Have TED Talks Jumped the Shark?
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to the dissemination of, as their slogan says, “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Supported by many prominent thinkers, scientists, and entrepreneurs including Bill Gates, evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker, and philosopher Daniel Dennett, TED began in 1984 as a collaboration between thinkers from three enterprises — technology, entertainment, and design — and has since broadened its scope globally.
“The two annual TED conferences, on the North American West Coast and in Edinburgh, Scotland, bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” according to the website, “who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”
TED talks have been popular for years, highlighting interesting and thought-provoking speakers on a wide variety of social and scientific issues. However, TED has increasingly come under fire for promoting pseudoscience and misinformation.
A spin-off department of TED, TEDx, licenses individuals across the country and around the world to stage similar events, record the talks on video, and submit the videos to TED for inclusion on their website. As TED and TEDx talks became more and more popular, the standards began slipping.
One notorious series of TEDx talks in Spain invited speakers to discuss a long list of conspiracy and New Age topics such as “Basic Mind Control,” rebirthing therapy, “Angelic Reiki,” and even something called “Egyptian Psycho-Aromatherapy and Transpersonal Homeotherapy.”
This list of pseudoscience apparently did not set off any red flags for TEDx organizers at the time, but it did for scientists and journalists who demanded to know why these were considered to be “ideas worth spreading.”
Concerns that the once-prestigious TED brand was being diluted and contaminated by sloppy scholarship and bad science grew so loud that in December 2012, TED representatives issued a letter to TEDx affiliates about it.
The letter noted that as “TEDx organizers, your audience’s trust is your top priority, over and above any other personal or business relationship that may have brought this speaker to your attention. It is not your audience’s job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job. The consequence of bad science and health hoaxes are not trivial. As an example, Andrew Wakefield’s attempt to link autism and vaccines was exposed as a hoax last year. But while his work was being investigated, millions of children went without vaccines, and many contracted deadly illnesses as a result. We take this seriously. Presenting bad science on the TEDx stage is grounds for revoking your license.”
It went on to offer an excellent discussion about how to tell good science from pseudoscience.
Noted astronomer and former TEDx speaker Phil Plait recently addressed the issue in a Slate column: “It’s simply not possible to be an expert in every field of science, so guidelines are needed. The letter gives excellent advice to people on being skeptical in the first place, and then follows up with actual research to back up that skepticism. This letter is a gold-star winner in how to communicate skepticism. It applies equally well to those well-versed in it and to those who may not have any experience in pseudoscientific fluffery. While it’s directed at TEDx organizers, it should be required reading for everybody.”
It seems that not everyone got the memo, however, because another TEDx speaker was recently called out for promoting bad science. This time it was a talk by a man named Rupert Sheldrake, a British biochemist who has written several books about telepathic dogs, crystal healing and other paranormal phenomena.
In a TEDx talk, Sheldrake discussed what he sees as dogmatism in science, scientists’ irrational devotion to materialism and his belief in what he calls “morphic resonance,” an unknown force that he claims somehow molds the collective unconscious of all members of a species.
Sheldrake made several factual errors in his talk, including stating that governments do not fund research into alternative medicine — in fact the National Institutes of Health have spent millions of dollars on it – a fact easily checked on the NIH website — and that the speed of light has decreased since the 1920s, a statement dismissed by best-selling author and physicist Sean Carroll of the Moore Center for Theoretical Cosmology and Physics at Caltech.
The TED editors responded: “While TED does not vet speakers at independent TEDx events, a TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific, and that includes misrepresenting the scientific process itself. Sheldrake is on that line, to some commenters around Twitter and the web.”
TED editors have invited commentary from the public to discuss the matter and help decide whether Sheldrake’s errors are egregious enough to warrant the removal of his video from their website.
It is perhaps inevitable that TED would experience such growing pains; the line between science and pseudoscience can be fuzzy, especially when published authors begin talking about quantum physics and other topics beyond a local TEDx gatekeeper’s expertise. No one is censoring or silencing anyone who wants to discuss “Angelic Reiki” and “morphic resonance” — they are free to say whatever they like — but whether they will continue to have the TED platform remains to be seen.
Bono at TEDGlobal 2009 preview in London. Image: TED Conference