Science, ethics, politics: Dare we hope?

Theory of Knowledge banner

Scientific agreement, ethical agreement, and political agreement are entirely different. They’re not justified by the same means, not shared through the same process of communication, not brought to a conclusion through the same process of validation. But when they converge – when the political representatives of the world accept scientific knowledge as the basis for an ethical global agreement – then we have reason to celebrate along with the delegates.

Let us enjoy the moment! As the COP21 Paris Climate Talks yielded a world agreement just days ago, knowledge of climate science has won out, for the moment, over the well-financed forces of denial. And, for the moment, the ethical imperative to work together cooperatively for the common good has achieved a stronger articulation than many people believed possible as the talks of COP 21 began. Looming ahead in the future is the most difficult part for the world – improving and implementing the agreements. But, for the moment, let us recognize what has been achieved, and celebrate.

Consensus on climate science

In TOK, we pose questions about knowledge. And all the questions we ask of scientific knowledge apply to climate science – all the questions about evidence, the roles of theories and models, prediction, the role of experts and expert consensus. For climate science, I recommend, as a summary, the following video from April 2015:

We won’t have seen the last of denying scientific knowledge – and certainly not the last of denying its implications in practice. But, for the moment, scientific knowledge based on evidence and the consensus of relevant experts has been significantly accepted in context of world power. Hurrah!

Consensus on ethical ideas

Nevertheless, the Paris Climate Talks of COP 21 were not centrally about scientific knowledge. They were about what to do about it. They centered on the knowledge questions we pose in ethics as an area of knowledge, for instance:

  • What responsibilities, if any, do human beings have to others – and how do we know them?
  • To what others? To those in our own national group? To those we consider our economic allies? To all others on the planet? To the generations yet unborn?

The debates of COP 21 drew on the large ethical theories we consider in Theory of Knowledge – for instance, using the language of “principles,” “obligations”, and “rights” (deontological approach) and using the actual and predicted consequences of actions in the past, present, and future (utilitarian approach). The political representatives of the world claimed to be largely in agreement with many lines of ethical argument we could readily chart, theoretically, in Theory of Knowledge.

And the world did reach an agreement. While the acceptance of demonstrable scientific knowledge merits applause, the acceptance of a common obligation to humanity and the planet, with promises of action, merits outright cheering.  Double hurrah!

Cynicism or naiveté: Dare we hope?

In my final blog post of 2015, I leave you with this question, “Dare we hope?”

I think of teaching as a forward-looking profession constantly fueled by hope — constantly attempting to help students reach their potential, and constantly encouraging them to contribute positively to the world around them. Ours is not a cynical profession.

At the same time, I don’t think experienced teachers can be naïve. We know the problems we face, and to some extent the problems that the world faces. In TOK, we come face to face with the forces that make knowledge difficult to gain and make understanding an elusive goal. We know, however indistinctly, much of what we’re up against.

If we act in any way as guides and models for our students, what do we model as we deal with knowledge relevant to the world they are entering as young adults? Are we too world-wise, to the point of cynicism? Are we, conversely, too positive or idealistic, to the point of naiveté?  Can we aspire to be well grounded, but at the same time – dare to hope?


“Delegates celebrate as historic climate pledge adopted”,

UQx DENIAL101x Consensus of Scientists