What If These TED Talks Were Horribly, Unspeakably Wrong?

by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones


The long knives have been out for TED Talks for some time. Benjamin Bratton called them “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” Evegny Morozov called the TED publishing arm the “insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering.” The gist of these arguments is that TED Talks are vapid, culty mass-selfies that fetishize technology for every solution. It is “placebo science” meant to make its audience feel good about learning and themselves, where ideas can hang out and do whatever, man — just turn the safety off on your brain-gun.

If not read in the voice of a perpetual techno-cynic, these might not be such terrible things. Is middlebrow entertainment bad? If cynics want to complain about shallow, self-indulgent infotainment there’s a whole world of sitcoms, reality television, and History channel documentaries on alien-Nazi collaborations for their critical ire. If touchy-feely talks about cultural norms and where ideas come from are so bad, then wait until they get a load of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for the past twenty years.

There have certainly been great TED Talks — I highly recommend Ben Goldacre’s talk on shoddy science and clinical trials for pharmaceuticals or Molly Crockett’s monologue on the bollocks of current neuroscience research. These have helped give a voice to the underserved while highlighting potential innovations that truly could improve the world. Fantastic and informative talks by very respected scientists, bringing attention to projects that would otherwise be destined for the back pages of Scientific American.

But then there are also TED Talks that are blatant pseudoscientific garbage. These aren’t nebulous meanderings on where ideas come from or the contentious talks on new age and quantum energy seen at the smaller TEDx events (kookiness that the organizers have already tried to clamp down on). These are the main stage talks on subjects with wide social implications. These are the TED Talks that simply repackage right-wing talking points for the stoned California tech elite with a gloss of technological innovation and a contrarian interpretation of how the world actually works. In Bratton’s words, there’s a reason many of them have not come to fruition.

TED’s lack of substantial peer review and its emphasis on what is new, what isn’t divisive, and what is entertaining rather than accurate or well-researched means that horrendous nonsense can get a wide audience of the rich and powerful. TED’s lack of rigor in filtering out candidates and its emphasis on performance and inspiration has allowed the scientific equivalent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to give speeches at Woodstock. The problem is not that technology is evil or that nothing should be touchy-feely. It’s that TED — which operates under the Sapling Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Chris Anderson — let down its guard and the inmates took over the asylum. These are ideas that are not worth spreading. They are, in fact, bad ideas and TED should feel bad for having spread them.

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame seems to think that child car seats are just a placebo. People just like to think that something bigger equates to safer. Lap belts do almost as well. To back up his argument, he has a handful of tests, statistics, and quizzical anecdotes about when his father, a doctor, used to give out larger pills to make people feel better.

Levitt seems to imply that there is a giant conspiracy of car seat manufacturers that are ostensibly testing and improving their devices to be as safe as possible, but in reality they are just there to bilk us all of our hard-earned money with unnecessary, bulky automotive gadgets we don’t need.

He tried to get his results published in numerous medical journals but they were all rejected. He dismissed that result as part of how “academics work behind the scenes constantly trying to undermine each other” and that “they would never publish it because of the result, no matter how well done the analysis was.” (It was later published in an economics journal; he and his co-author also took it to the Times.)

Levitt’s initial analysis was done on a single set of data from a testing facility that remained anonymous, and it completely ignored injuries in car accidents, focusing solely on deaths. Other studies have come to different conclusions when analyzing data from crashes, revealing that car seats led to a “28% reduction in risk for death” in accidents and that child seats have and continue to be necessary for child safety. People still seem to be using child seats, and his vision of an integrated lap belt for children seems to have not gotten very far.

Holistic grazing sounds like what happens at the midpoint in a spirit quest, but it could also be a reimagining of how we can actually solve the problems of desertification. Environmentalists have constantly pointed to cattle overgrazing as a significantly destructive force against grasslands. Cattle eat up all of the vegetation and leave nothing behind. The landscape dies and nothing is left to grow, which also exacerbates climate change.

