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What’s the matter with TED?

I enjoy many TED talks. I especially enjoy them because I only watch them when someone else recommends one to me — I’ve got filters in place. The one time I tried to sit down and go through a couple of random TED talks, I was terribly disappointed.

Carl Zimmer explains the problem with TED.

The problem, I think, lies in TED's basic format. In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn't much time left over to actually make a case–to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.

In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.

The problem can get even more serious in TED's new franchise, TEDx, which is popping up in cities around the world. Again, some TEDx talks are great. Caltech physicist (and DtU editor) Sean Carroll talking about cosmology? Whatever you've got, I'll take. But some guy ranting about his grand unified theory that he promises will be a source of  unlimited energy to fuel the planet? Well, just see how far you can get through this TEDx talk before you get loaded into an amublance with an aneurysm.

So there’s the problem: audiences pay a shocking amount of money to attend a TED session, and what they expect is an epiphany delivered every 20 minutes. That’s not how science works. You know that every excellent talk at TED is backed by 10 or 20 years of incremental work, distilled down to just the conclusion. Most of the bad talks at TED are people trying to distort the methodical approach of science into a flash of genius, and failing. Some of the bad talks are simply cranks babbling; the example Zimmer gives is a perfect illustration of that. Cranks are really good at making grandiose claims, and in a setting in which no data has to be shown and no questions can be asked, pseudoscience shines (and by the way, what is it with kooks and swirling donuts?)

Another odd connection: I wonder if this tendency to inflate the baby steps of science into grand world-changing leaps contributes to or is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?

Comments

  1. says

    It’s not just that science is presented as an inexorable ascent towards some kind of techno-uptopia, there’s the politics too. This is an interesting take on that particular issue, arguing that TED offers a kind of Clintonian/Blairite neoliberalism, in which capitalism masquerades as something far more benign.

    The guiding principle of TED is that you can present a vision of ever-marching technological progress, that you can be a purveyor of the “big ideas” that will shape our society, that you can show the future, all without descending into the unpleasant muck of political debate. In other words, TED’s dominant political idea is the denial of politics—a refusal to acknowledge any real power struggle in public life.

    Continuing in much the same vein, this piece in New Inquiry asks when TED stopped “trying to collect smart people and instead collect people trying to be smart.”

  2. Chris Granger says

    That 2010 TEDx talk by Randy Powell… was it filmed on April 1st? This can’t be for real, can it? Goodness, what a load of nonsense.

  3. machintelligence says

    The expanded format of TED indeed allows more marginal ideas to be presented, but come on, the acronym is for Technology Entertainment Design. The Gee Wiz factor is kind of high (and some of the comment threads have a high woo content) but overall it is entertaining, and there are some true gems in there.

  4. says

    David Deutsch’s TED talk A new way to explain explanation had that revelatory effect on me; at least enough for me to get his book where he expanded upon the idea. I do agree, though, that talks like that are few and far between. Jamie Oliver’s talk especially irked me.

  5. Chris Granger says

    Having visited Powell’s site, it’s clear that he’s not merely a crank, but a religiously-motivated one. He refers to “the science of the Most Great Name of God” and has Baha’i scripture verses all over his site. I suspect he toned down the religious aspects of his “work” for the TEDx talk, as that’s less ‘sciency’ and not as likely to get applause from the sort of person who attends these lectures.

  6. justawriter says

    CBC’s Ideas is what TED would want to be if it ever grew up, and has been for something like 35 years. Plus, if a topic requires five hours to explore properly, the program will devote an entire week to that topic (or more reasonably, they get five hours of usable tape out of their presenter).

  7. RhubarbTheBear says

    Real science doesn’t need new-agey background music. That creeped me out. And I have CREATED new-agey background music in the course of my job, so I of all people should be empathetic… but no! It’s wrong even on the one meager level of my expertise.

  8. johnmarley says

    I wonder if there’s vetting process for TED speakers. In July ’09, Elaine Morgan was given a platform to preach her debunked aquatic-ape nonsense.

  9. says

    I produce short form educational programs, used as “interstitials” for public television.

    I support “Science Cafes” and other venues that help the general public get excited about science.

    This is much more difficult than you may think.

