Do TED lectures need better vetting?

By Grant Jacobs 02/04/2012 53


OPINION: TED lectures are advertised as being for ‘ideas worth spreading’. A few of the local/regional TEDx offer what I would describe as at best questionable topics or speakers. Here I point at a few examples and offer some thoughts.

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 a job) isolated from Mono Lake, California, substantially utilises arsenic in place of phosphate in it’s 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 on-line to verify it’s 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 I 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 articles on homeopathy for more on these remedies.)

I feel embarrassed that 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.

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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.

Footnotes

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 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 article, perhaps.


Other articles on Code for Life:

Optogenetics: light on brains

“Knowledge is merely opinion.” Storm – in cartoon and words

Of use of the active voice by scientists

Seeking science-y reading?

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media


53 Responses to “Do TED lectures need better vetting?”

  • I knew that there had been chatter about some of the presentations of late, but hadn’t realized how widespread the problem was. Thanks for this assembly.

    Recently I attended my local TEDx, and I don’t know how others are run–but there was certainly no time for questions or discussion. That’s not what I’m used to. If I made a conference presentation I would fully expect people to be able to question or challenge any of it.

  • I suspected there is little time for questions. (I haven’t attended an event in person and it’s hard to tell from the videos!) It’s one of the reasons why I thought TED presentations an inappropriate setting for controversial material, besides the slogan they run under that is.

    For controversial material I prefer the talks to be short enough that there is an extended period for discussion, perhaps a half of the total allocated time.

  • My initial reaction was yes there should be but the controversy surrounding some of the talks is in itself a way to expose pseudo science.

    Most of these theories gain currency outside the mainstream view. It is better they are out in the in the open

  • Thabo,

    For another setting/venue I’d agree with you, but with their branding (‘ideas worth spreading’) and the imprimatur that comes with their brand I think it’s the wrong setting. I agree with your general thoughts though!

  • Oh my goodness! Grant – have you read that Jack Kruse link Mary’s supplied? Yikes, that is some serious weirdness. Injecting oneself with MRSA and having abdominal surgery without benefit of anaesthesia????

  • And there I was trying not to get sucked into something that would chew up time! That’s a very, erm, ‘different’ TED lecture.

    For those who want it –

    Here‘s the blurb for his talk from the Nashville TEDx website ( http://www.tedxnashville.com/tedxnashville-2012/blog ):

    “ In June of 2011, Nashville neurosurgeon Dr. Jack Kruse began blogging about his findings as a formerly obese American who lost 133 pounds in a year. His discoveries came in a fight for his life as a patient that doctors couldn’t heal. After devouring everything he could find on biochemistry, metabolism and evolutionary biology, he connected the dots and made three major discoveries, two of which have been unleashed to the public. Jack is going to reveal what Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Sherpas, winter, circadian rhythms, chronic pain, leptin, and Ferrari engines all have in common — and how their collective wisdom can change healthcare in America by empowering patients to reverse their diseases and change their lives for good without drugs, surgery or chronic pain.”

    Best as I can tell there is no video of this talk on YouTube. (Yet.)

  • This tweet got me wondering how other speakers felt about speaking alongside ‘dubious’ talks:

    Carlos E. Figueroa ‏(@CFigueroaMD)
    @comalliwrites @BoraZ @BioinfoTools I’ll be participating at a TEDx meeting soon. It’s a worrisome trend, given the impact of the TED brand.

  • Grant – I found you from the link on Idealog’s blog. This is great and I’m really pleased i discovered you.

    i think some of the fundamentals are definitely issues for the TED organisation to sort out.

    BUT, for the scientifically-oriented talks, i dispair. Too few of the general public understand what the scientific method is, and how simple statistics work. I’m guessing you know ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and his book – it should be compulsory reading in year 7, imo.

  • It’s true that few of those attending will know the scientific method and I think you’re right that teaching the basics would help. For what it’s worth it wasn’t my main concern – I was just thinking that the content should at least be reasonably sound in term of “facts”, ideas and whatnot.

    It does feel like something the TED organisation needs to deal with – it’s their brand to protect after all.

  • This is an amazing thread. Thanks, Grant, for pointing to it on Twitter this morning, and I’m sorry I missed it earlier on!

    Agreed — there are some independent TEDx talks that need scrutiny, and I’m eager to discuss them. To Mary’s point above, the “vortex math” talk has since been removed from the TEDx channel on YouTube, thanks to comment threads like this one. We’ll investigate the MSRA talk, thanks to Mary and Alison’s comments. We’re a small staff and the volume of independent TEDx video is massive (and the amount of commentary about them too). Your input helps; if you write about a TEDx talk, especially if you write critically, it would be amazing if you could also email emily [at] ted.com so I see your note right away.

