TED needs a better curator

5 minute read

As 2013 slipped beneath the waves, The Guardian ran a long excerpt of a TEDGlobal talk by Benjamin Bratton: “We need to talk about TED”. Bratton is a sociologist and design theorist at the University of California, San Diego. His talk was devoted to one central message: TED is itself “a recipe for civilizational disaster”.

That seemed a bit extreme to me.

Still when I thought about it, the TED conference, its spin-off TEDx conferences, and the resulting series of short video lectures have not been especially kind to the science of human evolution.

The bad

I’ve had my own complaints about TED in the past, especially their promotion of pseudoscience (“Pseudoscience and TED”). Human evolution in particular has been poorly treated by the TED series. The top hits for “TED human evolution” are:

  • A lecture by Juan Enriquez (“Will our kids be a different species?”). According to his Big Think page, Enriquez is currently managing director of Excel Venture Management, and “is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences.” An excerpt:
Do we have any evidence that that is happening? Well let's take a look at something like autism incidence per thousand. Here's what it looks like in 2000. Here's what it looks like in 2002, 2006, 2008. Here's the increase in less than a decade. And we still don't know why this is happening. What we do know is, potentially, the brain is reacting in a hyperactive, hyper-plastic way, and creating individuals that are like this.
I don't know quite where this diktat comes from. Somebody up there is issuing the commandment, "Thou shalt not believe in the aquatic theory. And if you hope to make progress in this profession, and you do believe it, you'd better keep it to yourself, because it will get in your way."
Who doesn't want healthier children? And then, that same analytic technology, that same engine of science that can produce the changes to prevent disease, will also enable us to adopt super-attributes, hyper-capacities -- that better memory. Why not have the quick wit of a Ken Jennings, especially if you can augment it with the next generation of the Watson machine? Why not have the quick twitch muscle that will enable you to run faster and longer? Why not live longer? These will be irresistible.
  • The fourth hit is for a TEDx talk by Graham Hancock, which has been removed by TED from its central YouTube channel. This was one of the targets of those who were agitated by the TED inclusion of pseudoscience content. TED opened a forum that allowed the public to weigh in with opinions about this talk and its removal: “The debate about Graham Hancock’s talk”.

  • It is not until the fifth video that we get a talk by an actual evolutionary biologist. This one is by Mark Pagel, who has done work on the evolution of languages and whether they follow similar patterns to evolution of populations: “How language transformed humanity”.

This array is frankly depressing. No actual paleoanthropologists appear in the Google results in the first five pages. Five pages of TED paleoanthropology results, and no paleoanthropology!

The good

Despite first appearances, TED has featured some very good paleoanthropology talks over the past few years. Louise Leakey gave a TED talk, as did Zeresenay Alemseged. David Lordkipanidze and Svante Pääbo gave talks at TED-affiliated events. Some of these can be found in the first couple of pages of search results for “human evolution” at TED.com, although none are in the Google results. Louise Leakey’s talk is the first result on a YouTube search.

They’re not hidden. They’re just not well curated. TED is not directing people to good science content.

Spreading confusion

The TED phenomenon has had an interesting effect on the communication of science concepts to the public. Selected TED talks have been shown on television’s Science Channel, and on commercial airline flights. They are ubiquitous on YouTube, and used in science classes around the world.

But TED videos have been accumulating now for years, and they’re just piling up. Rarely does TED revisit the videos, update classics, add new content or context to the old ones. It’s a catch-and-release program for 18-minute talks. Catch them on film, and release them to the wild.

Over time the talks have been skewed toward questionable subjects. Registration for the main TED conference itself is several thousand dollars, and the conference thereby selects an audience of people with several thousand dollars of disposable income, with a skew toward Silicon Valley (the T in TED is for Technology). Meanwhile, the TEDx spinoff conferences depend on the enthusiasm of their organizers, some of whom have selected “outside the mainstream” topics and quacks. Bratton summarizes this tendency:

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGlobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age "quantum neuroenergy", etc: what is called woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality. In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. "No" to placebo science and medicine.

I don’t agree with simply deleting talks from TED’s stream. That doesn’t do anything, really, since those talks are available from alternative sites. Blocking them does nothing but reinforce the “lone genius against the scientific establishment” myth. Curators of art museums don’t throw fake artworks in the garbage, they use their collections to show fakes for what they are. Blocking the Graham Hancock talk did not reduce its influence.

TED finds itself in the uncomfortable position that some of its “ideas worth spreading” are bad ideas. Those bad ideas should be confronted with facts, immediately, so people who see the bad ideas can see the facts, too. Sometimes that will mean adding more commentary, more video, juxtaposing different speakers. Sometimes that will mean adding a “pop-up video” track pointing to relevant facts.

Obviously people who agree to give a TED talk don’t expect their video to be presented five years later alongside all the facts that show they’re wrong. Expecting that high standard would make it harder to recruit speakers. But the resulting talks would be a lot more accurate and representative of reality.

We should hear from more great paleoanthropologists. And TED should do much more to feature the great scientific talks they already have. Every talk should have more context alongside it. Have its ideas stood the test of time, or have they already been rejected or shown to be exaggerated? Let’s learn from the exaggerations and distortions in some past talks, not sweep them under the rug.