Essay 6

“In knowledge there is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity.” Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.

In some senses this could become a discussion about “The map is not the territory”. In other words the relationship between knowledge and the nature or the reality it “represents”.

In the words of the IBO TOK guide ….

It is useful for students to have a rough working idea of knowledge at the outset of the course. Towards the end of the course this picture will have become more rounded and refined. A useful metaphor for examining knowledge in TOK is a map. A map is a representation, or picture, of the world. It is necessarily simplified—indeed its power derives from this fact. Items not relevant to the particular purpose of the map are omitted. For example, one would not expect to see every tree and bush faithfully represented on a street map designed to aid navigation around a city—just the basic street plan will do. A city street map, however, is quite a different thing to a building plan of a house or the picture of a continent in an atlas. So knowledge intended to explain one aspect of the world, say, its physical nature, might look really quite different to knowledge that is designed to explain, for example, the way human beings interact.”

A map can be useful and but is rarely accurate (think MTR or London underground maps). Road maps are different from ordinance survey maps. Different maps preference different categories of knowledge and in doing so simplify or distill reality down to a simpler ‘model’.

Many other forms of models make complex knowledge actionable, or understandable, but
at the expense of nuance, detail and complexity.

Religious Knowledge.

Myths, fables and parables use narrative to make the nature of reality accessible and understandable to non-initiates or those who have not had time to meditate or study scriptures. Creation myths for example are often “regarded by those who subscribe to it as conveying profound truths, although not necessarily in a historical or literal sense”.


Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative can help give us a simple way of behaving that does not take account of levels of complexity, mitigating circumstances or the idea of utilitarianism. “Thou shalt not steal” is a very simple moral imperative which renders all theft as wrong. A simple idea that does not consider intention, consequences or due justification to steal.

Occam’s Razor is relevant to this essay title. It states that the simplest solution (the
one relying on the fewest assumptions) is usually the best and most correct one.


Our sensory organs and systems often seek out patterns in the data they receive. We can see recognizable objects in random cloud patterns and we can fill in the gaps when there is insufficient sense data. Many people believe that we sense a very simplified version of reality. That our nervous system filters out the infinite amount of data and detail in the real world.

AOKs themselves are a simpler ‘map’ of reality. Reality does not exist in neat compartments of knowledge. Different disciplines simplify reality by category. Similarly if you just apply reason to a question of truth or knowledge claim, you are going to arrive at a simple conclusion that only operates within the confines of logic.

Another argument here is that to learn a complete, nuanced and complex model of the world, you need to take incremental steps as you are educated. Many of you are aware that IB physics sometimes relies on you ‘forgetting’ what you learn at GCSE. What was learnt at GCSE was necessary for developing and understanding,  but was simple and inaccurate in comparison to what you go on to learn about in the IBDP.

The question of simplicity highlights the Problem of Induction. Inductive reasoning involves drawing (simple) generalizations from repeatedly observed phenomena. if you keep getting headaches on long haul flights, you might come to the simplistic conclusion that long hall flights cause everyone to have headaches. It may be much more complicated than that and to do with dehydration and/or stress levels.

This post on correlation is not causation shows that we are prone to jumping to conclusions about causal chains when the data shows an impressive level of coincidence or correlation. More here on this (scroll down).

Ionica Smeets discusses this relationship between correlation and cause in the TEDx talk below.

Ideas and resources