Posted by: Chris | October 23, 2012

TED Blows

Via Andrew, it appears TEDxCharlotte got unintentionally Sokaled.  A man named Randy Powell gave a speech about something called vortex mathematics to which the enlightened TED audience gave a rapturous standing ovation.  It turns out vortex mathematics is fairly transparently nonsensical, just a gobbedly-gook of physics buzzwords arranged to sound as if every statement is pregnant with revelations.  TEDx, in damage control, has removed the offending video, but Mr. Powell is sufficiently prolific on the tubes that you easily can get a glimpse of what the audience in Charlotte applauded:

Charlatans do love to mangle Einstein.

I know we’ve been to this well before, but this latest embarrassment has churned up some more excellent TED critiques.  The last one, from science writer Carl Zimmer, gets to one of the key defects of TED as a conduit for reliable information: the complete disengagement of the audience:

Unfortunately, some TED talks about science don’t live up to Huxley’s example. The problem, I think, lies in TED’s basic format. In effect, you’re meant to feel as if you’re receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they’re only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn’t much time left over to actually make a case–to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed…

Zimbardo never seriously grapples with this kind of research in his book, even to mount an argument against it. Instead, he races off to his next anecdote, his next bullet-point list of statistics. And that’s the most TED-like quality of The Demise of Guys. When a TED talk end, the lights go out. There’s no time for questions.

TED reduces to an experience not a lecture.  Viewers are expected to abdicate critical thought to better enable the intended effect: that of the presenter’s genius overwhelming one’s faculties and producing the enjoyable sensation of making unintuitive  connections.  Unfortunately, this format only encourages gaseous vacuity and grand pronouncements that do not hold up to scrutiny.  Complexity, skepticism, or any admission of uncertainty intrude on the experience and are thus anathema to the typical TED talk.

The elevation of form over substance also rewards those whose knowledge base is quite shallow, provided they can mimic the format sufficiently.  This is what enabled not only Mr. Powell the new age mathematician, but countless other mountebanks with more gumption than sense.  Take, for instance, video from TEDxAustin:

Ms. O’Brien, in a  talk on the dangers of genetically modified organisms, mentions during the opening patter that she has the typical “older sibling, Type A genes.”  Its no wonder that everything that follows is misinformed or provably wrong.  But accuracy seems to matter little to those who curate TED and TEDx.

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