    In reference to the TEDxAustin talk that Kevin Folta wrote about, check out the followup on his blog. He did something very interesting: contacted the speaker and had a conversation about how they can work together, to connect her passion for food with better science going forward.

    To address another point in Grant’s piece, Felisa Wolfe-Simon was booked to speak at a TED conference during the time that she had a provisionally accepted paper in Science. The talk can’t be found on TED.com, as Grant notes, because the original paper was found not to be correct. Each year, some talks from live TED events aren’t shared because they don’t hold up. It happens, and it occasions a lot of deep thought and discussion each time.

    Last, I’d love to address the general idea that TED needs to be flatly “debunked” in some way. To be corny for a minute — TED.com is one of the finest things I know. I wouldn’t work here if it wasn’t. It’s nonprofit. (Though our interns are paid.) It’s not associated with a religious or political viewpoint. Its reason to exist is to share ideas — from science, tech, business, philosophy, design — for free, in multiple languages, and to promote conversation about ideas. We do our best, and we are grateful for commentators who keep an eye on us too.

    So let’s talk. Tell me about the TED and TEDx talks that are troubling to you; write me at emily [at] ted.com.

  • Emily,

    Thanks for dropping by and for the thoughtful comment. (You can comment freely now that you’re first comment has been approved.)

    Interesting to read that TED removes talks that are found not to be up to standard – I wasn’t aware of that; I suspect most people aren’t.

    I’ll want to think more first (typically for me…!) but a quick thought – what you describe seems in essence a post-publication peer-review process, whereas I was calling for pre-publication review or pre-emptive vetting process.

    On the spur-of-the-moment, it occurs to me that you might try tapping the skeptical and/or science writing communities through a WWW-based means. While the former (skeptical) crowd can be noisome at times, these people generally have a good feel for what’s sound and know the names of their local ‘unorthodox’ folk. As a simple example, I couldn’t expect many overseas to know about Ken Ring, but he’s well-know in New Zealand.

    I’m not quite sure what your last point is aimed at. Perhaps you’re drawing from commentary elsewhere? I know there are now a few articles in the wider media, such the NewStateman piece and a slightly earlier piece at Slate not to mention commentary elsewhere on-line. With success TED lectures draw a lot of attention! I guess in common with many things offered with high aspirations, the audience is demanding. (I can think of examples in the consumer electronics market – products pitched as of high standard tend to draw picky criticism.)

    My own focus was, if anything, on the processes by which talks are selected rather than a ‘debunking’. I think a lot of problems organisations have are solved through having processes that match their aims. You clearly aim for high-standard talks, that’s great to hear. That some were slipping through seemed me to imply a need for some sort of vetting process or re-examining what currently was in place for the independent TEDx forums at least.

  • Exactly! I worry sometimes that we’re not transparent enough that we curate all the talks that appear on the front page, and reject some. Part of this reticence is just human nature — we don’t want to embarrass people who tried for TED and didn’t quite get there. And that we listen and act after bloggers point out misstatements we didn’t catch the first time around.
    Building a vetting process for independent TEDx video, in particular, has been a challenge; the growth of the TEDx movement caught us by surprise (we thought, maybe 5-10 events a year will happen, but in the past 3 years there have been more than 4,000!) and we’ve been hiring to catch up.
    (And yes, I think my reaction to the New Statesman piece colored that last paragraph. Thanks for the perspective.)
    So! Let’s talk. I’m very interested in comments on talks, TEDx, process, people we should be on the lookout for, anything, and I will follow this thread closely.

    • Sorry I’m slow getting back to you. Quick thought as I’m a bit short on time – in talking about vetting videos, you’re still talking about after the events – I was thinking of vetting before the events. I realise some things won’t be caught until afterwards, but the cases I mentioned in the article would have easily been pointed out ahead of time. I was loosely thinking alone the lines of TEDx event organisers being made to present the talk titles and speakers, say, a few weeks ahead of time and these being available on a common channel for comment, so that people can give a heads-up if the speaker or topic needs closer inspection or is likely to be unsound, etc.

      Pity no-one else has any thoughts – perhaps I ought to have started a fresh post to attract readers.

  • Part of the problem is that cranks and zealots tend to be more certain in their convictions than scientists and critical thinkers, and more energetic and persistent in their determination to take their messages to the world. To the Elmer Gantrys of our times TED is the perfect platform. The more popular TED becomes, the more charismatic dingbats will clamour to get themselves on board, and the greater the risk of TED becoming discredited as a result. I don’t know the answer. There are all sorts of philosophical and practical issues involved.
    For me (Postillion! Bring me my high horse!) the key issue is – you can’t ban ideas. All you can do is drive them underground. “The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas” (A. W. Griswold).

    • Hi Lynley,

      Good thought it might become increasingly an issue.

      You can’t ban ideas, of course, but I’d like to think that if they’re to be “worth sharing” you want to check they’re should before you give a platform for sharing them – ?

