1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

  1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

I have written a summary of how I interpret each ToK Essay in May 2015 session here. This post is a more detailed look at Q1 (title above), I have written similar detailed examinations for Q3 (here) & Q5 (here).

This post is solely my interpretation of the question, it is not necessarily the right nor best answer. It is intended merely as a starting point for enquiry and discussion by the ToK student.

This question (#1) has two aspects to it: a) the nature of neutrality b) neutrality in the context of your chosen (2) AoK’s. I wouldn’t separate these two discussions, but would place the discussion of neutrality within the discussions of each of the Areas of Knowledge.

Possible Knowledge Questions:

1. How do we reduce bias in [any WoK] ?

2. Is prior learning required for subsequent learning ? (in a specific AoK?) or (using a specific WoK?)

3. How can we decontextualise the process of knowledge acquisition ?

4. Is it desirable to decontextualise knowledge acquisition ?

5. Does an Area of Knowledge constitute a paradigm, and therefore negate neutrality by it’s very existence ?

These are just a few of the possible KQ’s that I have about this question, the potential list of KQ’s is nearly endless. These are neither the only, nor the ‘right’, KQ’s. These KQ’s are only intended as triggers, students should use the KQ’s in their essays which arising from their own thoughts about the question.

Choice of AoK.

The beauty of PT#1 is that it gives you a great scope for different types of discussion depending upon your chosen AoK. The choice of AoK’s will significantly influence the content and direction of your essay. For example if you choose Religious Knowledge then you will be discussing faith and neutrality, and will be looking at the difference between truth and belief. If you choose Maths then you will be looking at verifiable proof, and mathematic logic etc. I would choose to reference the natural sciences and indigenous knowledge systems, this does not mean that they’re the best ones to choose, it’s just that they work for me.

I would structure the essay as a discussion around the nature of neutrality within which I would reference my 2 Areas of Knowledge (natural sciences and indigenous knowledge). We’re looking at the types of questions asked within these AoK’s and asking whether they could be neutral questions.

Possible structure:

Define neutrality – you will need to clearly explain what type of neutrality you will be discussing, or the lens through which you are viewing neutrality. I have taken moral-ethical neutrality as my primary lens as I see that debate as underpinning all forms of human judgment and behaviour.

Logical Neutrality – Scientific Method – Natural Sciences

Within the natural sciences an identification, & brief overview of the hypothetico deductive method would be a good starting point for defining a ‘neutral question’.

Kant / Popper – (ref Natural Sciences.) Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a rejection of empiricism could be discussed as defining a method which led to contemporary understandings of neutrality within scientific method. This could then be developed into a discussion of Popper’s Theory of Falsifiability  – neutrality as the product of a falsifiable process.

Logic as a socially constructed mindset – indigenous knowledge.

I would start from the premise that all cultural knowledge systems are to a great extent best considered indigenous knowledge systems (the identification of non-industrial societies as being indigenous could be said to be ethnocentric, and supremacist). Evidence to cite here might range from work by researchers such as Fathali Moghaddam  to Kuo Shu Yang.

A brief discussion on idiographic ethnomethodology, in order to establish the dominant role of culture in shaping world view, could start this section. I would use some of the key interactionist / ethnomethodologist writers such as Goffman, Malinowski, Boas, Mead. Within this approach to Indigenous Knowledge logic is a product of a culturally specific understanding of the world.

A discussion of the German concept of Lebenswelt (or Lifeworld) would be a useful further counter to the question, using examples from the works of writers such as Weber, Habermas, Heidegger of Schultz.

I would then move onto a discussion around the idea that logic is culturally relevant (excellent paper here), the very definition of logical procedure varies by society.

The bridge link in this essay is around the idea of whether interpretation of actions can be neutral or do all interpretation of actions have a moral / ethical dimension ?

Moral Neutrality –

Utilitarianism – Scientific Knowledge

An interesting discussion around Utilitarianism could be had, it’s a fairly conventional discussion within Philosophy so I won’t rehearse it here. Such a discussion should probably centre less around the question of whether utility constitutes a moral good, and focus more on whether it is possible to develop a morally neutral framework to measure the benefits derived.

Fact-Value distinction : we cannot obtain what ought to be from what is (see Hume and others) –  this is an argument in favour of a neutral science.

Ruth Anna Putnam (& others) problematicise The assumed Neutrality of the Fact-Value Distinction, arguing that the scientific method is influenced by values, culture and other biases of those within the discipline.

Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, that science can achieve a ‘moral good’, and that it is the scientific method itself which will indicate that which is morally good. (a sort of middle way)

Patricia Churchland’s book Braintrust, What Neuroscience tells us about Morality, could form a key reference discussion at this point in the essay (she argues that morality is a development of neurological principles adapted for environmental success (or ‘brain based rules). This work will also make a very good link to a discussion of moral neutrality in Indigenous Cultures.

Indigenous Morality. Cultural relativity.

Taking a framework of universal vs relative ethical differences students could briefly outline each side of the debate. Marc Hauser (& others) argue that there is a universal code of ethics which is biologically based. On the other hand Velasquez et al have argued that ethics are culturally specific. The important aspect of this debate is to bring it back to the question (about neutral questions), you should clearly explain that morality is the primary area of neutrality that you are considering.

