TED and their Science Problems


There has been a fair amount of kerfuffle in recent weeks concerning a few of the presentations at TED, specifically their more independent TEDx talks from various cities.

If you don’t know, TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) that was originally a conference of people involved primarily in computers, graphic design, and related areas, and it was at first a private affair. Then several years ago they decided to make the talks freely available online though tickets to the actual talks were expensive and elusive except to those with connections to get invitations.

Since then, TED talks have become quite a staple in the Internet, and more conferences have been created to continue to produce interesting content. There have been TEDx conferences all over the place, including here in Columbus where one of the professors in my research group gave a talk about renewable energy. Some of the talks you will watch will have some interesting insights, some new gadgets, and somethings they will make things just plain interesting. For example, back in 2009 TED had a demo of wireless electricity, a dream of Nicola Telsa but now being realized. One staple has been talks by Sir Ken Robinson about creativity and education, and his presentations are both heart-felt and motivating.

However, with lots of presentations, you will get some of dubious value. Back in 2006, pastor Rick Warren gave a talk about purpose in life, but it was primarily about how awesome Christianity and Jesus were; on the other hand, philosopher (and “New  Atheist”) Dan Dennett gave a counter-talk, one that was far more systematic, which one expects from a professional philosopher. There was also a talk about the aquatic ape hypothesis of human ancestry, an idea that was effectively dismembered many years ago but presented as if it was winning out (you can read one critique of the talk here).

More recently things got a lot louder as two particular talks made waves among skeptics and scientists. One was a talk about parapsychology and fringe science by Rupert Sheldrake, and this was someone that believed in it all. He claimed such things as there is evidence that light is slowing down (it’s not, and by definition it can’t). Also a short time later, there was a talk by pseudo-archaeologist Graham Hancock, famous for claiming there was a great Atlantis-like civilization 12,500 years ago (whose research is fractally wrong as can be seen by perusing the work of Ken Feder or Jason Colavito (i.e. here and here) among others). His talk was about how awesome drugs were and how it helped us reach new levels of consciousness (in which he seems to battle demons).

These talks led to a lot of negative reactions, and TED responded. While they didn’t take the videos down (which would have led to claims of ‘censorship’), they put them into a blog that contextualized their content so the reader would know that they do not have the approval of TED organizers, and the videos are full of factual problems. This was called a big win by many. However, David Osorio over at Advant Garde is more skeptical of the response, considering it more a matter of image rather than really caring about science. He points out how he complained about another bad science talk at TEDxBogota yet that talk remains up. Part of that reason may be because the talks are not as popular, not to mention in a primarily Spanish venue (Columbia), which may limit how much attention it gets from Anglo-centric organizers of TED.

Nonetheless, there is a lot that TED could do to make sure it minimizes how its platform is used by those that have a bad product or bad idea to sell. Otherwise one can in a formulaic fashion claim just whatever they want in these talks.

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2 thoughts on “TED and their Science Problems

    • Fair point. What I mean is that there would have been a least a plausible claim of censorship. Now all they can do is act stupid and prove that Hancock et al. shouldn’t have been given the stage in the first place.

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