  • Lynley, you hit the nail on the head: “…cranks and zealots tend to be more certain in their convictions than scientists and critical thinkers.” It’s always a concern.
    Grant, for the TED.com homepage, we do vet and curate. For independent TEDx events around the world, we work on giving the independent, local hosts the tools they need to check out their own speakers, and the firm guideline that talks presented on the TEDx stage must be scientifically valid. If you’re curious, go check out the TEDx guidelines (ted.com/tedx) — what could be added, improved or changed? Very interested in your thoughts.

  • From a quick visit to the TEDx page, & a check of the guidelines relating to speakers:
    Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community. TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing “us vs them” language. If Talks fail to meet the standards above, TED reserves the right to insist on their removal.

    As Grant said in his post, one Ken Ring gave such a talk (at an event in Auckland) – yet his ideas definitely don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. This would suggest that either the guidelines were ignored, or that someone on the organising team thinks that KR really is a scientist. So maybe there is a need for central vetting of all speakers? Or perhaps a firmer approach when the licence to run an event is handed over?

  • The guidelines look fine but there will be an ongoing problem with charismatic zealots who cannot see beyond their conviction in their own rightness. I suspect, given the scale of the TEDx phenomenon, prior vetting in some sort of in-house way would be too cumbersome, expensive and time consuming to work. Off the top of my head… how about crowd-sourcing the vetting – require the wannabe presenter to put an outline of their argument, conclusions and credentials on a website like sciblogs for public scrutiny, that should flush out the quacks & identify the “ideas worth spreading”.

  • Emily,

    You wrote, “giving the independent, local hosts the tools they need to check out their own speakers, and the firm guideline that talks presented on the TEDx stage must be scientifically valid. If you’re curious, go check out the TEDx guidelines (ted.com/tedx) — what could be added, improved or changed? Very interested in your thoughts.”

    I had hoped my earlier comment suggested one – a vetting of the speakers and their topics independently of the regional organisers, essentially crowd-sourcing the problem:

    “I was loosely thinking [along] the lines of TEDx event organisers being made to present the talk titles and speakers, say, a few weeks ahead of time and these being available on a common channel for comment, so that people can give a heads-up if the speaker or topic needs closer inspection or is likely to be unsound, etc.”

    Alison’s thought of firmer licensing is also good.

    Taking Ken Ring as an example, while I wouldn’t expect the California base team to recognise how his material might not “stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community” (I’m being polite), I would like to think that locals certainly would quickly point that out given a means to.

    ‘Crowd-sourcing’ a solution might exploit how well-known the TED brand is. One problem would be devising an ‘automated’ scheme that’s not prone to being exploited. Internet-based polls, for example, are notorious for being ‘bombed’ by interest groups. A simple poll vote wouldn’t be very helpful! Rather than score the vote, I was thinking in terms of recognising what is disputed or contested, from what is not not, rather than a raw vote, essentially a heads-up to sessions that might need more attention, so that you can quickly pick out the handful that need a closer look from the perhaps 2,000 talks a year.

    I’m not saying that’s easy, but then TED should be able draw on keen and good people (voting systems are part of computer science and operations research, among other disciplines) that would be able to come up with something.

    A public process will place some pressure on the organisers to think before the release their list of speakers and their topics, but perhaps for the good. (There might be less public options, but I’m drawing on a concept that community events, like TEDx, lean on community vetting for the sake of argument.)

  • I should add my suggestion of crowd-sourcing follows my earlier comment and is independent of Lynley’s voicing the same suggestion – our comments crossed on the wires, as it were.

    Lynley is also more concise than me! :-)

  • Hi Grant,

    I saw the links to this thread on twitter. For the record I have been at 4 live TEDx events ( ANZ) and currently working on another in Auckland which is on in 2 weeks time. I have also followed a couple of live streams for other TEDx events and so all up have seen dozens of talks plus hundreds on the main TED channels.

    Regarding TEDx talks which are much more local in tone there are now thousands out there. http://pinterest.com/pin/66780006945292660/ is a graphic which may give some idea of how many.

    There are fairly strict criteria for speakers and each TEDx event does its best to comply. Usually the re is an extensive review process and the short list is invite only for the most part. Even so what you hear and see on the night is has been culled down from hundreds of possibles to maybe a dozen or so talks.

    Each organising team is staffed by volunteers and a typical event might have 30-40 people during prep plus many more on the actual day.

    The best TEDx events have a speaker panel where the organising team gets to review speakers and their ideas and vote in some way but because the process is “curated” there will often be a personal flavour to some picks.

    Speakers are crowd sourced already at least in the larger cities. There are also often shorter talks given by a selected attendee.

    All presentations should be screened and reviewed in advance and at the events I’ve been to all have been peer reviewed beforehand.