Technology & Neutrality.

It is a common mistake to argue that natural sciences are not neutral by using the technological products of scientific investigation as evidence. I would cite this (with references) as a weak argument, obviously it is the process of scientific enquiry which needs to be considered rather than the human uses of scientific enquiry. This could then be linked to a wider philosophical question as to whether it is possible for human observation to be neutral.

However, this discussion could be broadened to the concept of technology as a product of Areas of Knowledge. It could be argued that all AoK’s produce technology. Indigenous cultures have technology which is specific (or indigenous) to that culture.

Language in determining neutrality

The question specifically states ‘neutral questions’, therefore taken at it’s most literal level would require an examination of language as a WoK. Typically students could look at the debate around Linguistic Relativity (Sapir Whorf Hypothesis etc), and contrast this with scientific discourses which are technically specific. Such specificity may lead to cross cultural variation in meaning.

Science as an Indigenous Knowledge System:

A number of writers have argued that natural Sciences are themselves an indigenous knowledge system. This is well explained and described by Catherine A Odora Hoppers in her book Indigenous knowledge and the integration of knowledge systems : towards a philosophy of articulation. She argues that Natural Sciences force the researcher outside of their own experience, so they become in many ways removed from their reality, akin to looking at the world through a window. She goes so far as to argue that contending that science is value neutral is a lie, and that claiming that scientific law is universal is ethnocentric.

The command term for the question is “evaluate” therefore a close focus on the validity and reliability of claims and counterclaims should be kept.

I reiterate that this is very much my interpretation of the question, and my way of formulating the answer. It is neither the only, nor the best, way to answer the question. I very much hope that you will develop a better interpretation, and that you can formulate a better answer ! I would be most grateful if you would share your thoughts in the comments box.

Best of Luck with your essay !



Interfacing Global & Indigenous Knowledge for Improved Learning

Moral Challenge of Modern Science from The Atlantic.

Morality as a culturally conditioned response – highly accessible article.

Indigenous Psychologies ?

Logic is culturally specific

Catherine A Odara

This question interested me as the very nature of neutral inquiry needs to be considered in this response. The writer needs to consider the very nature of neutrality, whether we can achieve a position of impartiality.

I assume that the starting point of this question is considering the apparent neutrality of the hypothetico-deductive method of scientific investigation, maybe applying this to Natural Sciences as an AoK. This could then be effectively contrasted with Indigenous or Religious Knowledge Systems.

Students could look at Karl Popper’s theory of falsification, and Kuhn’s work on paradigms.

Useful links: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.org/887/is-science-neutral/


14 thoughts on “1. There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

    1. Hi Esmeralda many thanks for the positive feedback, it is very much appreciated ! I will post my thoughts on essay #4 in the next few days, hopefully that will be helpful.
      Please share & point your fellow IB Dip students to these pages, we just want to help people in their Dip studies.

  1. Hi Sir,
    I am greatly confused by the this title. To my understanding, the term bias is being objective. How is not be objective linked to AOKS such as natural science and moral? Your explanation of the title has helped me a lot, but i am still unable to comprehend this title. Thank you

    1. Hi John,

      I would recommend that you have a chat with your ToK teacher so that you don’t set off on the wrong the track.

      A dictionary definition of bias is “a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question”.
      As such, it could be argued that bias is more likely the product of subjectivity than it is of objectivity. Objectivity can be defined as “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts.”
      As such, objectivity is much less likely to produce bias, in a general scientific sense, than subjectivity.

      Try to get some time with your ToK teacher to go through the question, it will really help you to understand the question.

  2. Hi sir,
    This has been very helpful!
    Please could you give me some tips for applying this question to AOK of Arts?
    It would be help a lot!
    Thank you

  3. Dear Sir,
    I have completed my TOK essay, but I was asked by my teacher to change my title. I am greatly confused of how I can approach the essay. Is it possible for you to maybe skim through my essay, and give some suggestions oh how I could approach my essay and things I should be aware of? I understand my request may come at a busy time, but my deadline to complete the essay is nearing. I am sorry for the sudden request.

  4. The outline above only talks about neutrality within the various areas of knowledge and does not highlight the presence of neutral questions as the essay title suggests. What can be done about this?

  5. @danieltrump I am very much interested in using this question for me essay, however, I am not entirely sure with what they mean by a neutral question. Neutral answer i would understand, but what do they mean by neutral question, I am quite confused.

    1. Hi, I think the point of the essay is to discuss whether it is possible to have a neutral question. You are free to define a neutral question as you wish, you just need to support your definition with real life situations (evidence), and well argued premises – this is the very essence of the essay. If you are still unclear I would recommend choosing an alternative title.

  6. Dear Mr Trump
    I really appreciated the what you have posted regarding this title. However, my major question is: should I discuss neutral questions or may I focus around neutrality (which I defined) in the two AOKs? Thank you very much
    Best regards

    1. Hey ARJ,

      I dont know what a neutral question is and I am confused. I am a scholar and I got 42 on a possible 45 yet, I cant understand anything. Any help please? Please? I beg! I have to score high.

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