TEDx’s guidelines for science and pseudoscience, and how to participate

Don’t say that I’m not responsive to reader questions! Several people, while happy about TEDx’s  sequestering pseudoscience talks like that of Rupert “Can-dogs-find-their-way-home” Sheldrake, also wanted to know what TEDx will do from now on to prevent the flogging of pseudoscience. I posed that question to Emily McManus, editor of TED.com, and here is her reply, quoted with permission.

TED and TEDx can’t be a place for pseudoscience rhetoric. We’ve made that pretty clear in our guidelines. TEDx is an independently licensed entity, and because of the way TEDx has grown, something like 300 new TEDx talks are posted on YouTube every week. Our staff reviews every video, but we are also grateful for the kindness of strangers in letting us know when something crosses the line. It’s been incredibly interesting and rewarding to have these conversations in public, and it helps us refine our guidelines for organizers, to help them know bad science when they see it.
What I’d love to ask your readers is this: If you know of a TEDx event being organized near you, AND you have the time and inclination, perhaps get in touch with the organizers and offer to help them look for and vet science speakers.
I then asked Emily how readers could find out when and where TEDx events were being organized, and she referred my question to another TEDx official, David Webber, who sent this answer:

First, your readers can look for upcoming events in their respective areas here. On that page they can find links to each TEDx event’s TED.com profile (like this one, for example), where they have the option to email the organizers. If for some reason that doesn’t work or if the organizers have disabled the “Send e-mail »” option, a quick search of the event’s name should bring up the event’s website — which most events create in addition to their profiles—where I bet your readers will find direct contact info.

I hope that helps! Let me know if I can answer any other questions.

Thanks to Emily and David for their responses.
In the meantime, I’ve been inundated with a lot of email accusing me of censorship, inability to recognize the weaknesses of materialism, and so on—much of it including invective or profanity.  I’ve let some of the more civil comments through, but do remember that I tend to block comments that call me names. Here, for example, is one comment that didn’t make it through moderation. It’s from someone who’s clearly one neuron short of a synapse:
Picture 1
Frankly, I was surprised at the level of invective in both unpublished comments and in the comments on the TEDx discussion page. I conclude that there’s a lot of sympathy out there for woo, which goes along with a dislike or distrust of real science. Comments like the following depress me immensely, and show how far we have to go in promoting rationality:
Picture 1
There was no “censorship”: the videos are up and have been put on another site because they violated TEDx’s guidelines for good science.  Those who object should go read the astrology columns in their local paper.

20 Comments

  1. BigBob
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    “TED is supposed to be about the free flow of ideas …”.

    I don’t think so – it isn’t a market-place. A better format for that would be a forum, where you post your ideas and opinions for the great unwashed to discuss. TED isn’t for mere opinions.

    The open minded ‘free flow of ideas’ approach lends itself to abuse: as Terry Pratchett, Spike Milligan and others have observed, “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it”.

    Bob

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      I’ll buy your point!

  2. Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    If TEDxy&z guidelines are to mean anything, they must include some rubric for applying empirical restraint to the floodgates of creative enthusiasm.

  3. alexandra
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Mr Coyne – Did you watch Bonnie Bassler, a year or more ago, speak about bacteria? Did you think that was woo? I thought it was fascinating and informative and had no reason to discount it. So far. Yes, certainly some is, but if you are selective, some ideas worth thinking about are presented.
    I agree, woo is getting more insidious and we must be woo detectors -always.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Are you suggesting that quorum sensing is psedoscience because it sounds fantastic? [No, I haven't got the video to work yet.]

      I’m not a biologist, but my astrobiology interest has not made me vary of the concept which I believe is fairly accepted. As for Bassler herself I don’t know her except by name, don’t think I have read a paper from her, but she seems well regarded:

      – “her world-renowned microbiology laboratory at Princeton University”.

      – “Bassler, 48, has been fabulously successful in her career, winning laurels like a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, a coveted position with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the presidency of the American Society for Microbiology. And all that can be traced to her deep appreciation for the power of communication.”