    However sometimes the presentation that is pre vetted and rehearsed is not the one that is given on the night.

    Having been to the Dunedin I’m surprised that there was a naturopath presenting – however I also know that team and you should talk with them directly and maybe you can help vet future speakers.

    At the 2010 TEDx event – I worked on that and I disagreed with having Ken Ring anywhere near the stage as did many others at the time. Since I was managing social media streams I also had plenty of feedback to that effect from attendees.

    Ultimately though the TEDx licensee / lead curator picked Ken as a kind of wildcard knowing that he would be controversial.

    From memory Ken made some good points about how some ideas seems heretical such as climate change for some. In summary while I disagreed with his being given a speaking slot it wasn’t all bad.

    So even though Ken ( in my view) should not have been a speaker – he knew he was presenting to a more demanding audience and so his presentation was a bit more open ended.

    I’d hesitate to say that a naturopath couldn’t give a a good talk. Chances are the topic would be naturopathy and so that should disqualify it but they might have some other insights.

    I do recall another presentation by medical doctor Robin Kelly on acupuncture which veered off into rather strange territory but in the context of the 2009 Auckland events the overwhelming impact was positive.

    For Auckland 2012 we have a new organising team and the speaking panel is very heavily stacked with practising scientists.

    I think you will find that all local TEDx events do a great deal of good in getting ideas into more of a mainstream audience for the most part and away from academic audiences.

    Also the local organisers are often working under many resource constraints and for the most part on a voluntary and not for profit basis to share those ideas.

    With your practical help we can do more and so feel free to contact Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland teams as apropriate.

  • According to the TEDx Dunedin website there are no scientists on the TEDx Dunedin team. I can’t find any info on the Auckland TEDx team. Are any of the members scientists?

  • Hi Lynley,

    Sounds like an opportunity for you in Dunedin to volunteer your services. :)

    However I fear you may be missing the point. For example Prof John Windsor is from the Auckland Med School. There are very few people in NZ who could review his talk but because the subject has been peer reviewed before hand which is the usual order.

    Another of this years speakers has was a Rhodes Scholar and has a PHD in physics however I don’t expect his talk to be particularly about science at all but he is definitely working on some ideas worth spreading.

    On the other hand having a prominent scientist like Sir Peter Gluckman speaking on sociology and politics may not be such a good idea and I can think of at least one of his speeches that would have been controversial if it had been a TEDx talk.

    TED originally stood for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the educational element has grown over time. I’m not sure that science is a dogma free zone either.

    TEDx talks are not all about science. Just because some talks have slipped through previously doesn’t mean they will in 2012. The process gets refined each time.

    What we need are talks that are well presented rather than just science or other subject matter. I have watched a fair number I found boring and dull including one from a Nobel prize winner.

    The point is that the presentation needs to satisfy other criteria as well and even after that the organisers are not going to like all of them because on the actual day despite rehearsals and other prep sometimes a talk just doesn’t fly.

    As far as I can tell the Ken Ring talk from Auckland 2010 has been taken down if it was ever up there. However the Dr Robin Kelly talk from 2009 regarding holograms in my view was completely kooky and still is. Neither of those talks would pass today.

  • Jason – I’m not suggesting that all TED talks are, or should be, about science. But science is frequently part of the mix. No matter how well presented the talk, no matter how many other criteria it meets and no matter what the qualification and status of the presenter, if the science is dodgy then not just the talk but the entire TED enterprise will be discredited. I reckon having a scientist with well-tuned antennae for detecting pseudoscience masquerading as the real thing would help ensure that TEDx ideas really are worth spreading.

  • Thanks Lynley I can assure you the objective is not to present any dodgy science and that there are a number of science based advisors at all of the bigger TEDx events.

    That is subject to volunteers and other resources of course.

    In the context of the 4,300 TED talks and 16,500 TEDx talks that were listed on the Forbes infographic there is a lot of work involved in putting these events on.

    I don’t think the entire TEDx enterprise will be discredited at all as this is a licensed event in local cities with local speakers and teams who are responsible locally.

    Speakers are unpaid all of the various teams do the best they can as volunteers

    Despite all of the policy and licensing rules in the context of the 20,800 + around 1000 new talks each month there are going to be a small number that shouldn’t be there. Control is decentralised for the most part as these numbers are growing and can be quite overwhelming.

    Perhaps too much focus is going on the very small handful of talks that have “bad science” in them and not on the other 20,800+ that are having a much more positive impact.

    I’d rather talk about the 20,795 talks that were great.

  • Alison is right, the TEDx guidelines were ignored for the Ken Ring talk. Controversy trumped scientific validity. Jason writes: “the TEDx licensee / lead curator picked Ken as a kind of wildcard knowing that he would be controversial.”