    It is easy to complain, not every show is a winner, and the amount of material than video consumes is vast. Developing new and interesting ideas on a regular basis is a nightmare for producers.

    Think about this: I know people here is Florida that really think the earth is 6000 years old. So yes, TED should avoid “woo” but they are doing a great job. Besides, what is the alternative — more “jesus saves” networks? Please Carl, try making a season of shows and you will see how easy it is for ideas to dry up.

  10. Matt Penfold says

    It is easy to complain, not every show is a winner, and the amount of material than video consumes is vast. Developing new and interesting ideas on a regular basis is a nightmare for producers.

    Think about this: I know people here is Florida that really think the earth is 6000 years old. So yes, TED should avoid “woo” but they are doing a great job. Besides, what is the alternative — more “jesus saves” networks? Please Carl, try making a season of shows and you will see how easy it is for ideas to dry up.

    That is an argument for TED doing less but being more selective rather than an argument we should not complain when they get it wrong.

  11. okstop says

    “That is an argument for TED doing less but being more selective rather than an argument we should not complain when they get it wrong.”

    Exactly. I think (I may have imagined this) I heard a TED talk once that urged us not to be afraid of complexity, of really digging in and examining a complex problem in detail. The irony nearly killed me.

    One of my problems with TED is that, whatever the acronym actually stands for, it does not present itself nor do people treat it as mere entertainment. My other big problem with TED is that a lot of the topics the speakers purport to tackle are simply not the kinds of things you can treat with any intelligence or genuine insight in the time allotted.

    TED is simply not the right format for a lot of the things it wants to do/its enthusiasts see it as doing.

  12. Anders says

    I can totally see the problem, and TED is now in danger of degenerating into a sesspool of nonsense unless something is done, like a strict review process before being allowed on the floor, BUT, and I think there is a big but, TED has been a VERY effective way of getting people interested in science on the internet. Dawkins TED talk, for instance, was one of those things that really inspired me to read more science books. The problem TED has is a mirror of the problem with all of the internet, Its a bit like reverse Youtube. TED is 80-90% (and dropping) good stuff and 10-20% bullshit. (Youtube is >99% bullshit and <1% good stuff)

  13. gragra says

    It’s the short attention-span soundbite aspect of TED that bugs me. They sometimes present good things, but in a gee-whiz 20 minute max power point slide show. Sometimes things take a bit longer than that to explain.

  14. says

    This has certainly been my experience with TED videos. When friends send me a video they are often good but I think that is because they are being filtered by my intelligent friends. Whenever I have looked myself I have been frustrated and disappointed. They do not appear to filter themselves very well when deciding who should be invited. Also, I had no idea people had to pay to attend these talks. I guess I will never be going.

    But I also have problems with the format. In the end I want something longer and more in depth. As justawriter suggested, I would much rather see something like Ideas on CBC (or many of the programs on BBc Radio 4 or Radio 4 Extra). It is not perfect and I have had the urge to throw the radio on occasion while listening to it, but it is often very good and they can spend a reasonable amount of time talking about a subject. To me that is entertainment and I do not understand why short and soundbitey so often is equated with entertaining.

  15. Rich Woods says

    I’ve only watched a couple of dozen TED videos over the last two years and, while I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve chosen to watch, I got the impression from the seemingly hurried exposition that the published videos were edited down from longer and more detailed talks. To learn that they were only ever the equivalent of sciency soundbites is somewhat worrying.

    Next week I shall be attending a number of talks and events at the Cheltenham Science Festival. The common format is forty minutes of talk or panel debate followed by twenty minutes of questions from the floor. In comparison to that, TED gets a -1.

  16. patrickna says

    i think TED is great. their talks is long enough for you to decide wether you find what they’re talking about interesting, and short enough not to waste an hour listening on a subject which you find out after 45 minutes, wasn’t really that interesting. then once you’ve found out if it sounds interesting or not, you can dig deeper into it.

  17. aspidoscelis says

    I agree to a large extent with the criticisms of TED talks. However, here’s the thing – it worries me more that the same kind of approach (present something in a skeletal form that doesn’t allow people to really understand what you did or what it means and hype the hell out of it with grandiose rubbish) is also the basic formula for success in science. Science, Nature, PNAS – that’s what they do. TED is just Nature for the non-academic audience… and its deficiencies worry me less because it’s fundamentally an entertainment venue, not a backbone of how we fund and evaluate science and scientists.

