Do TED lectures need better vetting?

Do TED lectures need better vetting?

While TED lectures are advertised as being for ‘ideas worth spreading’, some local/regional TEDx events offer what I would describe as at best questionable topics or speakers.

TED lectures are rightfully famous for presenting engaging talks by people from many walks of life. I’ve offered several here on this blog, both from the main annual event in California and the independently-organised regional TEDx events. (For simplicity I’ve referred to both TED and TEDx events as TED events in the text below.)

In addition to their wide reach, the fame associated with TED presentations gives lectures under this label credibility that lesser-known talks might not have, hence I am concerned at a number of TED lectures that have left me questioning the standards involved in selecting the talks.

In order that a subject be an ‘idea worth spreading’, the idea must be sound. Surely.

If it’s unsound, it’s not worth spreading – indeed you could easily argue it harmful to spread it, particularly given the creditability that the TED label adds to the material.

I believe those organising TED events need to more forcibly carry the responsibility of ensuring the talks are worthy of the label.

Let’s have a look at just a few examples so readers might have some idea of what I mean, then wrap up with a few thoughts.

Before I go on, let me clear: I have no objection to controversial presentations in an appropriate setting; I just don’t think the TED setting, exemplified by it’s slogan “ideas worth spreading”, is appropriate for dubious ‘data’.

Food allergies at Austin, Texas

This article laid in limbo in my drafts for a long time. I was prompted to finally publish this after reading Kevin Foita’s example of another questionable talk in the TED setting.[1] Kevin lays out his objections to this talk in his article; I’ll take his word that he has done the homework.

Lest you think the talk obscure, it’s garnered over 450,000 views. TED lectures attract viewers.

TED lectures frequently present book authors as experts talking on the topic of their written work. We all know that there are authors on popular subjects such as food, health and so on with less-than-sound ideas. A populist topic should be a red flag to look closer at the content. In the case of book authors, the book is likely to be a good guide. One idea then might be to ask for a review copy, pass it on to someone with an appropriate background to vet it. This need not take them a lot of time, but the effort might spare embarrassment.

Arsenic life in California

Felisa Wolfe-Simon published a controversial paper suggesting that the bacterium GFAJ-1 (literally, get Felisa ajob) isolated from Mono Lake, California, substantially utilises arsenic in place of phosphate in its genome. This proposal has met with opposition from scientists on-line and in print.[2] The paper has been published, accompanied by eight Technical Comments.

I am unable to locate a video copy of this talk online to verify its contents for myself but reports from others suggest that it promoted her ‘arsenic life’ proposal. (I’ve seen at least one account quote her having said “Arsenic can contribute to its growth”, which excerpted reads as a conclusive statement rather than a tentative ‘argument for a case’ that on-going research is better presented as. I’d need the video or a transcript to resolve this.)

Whatever you think of the validity of the science, surely TED talks ought to be about work that has a sound basis, even if they might be forward-looking and perhaps have issues remaining. But when the very basis of the material is under still question, are they appropriate for a TED lecture?

Sabin Muntean writing on the TED conversation forum offers:

I remember reading the article on the discovery of these alleged arsenic-based lifeforms on WIRED back in December, but I never encountered anything on the doubts surrounding it afterwards.

Now that I’ve seen all the other articles I’m very disappointed that TED invited Mrs. Wolfe-Simon to give this talk before the matter had been scientifically cleared up.

David Dobbs, writing at Wired, put it more forcibly: “This is real chutzpah, to assert you’ll stick to peer review, thank you, and refuse to talk to press, and then take the stage at TED.”

Naturopathy in Dunedin

I live in Dunedin, a university town where New Zealand’s oldest university, the University of Otago, is based. I didn’t attend this TEDx event, but when I went to promote videos of the event on this blog was embarrassed to discover that it had featured a presentation by a naturopath. Her business, for example, offers reflexology, reiki, ‘Gemstone Therapy’, ‘Lymphatic Drainage’, and so on, even ‘Homoeopathic Medicines’. (See my posts on homeopathy for more on these remedies.)

I feel embarrassed this was offered under the TEDx label here. Naturopathy has no place in a TED series.[3] (It’s not the only example of this happening, however.)

Astrology in Auckland

Astrologer Ken Ring has considerable notoriety in New Zealand for claiming to have successfully predicted earthquakes in the Christchurch region. He also has a history of forecasting the weather, which itself has been the subject of considerable criticism. (He publishes annual almanacs claiming to forecast the entire year’s weather well in advance.)

He presented at a TEDx event in Auckland. The speaker’s pages for the TEDxAuckland 2010 site are captured in cartoons; his face appears on the main page for the 2010 event (4 across, 2 down) and the talk is outlined in the speaker list on the same page. I have been unable to locate a video for his talk but the general nature of his material is well-known to New Zealanders.

I realise the settings for some of the local events are considerably smaller and more informal than the main events, and that to an extent there is a focus on ‘bright shiny things’ to draw in the punters, but I see little need to lower the high ideals to the point of including questionable material.

Regional TEDx events are run independently of the main event, with the brand licensed out. I don’t see that as an excuse either, in fact it may be an opportunity for TED to ask of some suitable vetting via the licensing agreement (if they don’t already). After all, sloppy talks may reflect badly on the larger brand.

The main TED event has an audition process; auditions for the 2013 event are already underway. I would hope that this audition process has some critical based around soundness of the material or speaker’s qualifications/reputation/etc., being the high-profile event it it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however, as they aim to find undiscovered talent.

There is a conversation forum on the TED website; one of the current conversations is for the audition process. It would be interesting, and I think useful, to start a conversation on the topic of how the soundness of the material is vetted. In the meantime you can offer your thoughts below.


1. Frustratingly, the TEDxAustin site relive 2011 page won’t show you the 2011 speakers – when you follow the link to the 2011 speakers it comes up with a generic teaser; links from there track to the 2012 event… The video does not give the title of her presentation, so I simply have no idea what the title is!

2. The paper is open access. An early ‘reply’ paper questions the stability of an arsenic-containing genome (subscription-only). See also the cross-referenced articles from the Science website. Since I wrote this Rosie Redfield has completed work examining Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis, which has been provisionally accepted for publication in the top-end scientific journal, Science. (Her open science blog, reporting on what her lab is doing, is well worth following to see science in action as it progresses.)

3. Or medical courses; more on that in another blog, perhaps.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.

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