    The guidelines recognise the damage that charlatans do to the credibility of TED & TEDx: “TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community.”

    But Jason pretends there isn’t a problem. “I don’t think the entire TEDx enterprise will be discredited at all…”

    Emily must be really worried.

  • My apologies in advance for the length of this comment, but I feel a need to reiterate some points.

    (Before I go into this, an aside. There seems to be a pattern emerging here. As I write a long comment, Lynley writes short one that captures some elements of my longer one with elegant brevity. Ha! Readers may find this hard to believe but I once was better at this, I suspect because of a forum where comments where restricted to 256 characters.)

    With all respect, invitations to “join in” shift the goal posts away from points I was making and I cannot see how this will solve the problem I am pointing at. What I am pointing is not a call for a few better individuals (in the local region); I am suggesting that a better process may be needed (internationally).

    Before I continue, I am not opposing TED in any way here: I am just dismayed at some of what I see is slipping through.

    I don’t see that inviting new individuals here and there will fix this. Any one individual can only cover a small number of specialities.

    Furthermore, Jason gave an example earlier where it seems that the overall organiser made a decision that others disfavoured: “At the 2010 TEDx event – I worked on that and I disagreed with having Ken Ring anywhere near the stage as did many others at the time. […] Ultimately though the TEDx licensee / lead curator picked Ken as a kind of wildcard knowing that he would be controversial.”

    One of the points I made in my article was “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’.” The guidelines seem to concur with this.

    Jason’s example then is of the TEDx licensee / lead curator running counter to this despite other individuals opposing it. From this we might learn that asking for additional individuals who might pick up these problematic cases will likely not resolve the problem, both because there will still be selection panels that lack the background to spot issues in advance and because there will still be licensees that, perhaps with the best of intentions, call it wrongly.

    What I suggested was to use a crowd-sourced solution that would offer views independently of either the TEDx or TED staff/licensees/etc., that can be used to good effect to screen in advance likely troublesome cases.

    Public input I hope would encourage TEDx efforts to look more closely at what they are offering, and also provide a means for TED (the parent group) to be alerted to possible issues in the regional events.

    A few loose details. I’m not suggesting that TEDx groups place speakers and their topics on their TEDx websites and then have people comment on these. I’m suggesting a specific common channel that all TEDx (and TED, for that matter) efforts are obligated to place their speakers and topics in advance for comment/scrutiny – a crowd-sourced clearing house, if you will.

    I’d write more, but I hope this helps to re-enforce what it is that I am pointing to and that readers might perhaps follow from this lead. (I can ask, but course you can’t lead a horse to water, etc.) There may, of course, be better solutions – I’m happy to hear them, but I’m a little disappointed that the suggestion isn’t being addressed.

  • Hi Grant – your suggestion of a crowd sourced review of some kind is fine but each city does their own thing to the best of their abilities and sometimes that comes down to the individual licensee. You are best to talk to the organisers in your city and see if you can help out in that way. That is the only way that is going to get addressed because this is not a centralised network. The wider debate really needs to happen on the main TEDx site where policies can be debated more widely.

    What I find frustrating is that out of more that 20,000 talks much of the focus here is on a handful of rogue ones and we all agree that the “bad science” examples shouldn’t happen. There is a tendency to rain on the TEDx parade without any recognition of the myriad constraints faced by organisers.

    For example TEDx Dunedin never sold any tickets to the last event so it was fully sponsored and limited to 100 attendees.

    Also I wouldn’t assume that the brand rules were the same 3 years ago as they are today. These things evolve over time and no one sets out to mess with them. My example of the Ken Ring situation is my opinion of what happened.

    At the time I chose to celebrate the good from the other dozen or so talks and not to write anything public about the Ken Ring talk because in my view the overwhelming benefit of the day came from the other talks.

    So yes it is always to debate these ideas and come up with better policies and plans but you also have to engage with the local organisers who will be grateful for your constructive help.

  • “your suggestion of a crowd sourced review of some kind is fine but each city does their own thing to the best of their abilities”

    I’ve read this far and stopped. You still appear not to ‘get’ it or are not taking in what I am writing. My suggestion was not for each city in turn. It was for all of the TEDx events, collectively. I would like to thought that was clear from my description. (Surely?)

    “That is the only way that is going to get addressed because this is not a centralised network.”

    I disagree. Apparently the TEDx events are licensed out from a central point, TED.com. It can be addressed from a common community-based tool. (Common meaning common to all TEDx events. I hope you understand I am thinking along the lines of an internet-based solution.)

    “What I find frustrating is that out of more that 20,000 talks much of the focus here is on a handful of rogue ones and we all agree that the “bad science” examples shouldn’t happen. There is a tendency to rain on the TEDx parade without any recognition of the myriad constraints faced by organisers.”