But maybe the problem isn’t that cattle are grazing too much, but that they’re not grazing enough? Allan Savory has a TED Talk that posits just that, and he has some interesting results to prove it. We could be allowing cattle to graze without limit, and it might even prevent climate change and save our planet! But Savory’s numbers are misleading and inconsistent. His research has never been repeated. A Slate story by James McWilliams ran through all of the flaws and inconsistencies in Savory’s work, noting that:

In 1990, Savory admitted that attempts to reproduce his methods had led to “15 years of frustrating and eratic [sic] results.” But he refused to accept the possibility that his hypothesis was flawed. Instead, Savory said those erratic results “were not attributable to the basic concept being wrong but were always due to management.” In a favorable interview with Range magazine in 2000, Savory seemed unconcerned with the failure of his method in scientific trials: “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries.”

Climate change is a reality and if we don’t do something quick, our planet may be doomed. So why not inject our atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric gas? Why, it’s just crazy enough to work.

In fact, David Keith’s idea of injecting sulfuric aerosols into the upper atmosphere to create a gaseous shield has been properly modeled and is based in some sound science. But whether it prevents global warming almost comes secondary as to whether it turns the planet into a toxic gas bubble of death in the process.

It’s hard to imagine that something an archvillain would threaten the U.N. with would actually save the planet. But who knows! People are lazy, and nobody seems to care if the planet dies a crippling, toxic death, so we may be hearing about this idea in the future when David Keith takes over the world using his Doomsday Device.

Ever wanted to push an old lady into the street but decided against it? What made you hold back?

Paul Zak has a theory that the chemical oxytocin that lives in our brain controls those decisions. It is our moral and trust center. In this telling, oxytocin is also the love drug that makes us realize our worth and could also cure autism.

Besides the wealth of contradictory science about what oxytocin does, there’s no evidence that it cures autism or has any connection to morality. From Ed Yong:

Because the hype around oxytocin hurts and exploits vulnerable people. The hormone’s reputed ability to fix social ills has drawn the attention of parents whose children have autism, depression, or other conditions characterised by social problems. Many groups are looking to use oxytocin to ease those conditions, but always with great caution. Heinrichs, for example, is running a trial to see if oxytocin can help people with borderline personality disorder, when used alongside normal therapy. “If you sit at home with a social phobia and a prescribed nasal spray, the only effect you’d get would be a dripping nose,” he told me last year when I spoke to him for a New Scientist story.

Assuming a connection between brain chemicals and moral understanding, rather than education or personal experience controlling morality, is just about half a step away from being a modern version of eugenics, with low oxytocin levels being the current equivalent to a low-browed troglodytic thug from a hundred years ago.

Activist and fundraiser Dan Palotta thinks our approach to charity is wrong. It’s a puritanical mindset, he believes, to think that philanthropical nonprofits should scrimp and save on things like advertising, fundraising, and CEO pay if they want to accomplish anything. You gotta spend money to make money, baby.

Nonprofit workers should be rewarded for their merit in solving problems like hunger and homelessness. Otherwise, the best minds of our generation will go into more financially rewarding fields, like banking. The nonprofit world just gets left with the second-rate, willing to work for substandard wages. The organizations that employ them won’t be able to raise money and innovate.

Because that’s the problem with the nonprofit world: not enough innovation.

Nonprofits can easily just pay themselves and get nothing done; that happens. In the process, whatever problem they were trying to solve barely gets addressed because the nonprofit is spending so much money on administration. This is why nonprofits are almost always measured by their funding percentages, based on their annual reports and tax filings. If advertising and fundraising did lead to more money for cancer research by scale, it would be readily evident in the yearly numbers.

Palotta’s solution is that nonprofit fundraising should be a for-profit enterprise. This idea of keeping nonprofits lean stems from Puritanism, he’s written.

Palotta’s consultant work, running events as for-profit fundraising campaigns for causes like AIDS research and cancer awareness, had problems when only a small percentage of the proceeds being raised were actually going to direct services. In one incidence, rather than a promised 60% of proceeds going to charity, the fundraising, advertising, and event costs cut into expectations so far that only 19% made it in the end. When too much money was being spent on marketing materials and large salaries for employees like Palotta, many of the larger fundraisers took offense and left to form a more formal tax exempt non-profit that ran similar events and paid their staff less overall.

