On vetting TED(x) events – a suggestion

By Grant Jacobs 20/09/2012

In an earlier article, Do TED lectures need better vetting?, I pointed to recurring ‘slips’ in TED(x) events where unsound material were being presented and asked if better vetting of speakers and their material might be needed, especially for the independent local/regional TEDx events.

TED editor Emily McMagnus joined the discussion and invited suggestions. I’ve copied my latest reply to her here as a separate post to give it a wider readership and to invited readers to offer their thoughts and suggestions, as the original is currently buried in the comments of an old post. (I’d encourage interested readers to read the original discussion as it offers some background to how TED and TEDx events are hosted and run.)

Being pushed for time I’ve presented my comment verbatim, bar some very light editing and removing the first paragraph as it would be out of context here.[1] Some less-then-ideal grammar or phrasing remains! Readers should take care to distinguish TED and TEDx events.



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 I’m trying make here 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.

One element 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 drawn 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 it 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 [vetting] process.

Alison’s suggestion 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” [the TED slogan] 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 mean 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?


1. Also because readers would have to wade past it! It reads:

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.)

Other articles at Code for life:

Do TED lectures need better vetting?

Media reporting of subsequent findings

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

0 Responses to “On vetting TED(x) events – a suggestion”

  • Hardly thought control. If TED requirements are that where the talk is to be on science, the speaker actually have good credentials in the field, then some mechanism is needed to assist TEDx organisers in meeting that requirement.

  • Alison — exactly! One of the neat small benefits of TEDx is that it helps us at TED HQ see which of our processes we take for granted and don’t talk about enough. For example, we find and vet mainstage speakers through a huge network of TEDsters, friends at universities and companies, and online research. Building that network took … well, TED’s been around since 1984! And building the confidence to ask anybody any question at all (such as for a nonscientist to ask a scientist for help) — that takes time too. For local organizers, it’s important to emphasize both the network-building and the ability to ask all kinds of questions.

  • Perhaps it’s a case of being easier to see from the outside, as it were?

    A thought though – back in the 80s you might have had to built that network essentially ‘by hand’. Today, there’s opportunity to make use of on-line networking and draw on an even wider network.

  • Via twitter:

    [from:] Bess Hepworth ‏@BonzaPie
    @BioinfoTools hey Grant your #TEDx observations are very timely as I plan my event early next year, flagging to look at in more depth asap

  • While not the out-sourcing I was advocating, this job vacancy is related to the topic at hand – research assistant for TEDMED: “TEDMED seeks to ensure the process by which it curates topics and speakers for the Stage Program is credible and aligned to major health priorities. It is seeking a Research Assistant to refine, implement and audit its current processes.” The applicant is preferred to have a PhD in the biomedicine area, esp. on the clinical side. It’s worth noting the key responsibilities with the discussion in my earlier post and above in mind.

    See: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B6FQllQZJcdCbTdmUHdXM1JFSXM/edit?pli=1

  • Is Randy Powell saying anything in his 2010 TEDxCharlotte talk or is it just total nonsense?…

    Exactly — and we’re working with the local TEDx organizers to help them reach out to experts that they may otherwise be, to be honest, too shy to speak to. Folks like Randy prey on people’s insecurity about science and math. There was a great thread…

    [Editor’s note – The source of the message is not from Quora, but from a different large commercial company. I do not know if Quora is formally assisting TED(x) or not and hence whether “we’re working with” represents Quora’s position. (It might, for example, be the intentions of some members of Quora.) That aside, the discussion linked on the writer’s name is relevant to this discussion and worth reading. Finally, I would discourage readers from using commercial companies’ names as pseudonyms – doing this has obvious problems.]

  • Just dropping a note here, because this has been such a wonderful thread and community, to say: SIGH! Have you seen the latest outcropping of woo on TEDx?
    It’s not possible for anyone to be more upset about this than I am, and I’d love to talk about it.
    So basically, TEDx is a community continuously under assault by pseudoscience now. This latest mess-up is interesting to me because it involves a lot of the low-grade health woo that I think all of us have encountered in conversations in our own lives. I’d love to know: How do you speak respectfully to your students, friends, family when they start talking about how great this health woo is?
    Please know TEDx is on the case to prevent this kind of event from recurring, and your thoughts are welcome!

  • Emily,

    Great to have you back, albeit not under circumstances you want.

    I have a growing backlog of posts I “should” complete, but (but!) I’ll try look into this tonight and put up a fresh post. It’ll get more eyes that way.

    I could just pop your question under ‘Help a TED editor’. (Should that be ‘the’ TED editor?) Lazy not me, of course. Not really a solution, but better than nothing – ?