TEDx Talks: Some Ideas Are Not Worth Spreading

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Dec 7, 2012
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The slogan of the TED conference group is simple and elegant: “Ideas Worth Spreading.” With that in mind, for several years they have put on stage hundreds of brilliant people who are trying to change the world.

TEDx is a department of TED that licenses independent people around the world to give TED-style events (and use the logo). The department doesn’t vet the speakers at TEDx, but it does ask that all talks be professionally recorded, and they all get reviewed by TED—some even get promoted on the TED page itself. While they are separate from TED, the TEDx talks are in some ways a de facto face of TED to the public.

At this point I need to tell you that in 2011, I gave a talk at TEDxBoulder (about preventing asteroid impacts), and the video of my talk was chosen to go on the TED site. There were quite a few speakers at TEDxBoulder, and it was a riveting event. However, I need to add that one or two speakers said things that were what I would categorize as pseudoscience: claims that were not backed by real evidence but instead based on unreliable data. It wasn’t a huge deal at the time, but it did make me uncomfortable.

Which is why I was very pleased to read that today, TEDx Director Lara Stein, along with TED.com Editor Emily McManus, issued a public letter to all TEDx organizers warning them to be on the lookout for pseudoscience talks.

I asked McManus about their motivation for the letter:

First, I have to shout out (again) [ Forbes.com contributor] Emily Willingham's list, which really helped us think about communicating about this problem. It's intimidating to non-scientists to imagine that they have to personally judge science on its merits when they're not experts, and it's easy to get shouted down or overtalked when you're feeling insecure about what you know. So our hope is to give our TEDx hosts some basic tools to think critically, and to let them know they have both the right and the responsibility to be skeptical.

The letter is wonderful. It gives a specific example (saying, “If you hear anything that sounds remotely like, ‘Vaccines are related to autism,’ — RUN AWAY” which warmed me to the bottom of my immune system) and also a series of guidelines that are actually quite good. It outlines patterns of good and bad science talks that are meant to be used as a first-cut method to raise alarms if needed. For example:

GOOD: “It makes claims that can be tested and verified,” and “It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.”

BAD: “Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” and “Comes from overconfident fringe experts.”

These are then followed by a series of “red flag” topics and behaviors that, again, should serve as a warning that what the speaker is saying may not be legit: They are selling a product, they claim to have privileged knowledge, they demand TEDx presents “both sides of an issue.” (That last one is a biggie: In many cases there aren’t two sides unless one side is “reality” and the other is “nonsense.”)

None of these is a guarantee of bad science, but your spidey-sense should be tingling if you hear them.

Even better, the letter finishes with advice on how to follow up researching a proposed speaker topic, and again it’s pretty solid stuff: Start on Wikipedia, look up first sources, call people who are acknowledged experts, read papers published in respected journals.

These are not presented as hard-and-fast rules, but simply a guide, a way to cleave truth from nonsense as a first cut. It’s a great place to start, and then more finely detailed work can be done to more closely examine the claims and rate their veracity.

I was very pleased to read this letter! Not everyone is as skeptical as they need to be (heck, no one is), and it can be very easy to get reeled in by people who are confident and presents their claim well, even if it’s completely spun from fairy dust. It’s simply not possible to be an expert in every field of science, so guidelines are needed. The letter gives excellent advice to people on being skeptical in the first place, and then follows up with actual research to back up that skepticism.

This letter is a gold-star winner in how to communicate skepticism. It applies equally well to those well-versed in it and to those who may not have any experience in pseudoscientific fluffery. While it’s directed at TEDx organizers, it should be required reading for everybody.