área del conocimiento. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How the Brain Develops