  18. Mattir says

    Yes! I thought it was just me – I’ve always thought that TED talks ended just as I was beginning to figure out what the talk was actually about, which led me to conclude that TED talks were a version of facile hipster-ism masquerading as education.

  19. madscientist says

    I had a look at that TEDx talk on Kevin Folta’s site and lasted 2:22 – and that’s only because the introductory video took around 2:00. It’s like the guy (the one in the video – *NOT* Kevin Folta) bought the “Big Book of Snake Oil Salesmanship” and tried on every chapter in under 30s.

    Even with the TED talks (as opposed to TEDx), folks have pointed me at so many talks which I watched and told them “this is absolute crap” – and it gets me wondering how many talks I’ve looked at which were outside my fields of expertise and may have had me duped.

  20. bassmanpete says

    Another odd connection: I wonder if this tendency to inflate the baby steps of science into grand world-changing leaps contributes to or is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?

    Do a bit more research and maybe you could give a TED talk on it.

  21. objdart says

    I don’t think there is any reason to accept the framing of the question. The values we assign to our experiences might or might not align with the values that we are given to expect by another person but that doesn’t make them right or wrong. TED is a format where people present an 18 minute summary of their experience and perspective about ideas that they devote the bulk of their time to.

    I think what makes them really great is that the format presents the segments as a window into individual examples of a specific type of world which which humanity draws the bulk of its transformative power from. We get to judge the presentations on our own. The beauty of TED is that the ideas are presented as windows, not dictations from an authority regarding what we must believe in order to avoid consequences imposed by those authorities for not believing.

    It seems similar to asking people to understand the reason for tenure well enough to not need the codified support of authority. The far out stuff is sometimes wrong. (Nicola Tesla may not have batted 1000 but the ones he hit went out of the park). Sometimes it is right but looks wrong because we just don’t have enough of a framework to understand (someone who is discovered to have been “ahead of their time”, Plate tectonic is an example). And sometimes it is utterly mind-blowing or transformative because the ideas fit what we are able to understand and either add something new and powerful or restructure what we already have into something more valuable or useful than what we started with (Read Minkowski’s introduction from his presentation on space-time for example).

    Sometimes we get sucked into big words with no meaning (Alan Sokal made a very powerful demonstration of an example of that. And sometimes we happen to have the background to see an error or flaw that makes it just seem so obviously wrong that it doesn’t make sense why they are up on stage. (Not to start a storm but there are some evolutionary psychology presentations which fit this bill for a lot of trained scientists.)

    It’s hard to know which of those scenarios apply even when we think we know, but it is not hard to take the information presented and file it away as information presented, available for review or more investigation later. The 18 minute format is simply not long enough to present the background. Watch out for people who make claims about information not in evidence. The talks are placeholders for idea categories. By themselves, they are usually not detailed enough to confidently assess without more information.

    That means also that we as a culture need enough media awareness to realize that truth is the most meaningless claim. It is the one part of any statement which can be removed without adding or subtracting any information other than what value the producer wants you to assign. If it isn’t obvious, it isn’t helpful to assume it.

    Sometimes it is more difficult than other times to employ that of course, but in terms of a world where soundbites are more and more often our reference points for major cultural and academic ideas, things we sometimes even roll into truths buy accident rather than information, I think it is more important to learn how to pre-screen the value from the message to help see the information on neutral terms. I think it is more helpful to begin with the idea, stripped of its truth, falsehood, obviousness or stupidity values, to be laid out as clearly as possible, than it is to engage with the value statement taken from the larger format.

    And the mushroom talk is one of my favorites. :-)
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world.html

    Regardless whether I agree with the assessment, the information is pretty interesting even if it is becoming a little bit dated.

  22. objdart says

    It is nice that they are available on the internet though. The ability to pick and choose is nice.

  23. sadunlap says

    I wonder if this tendency to inflate the baby steps of science into grand world-changing leaps contributes to or is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?

    Raymond Kurzweil makes so many wild predictions that if/when one comes true it’s like the guy who does a rain dance every day for a year then takes the credit the one day it actually does rain.