      Natalie Angier, Smithsonian magazine 2010
      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Listening-to-Bacteria.html

      – “Thanks to Bonnie and her colleagues, today, microbiology courses throughout the world include QS as part of its syllabus.” *

      – “Bassler is richly deserving of the 2012 L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Award in Life Sciences”

      Pamela Ronald, Tomorrow’s Tale @ Science Blogs 2012
      http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/2012/03/26/its-a-quorum-bonnie-bassler-aw/

      Just because it sounds fantastic it doesn’t need to be outside of science. Many discoveries sounds fantastic at first, most still does.

      – “Do you mean stuff attracts stuff over distances? And by curving spacetime? Fantastic! It is called “gravity”, you say? Huh, what will they think of next?”

      *Obviously I need to study microbiology at one time or other. I’m sure I get around to it any year now. :-/

  4. michieux
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    This is encouraging, Jerry. Up till Sheldrake’s appearance I’d held TED in high esteem. Ms. McManus’s note repairs some of the damage.

    Having been around the traps for several years now (I’m a member of JREF), it doesn’t surprise me that the woo-mongers and purveyors in your audience will make their displeasure felt.

    I fully support your rules for posting — there is no excuse for scurrilous ad hominems and general slander. Folks can either support their arguments with facts, or they can’t. In the world of woo, facts are as rare as unicorns.

    Thanks for all you do.

  5. Jeff Johnson
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    The advantage pseudo-science has over science is that pseudo-science can regularly produce the kind of results people really want to hear, results that appeal to people’s imagination. These aren’t trustworthy results, they are simply fun for people. This is something pseudo-scientists have in common with movie makers and fiction authors. Its much easier to produce what appeals to people’s fancy if you aren’t constrained by reality.

    Science on the other hand is limited to producing results that are real, which has little to do with what most people want to hear or want to believe. Learning and understanding science takes hard work. While there are some fascinating high level ideas and stories based on real science that are accessible to a general audience, a lot of real science is a hard slog through tedious detail, tremendous complexity, and mathematical difficulty.

    If a popular crowd is to judge what is good and not good in a “free flow of ideas”, the results are likely to be more like “American Idol” than real education or scientific improvement. Sewers are all about “free flow” as well. Free flowing does not guarantee quality. Perhaps people who are upset about an informed elimination of garbage from TED programs should also be upset that not everyone who tries out for “American Idol” gets to appear on the TV stage. Why can’t everyone who wants to freely exercise their vocal cord’s ability to produce sound on national TV? Such discrimination and discerning judgement is undertaken with good reason in the persuit of quality. What people should encourage is not unlimited freedom to say anything at TED, but a free flow of good ideas, where good is defined in the terms of science and technology as accurate, real, possibly useful, and contributing meaningfully to the cause of furthering knowledge and learning about nature.

  6. Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I have tirelessly replied to many an idiotic comment on that thread (as “Enopoletus Harding”). Whiners are out in full force there.

    • Marta
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      You did good work there.

      I was losing heart in that thread. You were pitching the counterpoint by yourself, and you were incredibly out numbered.

  7. Curt Cameron
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Rupert “Can-dogs-find-their-way-home” Sheldrake

    I thought he was the “Do dogs know when their owners are coming home” guy. Perhaps he also did some work on the finding their way home idea, but he’s more notorious for the study he did about dogs getting excited when their owners are on their way home.

  8. Kevin
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    TED is not supposed to be fiction. Pseudoscience — even if “fascinating” — is fiction.

    End of discussion.

    Unless you want to open the doors to presentations on the best way to use your wand to cast a stupefying spell, a la Harry Potter.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      I demand equal time for wanding on TEDx.

