2. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of using models to produce knowledge of the world.

black_swan_by_sina_rose-d87ieflMy thoughts on this essay title should not be taken as a ‘model answer’, nor a complete essay structure. They are just my initial ideas on how to answer this essay question. Those ideas are certainly not the only way to answer the question, nor even necessarily the ‘best way’ to answer the question, they are just starting points for discussion within our ToK community.

This post is not designed to be a model answer (no pun intended!), nor is it written as an ‘ideal structure’. This post is my set of ideas as to how to answer Prescribed Title #2 for Nov. 2015, it is intended to be a starting point to stimulate ideas and ways of approaching the question.

My initial thoughts are that there are two main ways to answer this question:

1) A conventional evaluation on the use of models in a range of AoKs.

2) A wider discussion on the role of modelling, centred around ideas of expectation vs verifiability – a sort of Black Swan discussion.

You may decide that a mixture of the two is the best way forward. I will treat them separately for the sake of clarity, however – you should develop your essay as best fits your needs and understanding.

Possible Knowledge Questions.

There are innumerable possible knowledge questions for this PT. I only include these KQ’s as starting points for your discussions, please develop your own KQ’s rather than copying mine – yours will be better because they’re meaningful for you.

1. How can mathematical modelling of naturally occurring phenomenon help us to understand random events ?

2. How has economic modelling helped to improve our knowledge of real world resource allocation ?

3. Is it possible to produce an ethical framework which recognises both the self and collective interests of humans ?

4. Is truly novel artistic expression possible without reliance on previous artistic genres ?

5. If all knowledge requires modelling then is all new knowledge actually a form of plagiarism ?

6. Does a reliance on models lead to more dangerous (or less humane, or less curious) behavioural patterns ?

These are just examples of KQ’s which relate to some of the ideas that I have discussed below, they are not suggested nor ideal KQ’s. You should develop your own KQ which relates to your response.

You will need to define the concept of ‘models’, as specified in the question, at the beginning of your essay, this can be refined and adapted as you develop your essay.

Use of models in a range of Areas of Knowledge.

We start with a conventional ToK Approach, probably a fairly safe approach. Here we take a range of AoKs and look at the advantages and disadvantages of using models in that AoK, drawing upon Real Life Examples / Situations (RLS) to illustrate the points.

The Natural Sciences are an obvious starting point. The basis of the Natural Sciences are two ‘models’ which virtually define the nature of post- Renaissance scientific enquiry: (i) Kantian theory of falsification as developed into Popper’s Theory of Falsifiability. (ii) The Hypothetico Deductive Method of Scientific Enquiry. There could be an interesting discussion on whether these theories constitute models in themselves, this will very much depend upon your initial discussion of models. However, I would contend that as all subsequent modelling in the natural sciences is designed to be tested in terms of falsifiability then Kant & Popper’s theories could be considered to be models themselves.

There are a surfeit of models in the natural sciences which could be evaluated in order to help you to reach a view on the Prescribed Title.  These could include models of medical diagnosis, models of disease spread (epidemiology), models of metal fatigue in engineering, and models of body fatigue in sports physiology. The list is near endless.

I will briefly look at the use of modelling in meteorology – you can pick your own real life examples as you feel appropriate. The comments that I make regarding models used to predict the weather could be applied to any models used in the Natural or Human Sciences. I come from a country oft described as having an obsession with weather whilst actually experiencing very little change in the weather. Nonetheless, the UK Met Office has developed a number of world respected weather models – here they explain what a weather model is, and how it works. Whilst weather models generally have a very high degree of accuracy (an advantage) they do sometimes ‘get it wrong’ (a disadvantage). However, they’re not actually ‘getting it wrong’, the model can never ‘be wrong’ – it’s just an algorithmic process (this may be an advantage – or a disadvantage, you can decide). What actually happens is that the weather doesn’t behave as the most probable outcome of the weather model predicted. When such aberrant weather does occur the new data set can be incorporated into the currently existing weather model, and as such the model becomes ever more reliable / accurate in making future predictions (an advantage) – if you’re into maths/computers/Artificial Intelligence then this article on learning heuristics may be of interest. Essentially, the knowledge we gain from weather prediction models is accurate X% of the time, this same framework is applicable to all models. Students can research historical data on the accuracy of the model that you’re writing about in order to evaluate the efficacy of the use of models. A discussion of this sort could be applied to any model in the natural sciences – choose your own model to avoid allegations of plagiary.

Human Sciences

The Human Sciences have a number of challenges to contend with if they are to achieve objectivity as measured in classical terms as validity + reliability. Most notably is the conscious reactivity of the objects of study of human scientists, namely humans. Humans will react to being the objects of study, and as such will introduce bias into the results. Students writing on this matter may wish to look at The Hawthorne Effect, Rosenthal’s Maze Rats, Expectancy Effects, Participant Reactivity, Researcher Effects etc. As such models can provide the Human Scientist with an ‘ideal-type’ framework by which to measure their results, for more information on this look at Max Weber – Ideal Types (intro link here), or for those more interested in Psychology maybe a discussion of Jung’s theory of Archetypes may provide a way into this question.