    He gets away with this kind of “futurism” at least in part due to the rather simplistic idea of progress most of us learn from our primary/secondary education and from popular culture. Other cultures see history as cyclical. Maybe we should too.

    The mid-20th century was an anomaly. Class mobility, “things getting better and better” and technological solutions to all manner of problems is not a guaranteed outcome. That’s my big problem with the TED talks. It promotes, not outright nor openly but by implication, that a technological solution to whatever ails us “is out there” waiting for “a smart person” enabled by the profit motive/free market to discover/develop it. Hope it works.

  24. chrislawson says

    The worst TED talk I saw was the one on how to tell when people are lying — based on completely discredited methods that are dangerous in that they convince police they know when people are not telling the truth.

    And as for “I wonder if this tendency…is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?” I don’t think so. This tendency goes back a long, long way before Kurzweil and transhumanism. Have a read of Velikovsky or von Daniken or Blavatsky (or don’t!).

  25. DLC says

    Some of the TED talks have been very good, and some of them have been complete shit. /obvious statement is obvious

  26. huntstoddard says

    I have a feeling most of the people who attend TED talks are there to network with other people who are rich enough to afford to attend TED talks. The content is strictly secondary. It’s a little like singles cruises. Very few are there for the scenery.

  27. harbo says

    It is the nature of the net that dross increasingly pollutes all sites.
    I just wish there was a way to filter them without wasting precious download…aside from the 20 mins of life I can’t get back.

    Video downloads gobble up the bandwidth and allocation, of those of us in primitive countries
    (Australia.> 10k from a city) National Broadband rollout….my arse..

  28. says

    Intros to subjects ought not take five hours. I don’t think the bad talks show anything wrong with the format – but the method by which they are vetted.

    Every little bit of knowledge is revelatory. We just forget that. And knowledge becomes boring. And people stop learning about things outside their specialty, because they haven’t the time to put to five hours…

    …Because you don’t know if that five hours is going to give you crap, either, as anyone trapped in a pyramid scheme conference would tell you.

  29. says

    Sturgeon’s Law.

    I guess the hope is that if you have a selection criteria that excludes the bottom 90% that you’re left with only the good stuff. Is TED empirical confirmation that Sturgeon’s Law doesn’t go far enough?

  30. says

    I decided that there was no quality control when Bjørn Lomborg gave a talk.

    There are some great talks, but those are mostly about opinion rather than facts (to name another Danish TED talker, I’d recommend Bjarke Ingles from B.I.G.). There are also quite a few decent factually based talks, but if you don’t have the right background, it can be hard to tell the differences between those and those where the speaker is spewing bullshit.

  31. okstop says

    aspidoscelis wrote,
    “However, here’s the thing – it worries me more that the same kind of approach (present something in a skeletal form that doesn’t allow people to really understand what you did or what it means and hype the hell out of it with grandiose rubbish) is also the basic formula for success in science. Science, Nature, PNAS – that’s what they do.”

    This couldn’t be more wrong. I can’t speak to the journal Science, but I know both Nature and PNAS, and both are striaght-up academic journals, which means the stuff they are presenting is highly technical and bout as far from “skeletal form” as you can get. Recent article title from PNAS: “Crystal structure of Staphylococcus aureus transglycosylase in complex with a lipid II analog and elucidation of peptidoglycan synthesis mechanism.”

    This is the polar opposite of a TED talk. It’s an in-depth examination of an extremely narrow issue, done in a technical fashion for an audience of experts. I don’t know the length of an average paper in one of these journals, but smart money says somewhere between 20-40 pages – conversely, even a 10 page academic paper takes about 20 minutes to present. So if you can imagine, any paper from one of these journals would translate into a forty to sixty minutes presentation, and that’s without any concession to making the thing more understandable to a lay audience. Envisioned as a talk to a lay audience, like a TED talk is, I’d say any given paper would take as long as two hours or more.

    I wouldn’t have any problem with TED if it was open about the fact that you can’t learn anything of substance at one of the talks. If it hyped itself not as a learning event, but as a learning-about-what-you-can-learn-about event. It does not do that. People listen to twenty minute secular homilies and come away thinking they’ve actually learned something. It’s depressing. Actual intellectual growth isn’t something you can do in twenty minutes. It takes work and it takes time.