Sugata Mitra is obsessed with the concept that children can teach themselves. He discovered that, when left alone with a computer, children in New Delhi could figure out how to browse the internet without being able to read the language that was written on the screen. For him this was a realization that computers could revolutionize education. In places of extreme poverty where good teachers won’t go, computers could serve as improvised learning centers. They provide something called “outdoctrination,” rather than indoctrination, where students can find information as they want it.

His vision eventually begins to sound a lot like just letting kids browse the internet. Yes, children can teach themselves how to use appliances, but his vision of a teacherless education system is a drastic oversimplification of what is involved in education. His vision of a technology-based education system sounds eerily like strapping kids to an Ipad potty training seat and calling it a day.

Computers definitely have an important role to play in education, but his ideas become contentious once you realize the current battle that is taking place in the U.S. over public education. Public, charter, and private school systems are entering into million dollar contracts with technology firms while laying off teachers by the thousands. MOOCs are being heralded as the future of learning, but the percentages of students who complete coursework through online classes is staggeringly low. And really, if kids could teach themselves coursework, then it would only be matter of sending cheap textbooks in lieu of computers to third world countries.

“Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk on Ragu’s pursuit of the perfect spaghetti sauce is the ultimate in TED’s inspirational contrarianism. There isn’t just one type of spaghetti sauce; there are hundreds. What you think you know about the most mundane thing isn’t really true; it’s the complete opposite. And the reality will amaze you.

His ability to spin that yarn is quite fascinating once you realize that this talk is really just about how there are different types of spaghetti sauce, something anybody with the most basic familiarity with Italian cooking might comprehend. It’s not about how marketing companies desperately try to pander to consumers in any way they can because they have no understanding of what connotes a good product. It’s about how Ragu uses horizontal segmentation to underscore how adept the marketing world is at grasping these concepts and then turning them into products like Ragu Zesty. Pure genius.

Gladwell’s marketing mysticism may not be on the same diabolical level as injecting massive amounts of sulfuric gas into the sky, but his prophetic insight into the nature of condiments particularly irks me because I vividly remember reading his New Yorker story on mustard, spaghetti sauce and ketchup that this talk was based on. In it, he details how Heinz perfected their recipe to the point that no other brand can compete. Their recipe of high fructose corn syrup and tomato paste is the best possible ketchup. Somehow tomato sauce can have an infinite spectrum of flavor but ketchup, which is pretty much just tomato sauce, has a platonic ideal. How can this be?

There’s many more. If you’re not an Appalachian dirt farmer or living in sub-poverty conditions in the inner city, you might be interested to hear Niall Ferguson talk about the 6 Killer Apps of Prosperity like consumerism and a positive work ethic that have led to America’s demonstrable wealth. Barbara Fredrickson’s theory of a positivity tipping point might help those struggling with depression by encouraging them to just be happy enough that they achieve wealth and fame. Roger Stein thinks we should create investment markets for experimental drugs because the unregulated market of the pharmaceutical industry really needs less regulation and a market system that is dependent on profitability to make life-saving drugs.

TED is not completely to blame for the proliferation of these ideas. The books, projects, and visions were popular beforehand. Allowing these speakers the chance at a TED Talk just gave their malformed ideas even more publicity.

These contrarian insights wouldn’t make it very far if the whole concept of public intellectualism hadn’t already been corrupted. Whether or not somebody has an Earth-shattering idea with a flimsy study that goes against decades of scientific research and common sense has little to do with that idea’s potential for success. It’s a ripe atmosphere for anybody with a good stage performance and a quirky idea to sell whatever it is they are thinking about.

Awkward intellectuals with a critical opinion and without something to sell don’t make it very far. Insecure, unkempt, stammering scientists who obsess over details and believe in staid-sounding ideas can’t really cut the morning talk show circuit either. It’s unlikely that many of them will take to the stage to inspire thousands with grandiose visions about how everything was already working relatively well and also let’s not try to disrupt the construction industry or reinvent how we approach heart surgery.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and programmer whose work appears in The Atlantic Cities, The LA Review of Books and The Morning News.