    I’m well aware of that. You’re implying a straw man figure of me. How about instead of defending the status quo trying to approach this in a positive ‘how might we do better’ way? One point that may have escaped your attention is what I am suggesting doesn’t add much to TEDx organisers workload beyond asking that the speakers and topic be known in advance.

    “For example TEDx Dunedin never sold any tickets to the last event so it was fully sponsored and limited to 100 attendees.”

    Sorry, but what this to do with anything here?

    “Also I wouldn’t assume that the brand rules were the same 3 years ago as they are today. These things evolve over time and no one sets out to mess with them. My example of the Ken Ring situation is my opinion of what happened.”

    I appreciate that point and was not making that assumption as you imply. Some of the examples I gave are more recent. (Have you read my article?)

    “At the time I chose to celebrate the good from the other dozen or so talks and not to write anything public about the Ken Ring talk because in my view the overwhelming benefit of the day came from the other talks.”

    Sure, but I didn’t write “ I am not opposing TED in any way here: I am just dismayed at some of what I see is slipping through” for nothing.

    “So yes it is always to debate these ideas and come up with better policies and plans but you also have to engage with the local organisers who will be grateful for your constructive help.”

    Why am I obliged to “engage with the local organisers”? The suggestion I putting forward is global.

    You still haven’t not engaged with the core suggestion. But that fine, that’s your call and in the end of the day I’m more interested in TED’s (the core group) view.

  • Thanks Grant. I have read your column but earlier on you mentioned you haven’t been to a local event and I am suggesting that you should at least do that.

    And logon to the main site and make suggestions over there too of course. You will have more success with the global organisation if you engage locally with the 4 licensees in NZ.

    Yes there is a central licensing system but there are something like 1000 talks on on each month and it does take a lot of effort to track all of that.

    When I say “each city does their own thing to the best of their abilities” I mean that each city is following the guidelines and other license content as far as much as they can but this is not a money making commercial organisation with strict organisation over every little thing and so there are natural limits.

    It is not my call to engage with your suggestion or not – and by the way I agree with it. It is a good idea which is why I am here.

    However as someone who has invested hundreds of hours of my personal time in helping with these events across multiple cities in NZ and Australia I am offering observations based on my personal involvement.

    Rest assured the core TED group is made up of hundreds of local teams and they are all following the rules as best as they can. The way to get better quality is to engage locally which is where the help is needed.

  • BTW one of the most popular TED talks of all time is Jill Bolte Taylors stroke talk. My personal view is that parts of it are seriously weird. However it is not a science talk per sae. More personal experience from a unique perspective and is it an idea worth spreading? I don’t know but millions pf people find it fun to watch. In answer to comments form others about conference and questions. TEDx talks follow a strict format and there is no time for questions on the day.

  • The NZ licensees are Dunedin – Sam Schuurman, Christchurch – Kaila Corbin, Auckland – Ben Irving and DK in Wellington. Also TEDx events are independent.

    It is rare for speakers not to be announced well in advance and there is always feedback at all stages of the event but ultimately the licensees are the key stakeholders.

    To become a licensee you need to attend a full TED event and that costs US $7500 + your own expenses so licensees have put some of their hard earned cash into that part.

    The actual events are self funded locally and while they are not for profit real costs are incurred so you can bet local organisers are grateful for volunteers. Being independent events they have to pay their way.

  • Aah the Jill Bolte Taylor talk – here are the comments I made in June 2010 to the friend who sent me the link:
    “Gerry – she gives no indication whatsoever in her talk that she has ever entered that altered state voluntarily. There is no direct evidence from which you can draw that conclusion. What she has done is give a dramatic presentation of questionable scientific value (I’m sure academic psychologists will find her right brain/left brain description squirmingly simplistic) with an upbeat ending – so upbeat that it’s easy to overlook its lack of connection with her stroke experience. I reckon you have joined the dots because you were won over by the power of her talk and you wanted it to form a coherent whole. It’s called wishful thinking.”
    Sure her talk was popular, so is gossip about film stars, but spreadable ideas are not necessarily ideas worth spreading. For consistent quality of both content & presentation, followed by informed discussion, you can’t beat the Reith Lectures – they really do have ideas worth spreading.

  • Thanks Lynley I mentioned that talk because it was and still is very high profile. I would say that a fair number of people who watched that understood the parts where she was observing and the parts where she was speculating on what it meant to her.

    I don’t believe that any licensee or curator sets out to put dodgy science on stage but personal experiences do get mixed in with the talks and usually that is a good thing.

    TEDx talks are not science conferences they are talks. The rules are very stringent and keep being updated but there is always the human element and so what happens on the day is not always according to the script.

    The Reith Lectures are wonderful talks but not really mainstream outside of the UK. Part of the appeal of the TEDx talks is that it takes topics and speakers outside the academic circuit and looks to make more of a connection across disciplines.

