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THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE Final Essay

Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection.

Word Count: 1526

Candidate: Ha Ngoc Quyen Candidate Number: 000889-012 Examination Date: May 2012 School: International School of Prague Teacher: Tony Ackerman

The natural sciences and history are two very appealing tools in humans search for new knowledge and certainty. In nowadays culture, to say that something is scientifically proven is almost the same thing as saying that it is definitely true. Natural science can be defined as a process of attaining new knowledge through the scientific method made up of observation, experiment, data collection and analysis. It is also very important to note that the scientific method can be repeated and checked independently by other researchers, which makes the natural sciences less vulnerable to subjectivity. The similar attitude applies to history because the general public views the past as being fixed, unchangeable and absolutely certain1 (universal truth or propositional knowledge). However, throughout the study of Theory of Knowledge, we have encountered many situations where the natural sciences and history were not as universal and objective as we initially thought. In fact, in both of these areas of knowledge, the scientists and historians have to constantly deal with the issue of bias and selectivity. My own working definitions for bias is an intentional or unintentional inclination to one side of the argument without fully taking into consideration the other possible explanations and evidences. In most cases, historians and scientists bias is pre-determined by their cultural background and paradigm. Therefore bias often almost implies some sort of dishonesty, and it is definitely something that experts try/should try to avoid in their research. While both bias and selectivity might have roots in the experts own paradigm, selectivity is something each historian and scientist should strive for in order for his study to be meaningful and valid (validity is defined as an argument/study, which is supported by solid foundation of facts and evidences which are propositionally true). In an endless pool of facts, data and branches of research, a non-selective researcher is like a bicycle without handlebars. That being said, despite some disadvantages of bias and selectivity in history and the natural sciences, it is ultimately possible to attain true knowledge even though its validity might be relative and limited.

Alchin, Nicholas. Theory of Knowledge. London: John Murray, 2003. Print 2

On the journey of searching for new knowledge, bias and selectivity can present a real obstacle for us in attaining universal knowledge in its pure definition of properly justified true belief.2 In history, R.G. Collingwood has made a distinction between what may be called the outside and the inside event.3 While the outside means everything which can be described in terms of bodies and their movement, (e.g. assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or Germany invading Poland in September 1939), the inside means that, which can only be described in terms of thoughts, e.g. Why did the assassination of Archduke spark World War One? or What was the most important reason for Hitler to invade Poland? Hence while the outside events, also called the hard-core facts of history, are fixed and unnegotiable, their purpose and significance may differ to each historian. Consequently, the term historiography emerges during our study of history. The term refers to the study of the writings of historians and their explicit opinion on a particular historical event. The major problem with historiography is of course the presence of personal bias. An example of historiography is books by famous historian Richard Pipes on the Soviet Union, particularly on the notorious historical event called the July Days. The propositional knowledge about the event is that before the successful Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917, another demonstration against the Provisional Government took place commonly referred to as the July Days. Another premise is that the Bolshevik authority, including Trotsky, Zinoviev etc. did take part in the demonstration. However, the debate, which still goes on to this day, is whether the event was intended by the Bolshevik leaders or it was a spontaneous uprising carried out by an angry mob of civilians. Being a neoconservative Polish American historian, whose family was exiled to America by the USSR government, Richard Pipes appears to be very skeptical and one-sided. Pipes focuses too much on proving the Bolshevik party and especially Lenin to be wicked without providing counter arguments. For example, according to Pipes, Lenin did