  9. DrBrydon
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Don’t let the turkeys get you down, Jerry.

    I noticed in the comments thread about the Sheldrake piece after you called TEDx out on it, that many of the woo crowd seem to think that mainstream science has kept down alternatives through a conspiracy. They seem to think that alternative science (or woo) represents a truth that Big Science is trying to keep down. I am not sure what the world looks like from their side of the garden (they must have a lot of fairy dust to contend with), but they do sound a lot like their religious cousins, who think that materialism is just out to take away their rainbows.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      A couple of days ago my friends were exchanging helpful information on good places to get reiki done. After reassuring them that I “wasn’t trying to start a discussion or anything” I asked them a question for information purposes: if there really is a “human energy field,” then why aren’t the people who would presumably be most interested, involved, and excited about discoveries in energy — the physicists and engineers — believers in the human energy field (vitalism)? How do they account for the indifference?

      Answer: physicists DO believe in human energy fields. That is, many of them do. The rest will eventually catch up.

      So I asked them if they could make a guess as to how many physicists believe in the human energy field — what percent? A ballpark guess. One of them said: 30-40%. The others nodded or shrugged. Something like that.

      This is a group of professional college-educated women who are or have been connected to universities. They apparently believe that now — TODAY — 30% to 40% of physicists believe that there are invisible energy fields which flow through all living things and which can be manipulated and balanced by sympathetic individuals using hand motions and intention (plus distance healing, of course.) Almost half of all physicists endorse vitalism. This is science. This is fact. The lack of Nobel prizes? Well, they’re coming. Soon.

      This is what we are up against.

      It’s like hearing that “evolution is a theory in crisis.” The average person — even the above-average person — really, really does not know or understand mainstream science. It’s not just that they can’t tell science from pseudoscience. They have no idea of the numbers of scientists. If they can think of one or two “brave maverick” cranks hawking pseudoscience while waving around a PhD in some movie or book which reassures them of the spiritual dimension, then they apparently assume they’re looking at the cusp of an emerging consensus.

      I had to drop the topic because I had promised to only look for the answer to a question — but oh, it was so hard not to follow-up and ask more and more questions.

      (Someone also answered by bringing in a gratuitous complaint about Big Pharma suppressing natural cures like reiki because they only care about money, but I was asking about the physicists. There, the conspiracy theory was dropped in favor of the idea that I was ignorant about the strength of support for vitalism among the physics community (nobody ever mentioned the engineers, btw.))

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        I also have university educated friends who want to believe in the unbelievable. I’m the hardass, who is forever making comments, or sometimes I just murmur, ‘you know what I’m going to say about that.’ Science needs to taught in universities as well as school, however its getting over the psychological processes which prevent them seeing the world as it is. And our culture is full of magical thinking and selling false hopes and good feelings.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        Well of course there are human energy fields. Our nerve impulses are electrical in nature (or is that electrochemical)? and any electrical charge has a field associated with it. Probably (at the voltages involved) all of microns in extent, but still… (How do EEG’s work, come to that?).

        And then there’s van der Waal’s forces holding our molecules together, the loss of which would be… very messy :)

        Maybe that’s what your friends were thinking of?

        (Okay, I hasten to add, any connection of handwaving and Reiki with those fields is pretty much like the influence of the constellations on your birthday. Quite possibly of the same order of magnitude (I’m thinking large negative exponents here).

        Oh, and by the way, don’t mention the engineers. Harold Camping was an engineer, apparently (cringe).

        • Sastra
          Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          Ah, no, alas — I am sure that this is not what my friends were thinking of. Though if they had thought of it they would probably have offered it as proof of the elan vital. A slight similarity is easily inflated into a deep connection and validation. If our nerve impulses have electrical energy, then it’s surely not much of a leap to assume chi energy, is it? One resembles the other, right?

          Argument by analogy.

  10. Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Whoops, looks like TED itself is pushing pseudoscientific rubbish as well. How surprised I’m not.

  11. Diane G.
    Posted March 18, 2013 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    Sub

  12. schenck
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Look at the TEdX events for the New York City area. There’s many events listed. But on closer inspection, they’re mostly bogus. Either there’s no event, or there was some ‘event’ a few years ago, and/or the ‘event’ is a staff meeting or conference that they’re slapping “Tedx” onto.


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