    The “ideas worth spreading” tagline is subjective and always will be. Everyone working on these events tries to comply and do their best within the rules but at the same time talks need to be entertaining and interesting to a much wider audience.

    Thanks Grant for the opportunity to share.

  • More later – will be busy most of the day.

    “The way to get better quality is to engage locally which is where the help is needed.”

    My suggestion hasn’t much to do with local involvement per se, as on one hand you seem to realise, yet on the other you keep asserting that ‘the’ answer is ‘local involvement’! My suggestion is something that might be linked in with, for example, the on-line community forums TED.com already has and to encourage wider community involvement in a global, networked way. My suggestion was to recruit wider involvement – not everyone can join in an in physical-presence way.

    I appreciate your insights, but perhaps you might also appreciate mine? 😉 I have been around in science for quite a while (decades – ouch!) and am quite familiar with talk presentations, am well aware of the time it takes to organise events, have some insight to the wider range of nonsense being presented in various media, and so on. Similarly, with regards to your “hundreds of hours of my personal time in helping with these events” you could consider the hundred of hours I have put into science communication unpaid 😉

    The main reason I didn’t attend the Dunedin event was simply that I wasn’t properly aware of it. Generally speaking, I can’t afford to attend events elsewhere in NZ. Maybe your pockets are deeper than mine. (You also seem to be inadvertently rewriting here – you earlier suggested I help organise one, not to attend one.)

    I feel I’d rather direct my suggestion to Emily if you don’t mind – it seems more in her camp than your’s, it being tied to on-line networked things rather than the management of a local event per se, despite that it obviously impinges on the local events at points.

  • Thanks again Grant. By all means contact Emily as you have probably done already. The rules and regulations are already very tight and being updated all the time.

    The latest speakers rules now include this paragraph which looks like it covers part of this debate.

    “Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community.”

    The way to get a new process in place ( to support that rule or any other) is to work locally because there are over 1000 TEDx events each month and while the rules are centralised – the execution is local which is why I keep emphasizing the local input.

    All TEDx events are independent but when everything about them is prescribed including every single process that absolutely does impact on the management of local events.

    To put your idea into practice it needs a local review process (regardless of the rules) but I think we have reached the end of this thread :)

    • To those following this thread, I will try get back to this later today.

      Jason,

      In writing,

      “The way to get a new process in place ( to support that rule or any other) is to work locally because there are over 1000 TEDx events each month and while the rules are centralised – the execution is local which is why I keep emphasizing the local input.

      All TEDx events are independent but when everything about them is prescribed including every single process that absolutely does impact on the management of local events.

      To put your idea into practice it needs a local review process (regardless of the rules) but I think we have reached the end of this thread :)”

      you’re showing me that you are steady-fastly not getting or taking on my suggestion, which I explained in my previous comment. Perhaps you might trying reading what I’ve written more slowly?

  • Emily, I don’t follow Ted closely but sometime I happen to stumble across some youtube videos on some Ted lectures which I find interesting, example was a TED talk given by an econo-physicist, Dr Tobias Preis. I had read some of Tobias Preis’s papers before I stumbled upon his youtube TED talk.

  • Emily,

    I’d like to elaborate on my suggestion so that it’s ‘place’ might be properly seen. This will regrettably be briefer than I would like as I’m pressed for time. I may later revisit the issue with a fresh article, which I hope will help readers focus on the suggestion, rather than sidelines. (In fact, looking at the length of this I may anyway to draw fresh readers and commentary – I’m sticking with posting it here in the interim as you’ve written here and I’d welcome your comments.)

    As I see things TED has successfully introduced what we might describe as an ‘intellectual entertainment’ venture, which aims to have high standards.

    When products that state aiming to high standards succeed, then is often push-back from the customer base if they perceive it as falling short of it’s aims. This is true, for example, of some higher-end electronic goods. It seems to me that this comes with the territory!

    I perceive that the core product (TED.com) will be concerned about events or talks that embarrass the TED brand, in much the same way that an electronics company might have concerns over product flaws in an higher-end devices.

    A point here I’m trying make is that the concern lies with the image of core product, even if the issue itself occurs within the nominally ‘independent’ events. There’s a splash-back effect.

    On elements of this is that many consumers will not (fully) appreciate the independence (to whatever degree) of the TEDx events – they’ll simply see the global branding. I don’t think education of the details of the TEDx events will fix this – that sort of consumer is unlikely to spend the time on it.

    As I wrote fairly early on in the discussion I was thinking of “a vetting of the speakers and their topics independently of the regional organisers, essentially crowd-sourcing the problem”, “loosely thinking [along] the lines of TEDx event organisers being made to present the talk titles and speakers, say, a few weeks ahead of time and these being available on a common channel for comment, so that people can give a heads-up if the speaker or topic needs closer inspection or is likely to be unsound, etc.”