Alchin, Nicholas. Opt. Cit Alchin, Nicholas. Ibid 3

not care about Russia, and was prepared to promise everybody whatever they wanted without giving much thought to the future, (44)4. Here, the bias in language is clear and his claim is not well supported by evidence since he is more focusing on Lenins thoughts and intentions, rather than his deeds. Even though all history [might be] the history of thoughts,5 if historians arguments are mainly based on speculations without concrete evidence, their arguments become invalid and prevent us from gaining an impartial, thoughtful understanding of the past. Therefore, bias can prevent us from attaining universal and objective knowledge. Nevertheless, if Richard Pipes were as biased and his arguments were as invalid as presented earlier, why is he then such a respected historian? Maybe it is because despite being a biased historian, he is also a very selective one. Instead of glancing over numerous viewpoints, Pipes chooses to thoroughly defend one argument: the Bolshevik authority did plan the event and used it as a general rehearsal for the final October Revolution. In this case, Pipes selectivity was very helpful because he presents a particular side of viewpoint supported with a broad range of interesting anecdotes from primary historical sources e.g. Lenins and Trotskys speeches; hence Pipes is still providing his audience with some propositional knowledge. Similarly in natural sciences, scientists use the method of reductionism to demonstrate selectivity, and sometimes also bias, of their research. The article Certainty and Doubt in Baja6 by David Quammen reveals the problems of manipulation and interpretation of the collected data, the positive truth, through which humans derive conclusions, the normative truth. The article is written from a viewpoint of the journalist who accompanies the scientist during his investigation on speed of lizards on Baja islands. Paradoxically, the article suggests it is humans interpretation of the data that makes natural sciences become vulnerable to its universality due to intentional sampling bias or unintentional human error. In most
4

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print. Alchin, Nicholas. Opt. Cit. Quammen, David. Certainty and Doubt in Baja. New York: Touchstone, 2001. Print

5 6

cases, scientists analyze the data and draw conclusions based on their paradigms, hence their bias. In IB Chemistry, we talked about the development of definitions for acids and bases. In 1777, the famous French chemist Lavoisier proposed that acid should be defined as a compound of oxygen and a non-metal.7 However, this theory left out some vital acids such as hydrochloric acid (HCl). In 1923, two chemists Martin Lowry and Johannes Bronsted independently published similar conclusions, which claimed that acids are compounds, which contain a cat ion of hydrogen, whereas bases are compounds, which contain anions of hydroxide. Yet as our knowledge about Chemistry developed, more and more compounds were found to have acids or baselike qualities even though they didnt fit within the definition, and the Venn diagram for acids and bases kept expanding. The tricky fact is that we can hardly know if the law we come up with is actually the final law. It takes people with exceptional revolutionary thinking to be able to take the same set of positive facts and come up with innovative, visionary conclusions. But even then, the new discovery can be illusory, as a nice set of numbers might describe nothing more than a carefully measured red herring.8 For instance, scientists may discover many truths but they can eventually miss out one truth, which makes their original law invalid and therefore ultimately unhelpful for us in the process of attaining knowledge. Yet reductionism and scientists bias in Science is ultimately helpful for human progress. The positive data have to be linked to current reality and knowledge we already possess. The quote from Certainty and Doubt in Baja sumps up the argument nicely, the racetrack is smart but not sapient,9 because it shows the deficiency of naked numbers without any interpretation to its meaning. The holistic aspect of

Brown, Catrin & Ford, Mike. Higher Level Chemistry. New Jersey: Pearson Baccalaureate, 2009. Print
8

Quammen, David. Opt. Cit Quammen, David. Ibid 5

science, also called synergy, provides us with laws that, while incomplete, can still serve the humankind due to their truths. We turned to history and Natural Sciences hoping to find universal truth and certainty. Nevertheless, the presence of bias and selectivity has significantly complicated our aim. On the other hand, it would be foolish to fully discard arguments and studies due to their bias because lets face it, almost everything which has been processed by human mind is biased. Bias and selectivity might not make us into well-rounded and critical knowers, but they do entitle us as knowers. Who said knowledge has to be a universal truth? Sometimes just the truth might do.

WORKS CITED Alchin, Nicholas. Theory of Knowledge. London: John Murray, 2003. Print Brown, Catrin & Ford, Mike. Higher Level Chemistry. New Jersey: Pearson Baccalaureate, 2009. Print Quammen, David. Certainty and Doubt in Baja. New York: Touchstone, 2001. Print Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.