Sunday, August 26, 2012

TED Spread

I used to love watching TED talks online. A few years ago I would happily spend an evening absorbing quick, accessible and informative talks such as Michael Shermer on skepticism, Matt Ridley on gains from trade and Steven Levitt on the economics of dealing crack. Not only were they educational and intellectually stimulating, they were fun.

But there's a lot of bogus TED talks mixed in too, such as Elaine Morgan on aquatic ape ancestors, Tony Robbins on motivation and Dean Ornish on healing with diet. Blubbering fear-mongering organic huckster Jaime Oliver won the award for the best talk at the 2010 conference with his food-snob nonsense.

TED's popularity is eroding its quality. As the talks have gotten more popular, more TED events are being organized to satisfy those demands, such as the TEDx events which are supposed to be non-official, but are set up the same way and given nearly the same standing by the public.

This has lead to something I call "TED spread," where organizers have to scoop deeper and deeper into the barrel in order to find speakers to fill that demand. The conference used to be annual, but looking at the TED event calendar, I see 18 upcoming TED events, and that's just for Sept. 1. For every Tyler Cowen talk they find, there are several Nick Hanauers.

Probably the worst talk I've ever seen was from TED NextGenerationAsheville, which exclusively has presentations from kids. The heralded success was Birke Baehr, an 11-year-old who regurgitated a collection of anti-science foodie nonsense, including the fake scaremongering story that supermarket tomatoes have fish genes in them. I don't want to pick on a child for being ignorant, but his talk is shared by the TEDx Talk YouTube Channel and has more than half a million hits, and contained nothing but well-worn cliche activist claptrap.

About a year and a half ago I went to a viewing party in Portland, Maine for a live TEDx broadcast and saw one good talk for the entire day. This was offset by a flawed presentation of Felisa Wolfe-Simon's arsenic-based life form findings, which at the time had known contamination problems that were never addressed. The event itself had signs letting us know the free salsa was locally-grown organic, because to that crowd of TED followers, that meant something. 

I was taken aback at how superficial and shallow everything felt when I met these other TED fans. I fear TED talks are encouraging a new generation of faux-intellectuals who can't be bothered with traditional education and would rather have pre-packaged wisdom served to them like hot dogs at a baseball game.

TED is giving an air of legitimacy to bogus ideas. There are, and will continue to be, good talks available from the conference, but viewers need to be on their guard and remember to use critical thinking and double-check everything they hear before adding it to their world views.

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