    What I am thinking of might be considered as an extension of the discussion forums on the TED.com site.

    One thing on-line communities like is to be able to engage in a real way, to feel that they are contributing.

    I haven’t time to outlay all possibilities (of course!) but to at least give the general direction, you might imagine a channel that is part of or parallel to the discussion forums where the on-line community would be presented the initial list of speakers and topics for upcoming TEDx (and TED?) events and have a means to give feedback.

    Each would be tagged with the particular event, so that organisers of that event can easily track comments on their particular event.

    From this could be draw summarises for both the TED and TEDx organisers. TEDx organisers would hopefully use the summaries to aid their decisions. TED organisers can use the summaries to be alerted of TEDx events which might be of concern to them.

    I can’t suggest precisely what these summaries might involve – that would come after a channel would be developed. One might be a simple score of a voting scheme, perhaps accompanied by a short text summary of a moderator of that event’s channel (with the summary put to readers of the channel and a vote of how they feel it represents the consensus?). There are numerous variations, of course, too many to explore here. The mechanism need not be complex unless it shows later to need refining – after all you would hope the number of truly difficult cases would be (relatively) rare.

    A key aim would be to get this feedback before TEDx (or TED) websites show the speakers and their topics in any sort of ‘official’ way.

    Another aim is to provide information in a way that involves little time to the respective organisers of the events. As each event has a limited number of speakers, at worse they would the same number of summaries as speakers – in the event that every speaker they offered was considered dubious! In practice, you’d hope they would only receive ‘red flags’ for a small minority of the speakers and their topics.

    Another aim is to provide the core TED team some early alert of potential problems before they become tied to the brand.

    Finally, there’s community involvement. ‘Spun’ properly this might be a way to draw in an on-line community through giving them a means to be actively involved that doesn’t require they be physically present at the location or attend meetings, etc.

    I should clarify my early comments in that by referring to ‘locals’ knowing the potential speaker’s inclinations, I do not mean ‘local’ in the sense that the person can walk up to the organisers and shake their hand or contribute directly to an event‘s development in a physically-present way. I mean that they are in same country (or state in the USA), that they are within the ‘sphere’ that the speaker is known.

    I hope it’s clear this does not involve the on-the-ground, physical presence at the local TEDx organising group that Jason keeps insisting that it does. A key point is that is does not and that assists those that are doing the on-the-ground work aiding them to do better through drawing on the on-line community (aka ‘crowd-sourcing’).

    One element of this that the speakers will almost certainly have presented elsewhere – it’s why TEDx events will be aware of them – and these more ‘local’ presentations can clue in on-line contributions to the process.

    Alison’s alternative of strengthening the licensing is an alternative, but my opinion is that mistakes will continue because, as I tried to relate earlier, a small group of individuals simply can’t spot all the problems.

    Taking the up-coming TEDx Auckland event as an example, and just taking the first name on the list, I couldn’t really assess, say, Sean Gourley’s likely contribution. Nothing against him, I’m sure (hope!) he’s fine fellow, but I’ve seen any number of physicists express some truly awful biology, for example!

    In practice, it seems that he’s to speak on High Frequency Trading and the New Algorithmic Ecosystem. I know very little about financial trading systems (although I know quite a bit about algorithms, but probably not the kind he will be referring to).

    In that article Sean writes, “The only requirement is that the content was somewhat experimental, with bonus points if it was a touch controversial.”

    So, the TEDx organisers asked for “somewhat experimental” and “a touch controversial” material.

    Let’s leave aside debate how “somewhat experimental” or “a touch controversial” might relate to “ideas worth spreading” for the sake of using it as an example.

    Experimental would mean that it’s not yet fully vetted as ‘sound’ – in this case I’d want an assurance that this is made explicitly clear in the talk, lest the audience be (unintentionally) mislead.

    Controversial can be a lot different things to different people. Were I involved in organising this, I’d be out-sourcing feedback on what kind of controversial this is. Do financial traders think he’s off-the-wall, or solid? I couldn’t possibly tell. Point here is that this will repeat itself in every TEDx event.

    A common on-line channel might allow people to step up and relate what they know without either the TEDx or TED organisers having to actively source this feedback (bar the effort of setting up the channel in the first instance) before presenting the speaker or the topic on an ‘official’ website. In Sean Gourley’s case ‘local’ feedback would most likely be from San Francisco, where he now lives, not Auckland.

    I have little doubt effort is already put in, but wouldn’t wide contributions make this easier and help avoid some the sillier cases we’ve seen end up in TED(x) events?

  • That would explains why people who are capable of thinking for themselves have stopped watching TED.

    • A point about this is not whether the audience can decide for themselves or not, but whether “questionable” content is appropriate for the TED(x) forum, for TED’s brand (“ideas worth spreading”, etc).

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