  32. aspidoscelis says

    okstop – Here’re two excerpts from the author instructions for Nature, giving you the allowed length for the two main formats for articles covering original research:

    Articles are original reports whose conclusions represent a substantial advance in understanding of an important problem and have immediate, far-reaching implications. They do not normally exceed 5 pages of Nature and have no more than 50 references.

    Letters are short reports of original research focused on an outstanding finding whose importance means that it will be of interest to scientists in other fields. They do not normally exceed 4 pages of Nature, and have no more than 30 references.

    You can find the full version here:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/index.html

    I’m too lazy to look up the equivalent for Science and PNAS, but the gist is Science is about the same, PNAS a bit more lax but still strongly emphasizes brevity. Yes, these journals publish highly technical and often very narrowly focused material. That’s what makes them the academic equivalent of TED. However, they share TED’s major shortcomings – they are intended as venues for “hot shit” research that is presented as compactly as possible. It’s more about excitement and prestige than about solid research (and, yes, in the right circles crystal structures of transglycosylases are sexy) and typically the authors don’t have room to explain what the hell they did anyways. If your research really is “a substantial advance in understanding of an important problem” that has “immediate, far-reaching implications”, you can’t present that adequately in 5 pages.

  33. okstop says

    aspidoscelis, I absolutely agree with your concluding sentence in a general way. I’ll be honest – I knew Nature and PNAS were respected journals, so I assumed their content would papers of “standard” academic length. Still, I disagree with your view in one particular way – five pages written in a highly technical fashion for an audience of fellow specialists is not the same thing as five pages written for the layman. I can think of short articles (on the order of five to ten pages, thus about the equivalent of a TED talk) that present some genuine substance, but that could never be delivered to an audience outside the specialty. TED talks are intended for laymen. That makes all the difference.

  34. aspidoscelis says

    okstop:

    Well, as part of the specialized audience for a number of Nature, Science, and PNAS papers, my experience has been that the papers written in these journals generally are not long enough to present research in a substantive fashion. Some high-profile research projects are quite straightforward and concise, and can work well in a brief format; most aren’t. Further, many of the papers that get published in these high-profile journals aren’t really that good as science… instead, they are published because they’ll get attention. A recent example that exemplifies this very well was the article in Science announcing arsenic-based bacteria (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2010/12/01/science.1197258); it was bad science, but on an exciting topic. That article got a lot more attention than most (and so, from the point of view of Science’s publishers, was a resounding success), but it wasn’t a fluke. Prioritizing attention-getting research over good science is what Science does.

  35. John Morales says

    aspidoscelis,

    That article [arsenic-based bacteria] got a lot more attention than most (and so, from the point of view of Science’s publishers, was a resounding success), but it wasn’t a fluke. Prioritizing attention-getting research over good science is what Science does.

    A depressing claim if true — alas I lack the expertise to dispute the claim — but certainly not the image I imagine the publication tries to project.

    (I don’t really want to become even more cynical! :| )

  36. okstop says

    aspidoscelis:

    Alas! Well, with this new information, I officially rescind my defense of such rags as Science, Nature, and PNAS. Still, that doesn’t argue that the “flash, not substance” approach is the formula for success in science unless success in science can be equated with, pardon the joke I can’t resist, success in Science. (Ahem)

    My question is – is it? I know that success in my field depends on publishing substantive research in substantive journals. Is it really so different in the hard sciences?

  37. aspidoscelis says

    okstop said:

    Still, that doesn’t argue that the “flash, not substance” approach is the formula for success in science unless success in science can be equated with, pardon the joke I can’t resist, success in Science.

    As in probably any field, it varies… some people in the field are going to read your papers, evaluate what you did, and use that to assess you and your science. Some people are going to look just at how many papers you’ve published, how high-profile the journals are, and stop there. I would guess the data doesn’t exist to determine how many members of any given field fall into which category, but I haven’t spent much time looking. For any given scientist pursuing a career, there’s a certain degree of luck involved. Maybe the people assessing you (whether for a hire, for tenure, for a grant) will be in the first group, and go on scientific merit. Or maybe they’ll be in the second group and go by number of papers and impact factors, which aren’t a good measure of scientific merit. In biology at least, I think there are too many people in that second group, but… how many is too many? I don’t really know.