Economics is the Human Science which most relies upon models to produce knowledge, a discussion of the efficacy and accuracy of economic modelling would allow students to answer much of the Prescribed Title. A starting point for students who study Econs or History in their DP could be to briefly draw an evaluative comparison of the effects of presenting the economic world as a Keynesian vs Monetarist Duality. This could be further developed with an examination of the extent to which real world data supports elevating the theories to cause & effect real world relationships (or “scientific fact”). Such a discussion would allow students to look at a KQ which questions whether modelling in economics has helped to develop any accurate knowledge. Again, this is just a starting point, there are many more aspects of modelling in economics which could be considered.


As we look at the use of models in Natural and Human Sciences we start to see a similar theme developing, namely that of trying to predict the unpredictable, we will return to this theme later in this post. Therefore, I have considered the use of models in Ethics as it introduces us to a new application of modelling, I would summarise the use of modelling in ethics as a guide & clarifier.

The development of Ethics as a strand of philosophy could be termed as a set of understandings to solve problems of morality and behaviour. As such there is a rich vein here for students answering this prescribed title. There is extensive use of modelling in the AoK of Ethics. This could range from Aristotle and Confucius’ use of The Golden Mean through The Principle of Utility as developed by John Stuart Mill to The Agape Principle of Judeo-Christian thought. Students could consider real life situations in terms of an ethical framework in order to assess the advantages & disadvantages of using such frameworks. Real life examples which could be used include (but are in no way limited to):

  • the allocation of funding for medical research
  • the decision to go to war
  • the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy
  • Freedom of Expression debates
  • Consequence blind scientific research
  • Ethical issues in genetic testing.

There are many many more real life situations which could form the basis of the essay response.

Another approach within the AoK of ethics would be to consider a real life situation in terms of the debate between a deontological approach and a more consequentialist approach. This could easily be explored in relation to the foreign policy of countries which have legal obligations to defend other countries, both a historical and hypothetical approach could be developed here.

The Arts.

The final area of knowledge that I will consider are the Arts as this area allows us to consider one of many different ways to define a model. In relation to The Arts students could develop a definition that an artistic genre represents a model – ie a set of characteristics which defines a process, or outcome, which when dominant are representative of that genre. Examples could be given of artistic genre which served as models for subsequent work, e.g. The genre of Impressionist painting was the model for the subsequent work of the post-impressions such as Cezanne and Seurat. You should use examples which match your interests and accommodate your answer.

When considering the advantages & disadvantages of the use of models students, using this definition, could explore the idea that subsequent artistic development was enabled because of the pre-existence of the model, for example Surat would not have developed his style if he had not been previously influenced by Monet. The counterarguments could look at the extent to which artistic development is constrained by notions of acceptability, status hierarchies of power, and schematic bound perception.

Students who are enthusiastically aiming for a particularly high score in TOK could explore notions around artistic revolution and even paradigm shift . There could be an interesting discussion about the conditions required for significant changes in an artistic genre, and more substantially the consideration of where a wholly new expressive medium comes from. The notion of paradigm shift, and Kuhn’s model of such, could form discussion within The Natural, and Human, Sciences, The Arts, Mathematics etc.

If you are writing an answer to this essay you could consider any Area of Knowledge of your choosing, as models are evident in all areas of knowledge. I have just suggested ways in which I would approach the question using selected areas of knowledge, I stress again – these are not necessarily the best areas of knowledge to consider.

2. Black Swans & Outliers.

The essay could be approached through a much wider approach by having a discussion on the nature of predictability. This approach would start from the premise that the conventional use of models within most post-renaissance thought has been to allow us to make predictions. As such the model is an amalgamation of all previously known data reshaped into a prediction model – this could be applied in engineering, epidemiology, financial markets etc. This can then be sets starkly (in counterargument) against the Kantian notion of the Black Swan, this is the unexpected event which runs counter to all previous knowledge, and in turn changes the model, or even renders the model redundant. Real life situations such as stock market crashes, unexpected weather events (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), or international conflict could be considered in this context.

Students taking this approach could consider a number of issues (there are many others than those listed here, these are just examples):

1. Is the model strengthened (or more knowledge gained) by the single unexpected event or by the many expected events ?

2. Are we conditioned to search for the confirming events, and tend to ignore those which are a-schematic ?, If so why ? and is this a disadvantage to the use of models ?

3. How do we use narratives to assimilate the unexpected events into our pre-existing models ?

The discussions around the nature of predictability could be further developed by an exploration of the seemingly irrational. Such a discussion may look at apparently irrational behaviour in real life situations, and ask whether the behaviour only seems irrational because of the pre-existing models of knowledge, or is it that such models are more widely ‘known’ than the particular model by which the apparently irrational actor is determining her/his behaviour. Real life situations here could include unexpected actions in international conflict, the unexpected altruism of a stranger, excessive materialist consumption, the valuing of ignorance over knowledge etc the examples are nearly endless, you should devise an example which best serves your purposes.

If you are to use this approach I would recommend reading at least parts of:

Obviously, a good essay could be developed using a mixture of both approaches here, or even none of the approaches here ! However you do decide to approach this essay enjoy your thinking and writing. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comment box below.

Happy ToK exploring !



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