I wish I’d seen Adam Merberg’s excellent takedown of Allan Savory’s TED talk on “greening the deserts” before I wrote my own. Merberg provides a history of Savory’s career that’s remarkably detailed for its relative brevity, with a couple of damning quotes by Savory, including this one:
You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.
Merberg offers perhaps the best summation of both Savory’s attitude and the pseudoscientific impulse I’ve seen:
Savory argued at TED that Holistic Management “offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity.” What Savory does not tell us is that there is the distinct possibility that if we try to implement those ideas, we will fail. In this case, he will tell us that we misunderstood his ideas. How comforting it will be to know that his ideas were correct, as they always have been!
Also of interest, Merberg offers a sampling of credulous responses from people who pride themselves on being skeptical, including this one:
Moral progress in climate change: reversing desertification by increasing herds of animals-TED talk by Alan Savory on.ted.com/Savory
— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) March 4, 2013
In Shermer’s defense, it may be that suspension of credulity isn’t really a guy thing.
One of the more interesting parts of Merberg’s piece is his conclusion, where he directs certain uncomfortable questions at TED:
In December, TED responded to concerns that independent TEDx authorized events were “dragging the TED name through the mud” by sending a letter to “the TEDx community” warning that bad science could lead to revocation of the TEDx license. The letter also included some advice for identifying bad science. I can’t help but think that Savory’s work should have raised concerns for anybody familiar with that list. At the least, Savory’s work “has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” much of it “is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others,” it comes from an “overconfident fringe expert,” and it uses imprecise vocabulary to form untested theories.
Of course, TED has no contractual incentive to apply the standards it sets for TEDx organizers to its own talks. However, the letter emphasizes that “your audience’s trust is your top priority,” and I think it’s fair to ask what TED did to respect that trust in this case. Did they research the science behind Allan Savory’s ideas? Are they satisfied that his talk amounts to “good science”? If Savory’s talk had run at a TEDx event, would that event’s license have been revoked? Now that TED has reined in TEDx, perhaps its next move should be to look in the mirror.