Natural Sciences Tok Essay Introduction

Introduction to TOK for Biology teachers

TOK introduces students to the strengths and weaknesses of the different ways that we know things. It's a training in critical thinking, an introduction to philosophy and one of the reasons why the IB diploma is such great preparation for university study. Students are asked to consider the areas of knowledge which they are learning and the different ways that they know things from each of these TOK areas of knowledge.


Since 2013, for assessment from 2015 onwards, students learn about five of the eight ways of knowing and areas of knowledge shown in the diagram below.

The final assessment of TOK is a presentation and an essay.

  • The presentation has to be built around a real life situation with a contemporary knowledge issue. Students have to link a couple of ways of knowing and areas of knowledge to this issue and explain different viewpoints, how people arrive at these viewpoints and what their own personal view is.

    This video is just one way to do a TOK presentation - many students choose real life situations which link closely to natural sciences, and biology.
    For example: IVF treatment, Cloning, Genetically modified food, Availability of medical treatments,

  • The essay is chosen by each student from a choice of titles published several months before the deadline. Each title gives the students a starting point and a knowledge issue. The students have to make links and comparisons between areas of knowledge, including their learning experience from the IB subjects, and ways of knowing. In the best essays students outline a knowledge claim relevant to essay title and explore a counter claim leading to a conclusion about the knowledge issue, and its implications.

    A TOK essay may begin with a question like this,

    “Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he’ll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he’ll have to touch it to be sure.” from Murphy's law. What does this quote tell us about the way we know different types of knowledge?

This is a great illustration of two different ways in which we know things, sense perception (touching the paint) and faith (that the astrophysicist is justified in his assertion about the number of stars.)

A student might identify the knowledge issue to be, "what is it which makes us most certain that knowledge is true?

The essay might continue with a claim that a highly trained scientist using the scientific method, a large set of supporting data and the controlling mechanisms of peer review is more believable than a man in the park using his own sense perception (he saw the painter working 30 minutes ago) and reason (that it takes paint two hours to dry so it will still be wet.)

The student will need supporting evidence for this claim, and this is where the biology teacher can help. Evidence and examples of the nature of science (e.g. use of data, peer review), of types of reasoning (deduction and induction) in analysis and evaluation of conclusions could all be important individual pieces of TOK directly related to biology and that the student has experienced during biology lessons.


How can a biology teacher help students succeed in TOK?

To write a good TOK essay and to make a good presentation students need a broad collection of individual pieces of philosophical (TOK) understanding.

The role of a biology teacher is to point out examples of these things when they arise in lessons.

What the student must do is to collect these pieces of TOK (these subject specific examples of strengths and weaknesses of the ways of knowing), keep a record of them.

A student who does this will be well prepared when the moment comes to debate an issue in a TOK lesson, make a presentation, or write an essay. They will choose some of the relevant pieces, reflect on them and produce an original claim of their own justified by their understanding of knowledge issues in the subjects they have learned during the IB course. This is rather like the small pieces of plastic become a beautiful image when they appear reflected in the mirrors of the kaleidoscope.

Some TOK knowledge issues which relate to Biology

What does it mean for a discipline to be a science?

In what ways have natural sciences like biology changed over the last 200 years?

What similarities are there between ways of knowing in natural sciences and human sciences like geography?

Should there be ethical constraints on the pursuit of scientific knowledge?

Can the natural sciences discover laws of nature using reason alone?

In which ways does the scientific method reduce the bias and selections caused by human desires or preferences?

What differences are there between scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge?

In what ways has science contributed to your personal view of the world?

Is there just one scientific method?

To what extent is biological research influenced by the society in which it is carried out?

How does the language used in natural sciences differ from language used in other areas of knowledge?

Further details can be found in the IB TOK guide for 2015 assessment which has a section about Natural Sciences.

Natural Science Notes - Theory of Knowledge

 Natural Science Quotes 

  • "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this." (Bertrand Russell)
  • "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." (Galileo Galilei)
  • "He that will not reason is a bigot; he that cannot reason is a fool; and he that dares not reason is a slave." (William Drummond)
  • “As a matter of historical fact, the history of science is, by and large, a history of progress.” (Karl Popper)
  • "Critical reason is the only alternative to violence so far discovered." (Karl Popper)
  • "Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."  (G K Chesterton)
  • "You do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into." (Jonathan Swift)

Definitions of Natural Science

  • A science or knowledge of objects or processes observable in nature,as biology or physics, as distinguished from the abstract or theoretical sciences, as mathematics or philosophy. (Dictionary.com)
  • any of the sciences (as physics, chemistry, or biology) that deal with matter, energy, and their interrelations and transformations or with objectively measurable phenomena. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Insights from Natural Science

The insights of science allow us to understand the processes of our world. People applying the methods of science have given us insights into things, from the more abstract (pure science) areas, such as the theory of relativity, big bang theory or evolution, to more practical areas (applied science) such as the research which have brought us antibiotics, electricity and all of our advanced technologies.

  • Often insights which seem very abstract and unsuited to practical application end up having dramatic practical uses. For example, when the structure of DNA was first discovered, genetic engineering wasn't considered a practical possibility. Today, genetically modified crops have already reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and increased crop yields by 22% (Klümper, W).
  • The essense of the power of science is it’s predictive power. Science allows us to make predictions about what will and won't work in terms of technologies. 
  • Science is great at overcoming personal biases or wrong beliefs. Scientists aren't able to test every potentially wrong belief, but in the areas where scientific testing is possible (i.e. natural processes) the scientific method does a great job at uncovering false beliefs. 
  • Specific instances of scientific insight can be generalised, using inductive reasoning, to derive general principles of how the world works.
  • Scientists are expected to record and share both their results and their methodologies. This means that new findings are shared widely and mistakes can be caught.  

 - - There's more! - -

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