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Lesson 17: One Person’s Hypothesis is

Another Person’s Dogma…

Many students think of hypotheses as belonging only to science, but the idea of educated
guessing and testing belongs to nearly all ways of knowing. Students should consider the number
of ways in which belief might be understood. Check to see if the term initially carries only
religious connotations. This lesson can be helpful almost anywhere in the course.

y To examine how hypotheses, and the beliefs that underlie them, are formed.

Class Management
The lesson could be managed in one class period of 50 minutes, but two would be preferable.
Prepare multiple copies of the student handout.
Divide the class into groups of no more than four students. Distribute the handout and allow the
class time to read it. Depending on the total number of students, discussion can be a whole class
debate, or as parallel debates.

Focus Activity
Refer to the student handout.

How is the Activity Introduced?

Simply say that students will discuss and debate a position they may find difficult or unusual, and
that they should defend their hypothesis until such time as another group gives them irrefutable
proof that they are wrong.
Assign each group a hypothesis (A or B or C). Instruct them to imagine all the possible reasons
they could give in defence of their hypothesis.

Teacher Notes
Students may need some advice as to possible strategies to defend their position. For instance,
group A could add to their hypothesis the theory that there are nocturnal and diurnal properties
that explain why night and day have this effect, but that also explain the behaviour when
anomalies occur, such as fire making it rise at night, and cold water making it drop in the day
time. This makes their position almost impregnable. C should be asked to remember that their
spirits are capricious, which destroys any attempt to subvert their hypothesis with the systematic
behaviour of the thermometer… And so on…

Teacher Support Material—Theory of Knowledge Lessons from Around the World © IBO, November 2000 Lesson 17—page 1
Lesson 17: One Person’s Hypothesis is Another Person’s Dogma…

Student Handout

The Three Martians

Three Martians, A, B and C, were crossing the Great Victoria Desert when they came upon an
object (a thermometer) which had possibly been lost by an explorer.
Having observed it for a few days, they realize that there is something inside it (the column of
mercury) which at different times can be seen to be in different positions.
They discuss the possible reasons for such strange behaviour.
A proposes the hypothesis that the behaviour is related to the time of day. This would explain
why at night the column drops, and why it rises during the day.
B suggests that the reason must be heat and cold, which also would explain why it drops at night
and rises during the day.
C says that both A and B are wrong. The real reason for the movement lies in the nature of the
enclosed substance that is animated by invisible spirits who adopt a capricious behaviour when
imprisoned. These spirits make the substance rise or fall whenever they feel like it. This would
explain what both the other hypotheses have explained; moreover, it would explain any
variation, at any time and under any circumstances.

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Lesson 17: One Person’s Hypothesis is Another Person’s Dogma…

Discussion Questions
y How is each hypothesis formed? How do they differ? Why do they differ if all three are
y What are the roles of intuition, prejudice, inductive and deductive thinking in forming the
y What assumptions or beliefs are behind each hypothesis? How do these beliefs affect the
questions the Martians will ask?
y What are the virtues of each hypothesis?
y How would you test each hypothesis? How would the Martians test the hypotheses?
y What would count as evidence against each hypothesis? Of what, in fact, would you have to
convince each person?
y Suppose you agree with B. Could you help her convince A and C that their hypotheses are
false? Of what, in fact, would you have to convince C?
y What are the requirements of any hypothesis in science?
y What is the demarcation, if any, between scientific and pseudo-scientific knowledge claims?
Additional Questions
Depending on the level of the students, the following more sophisticated questions can be raised.
y Do you experience the learning of scientific knowledge in school as resting on foundational
beliefs about the natural world?
y Can we think of any knowledge claim that does not make a foundational or basic assumption
even though it may not be apparent?
y If all our claims to knowledge are built upon basic beliefs about reality, how can we ever
change our point of view? Does innovation come about from those who are aware that
behind all our interpretations are assumptions that both allow knowledge and hinder it?

From Other Times and Places

Plato’s student Aristotle explained gravity (the phenomenon of falling objects, if you like) by
saying that things sought their natural place in the universe. This was also the reason for flames
rising as they aspired to be with the sun. What a beautiful idea compared to our present views on
this. What view of the world allows for this notion of things that seek or aspire to be somewhere
else? Are there no beliefs lying behind the notion of the force of gravity, or of curved space?
That previously held beliefs are the basis of our claims about the world can already be found in
Hume’s Critique of Induction. It might be worth a teacher exploring questions in relation to the
Principle of Uniformity, or the Principle of Causality.
Teachers might want to explore further the work of Kwasi Winedu, University of Ghana, for
differences and similarities between traditional and scientific societies in forming and testing

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Lesson 17: One Person’s Hypothesis is Another Person’s Dogma…

Links to Other Areas of TOK

Nearly all areas of TOK are touched by this exercise.
y In language, the various meanings of belief should be noted. For instance, the phrase “I
believe” does not carry an identical meaning in the context of “I believe in God” to its use in
the context of “I believe in honesty”.
y In reason, could we have argument at all without premises? If we did not have basic beliefs,
would we not be caught in an infinite regression?
y In the human sciences, do different cultural beliefs lead to different values and hypotheses
for explaining behaviour?
y In history, students might try to find areas where hypotheses are formed and tested in ways
similar to or different from those identified for the focus lesson. How do beliefs about the
past influence enquiry in ways perhaps not realized by the scholar?
y The arts do not make claims in quite the same way, but do schools of painting or literature
have basic tenets that guide their activity?
y In ethics, there is fertile ground for discussion of beliefs underlying moral action. For
instance, are beliefs about what is of value central to forming a code of morality?


The great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

TH Huxley

Man is a credulous animal and must believe in something; in the absence of good grounds for
belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.
Bertrand Russell

Olen, J, Persons and Their World, (1983) McGraw Hill College Div, ISBN 0075543117
Miller, M, Introduction to Logic, Living Logic, (1978)
Anderson, WT, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, (1992) Harper Collins, ISBN 0062500171

Teacher Support Material—Theory of Knowledge Lessons from Around the World © IBO, November 2000 Lesson 17—page 4