Monday, August 06, 2012

The Trouble with TED

An awful of of people seem to waking up to the idea that TED talks are not what they're supposed to be. They attract a lot of kooks who can speak well and exude enthusiasm. How many times have you listened to a TED talk in your area of expertise and wondered how the heck that person got on the stage?

TED talks are just big soundbites and soundbites are not good ways to explain complicated, and potentially revolutionary, ideas.

Evgeny Morozov has published a review of several TED books in The New Republic. They are: Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, and Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act by Ron Gutman. His review is probably a better read than the book [The Naked and the TED].

Carl Zimmer reviewed The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It a couple of months ago and his review turned into a criticism of TED talk [I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All]. Carl pointed to Felisa Wolfe-Simon as exhibit number 2.

Here's an excerpt from the Evgeny Morozov review,
I CAN SURMISE why the Khannas would have wanted to write this book, but it is not immediately obvious why TED Books would have wanted to publish it. I must disclose that I spoke at a TED Global Conference in Oxford in 2009, and I admit that my appearance there certainly helped to expose my argument to a much wider audience, for which I remain grateful. So I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

The Khannas’ book is not the only piece of literary rubbish carrying the TED brand. Another recently published TED book called The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It—co-authored by Philip Zimbardo, of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame, is an apt example of what transpires when TED ideas happen to good people. One would think that a scholar as distinguished as Zimbardo would not need to set foot in Khanna-land, but, alas, his book brims with almost as many clichés and pseudo-daring pronouncements. Did you know that “in porn, male actors have enormous penises,” and that “porn is not about romance”? The book’s main premise is that the Internet and video games are re-wiring the brains of “guys,” much to the detriment of civilization. Read and be terrified, especially if you are a “guy,” because “[guys’] brains are being catered to by porn on demand and by video games at a flick of the switch or a click of the mouse.” This is almost as good as Allan Bloom’s admonition in The Closing of the American Mind that Walkman headphones lead to parricide. The evidence presented is inconsistent and all over the map. As the science journalist Carl Zimmer has noted, The Demise of Guys gives a Daily Mail column as much credibility as a peer-reviewed paper. And a new TED book on the science of smiling—Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, by Ron Gutman—contains even more banality than the Khannas’ little masterpiece of TED emptiness—a remarkable feat. There one may read, for example, that “under certain conditions, when men see women smile at them they interpret that as a sign that the women think they are attractive.” This is what passes for advanced thinking.

When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think. I don’t know if the crossword puzzles are rewiring our brains—I hope TED knows its neuroscience, with all the neuroscientists on its stage—but anyone who is seriously considering reading Hybrid Reality or Smile should also entertain the option of playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.
Let me repeat the meme that I want to propagate, "But surely 'modern attention spans' must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis."

[Hat Tip: Mike the Mad Biologist]


  1. So you know better Mister with a PhD = Professional handler of Dung?

    1. That was not exactly called for.

      The gripe is that TED talks are often inaccurate, but almost universally the cliffs notes on a particular topic.

      I agree with the former. I've seen some stinkers on computers and tech that have made me wonder why *I* am not giving TED talks.

      I disagree with Larry on the latter. Those looking for depth can find it; those looking for headlines find TED - and that's a good thing. Given a breadth of cursory knowledge, you know better how to look for depth when you need it.

      TED talks are not a university education; they're edutainment for adults. That said, better vetting and review are _always_ a good thing; best to avoid pollution of the social neural network with crappy memes.

    2. "That was not exactly called for."

      Aparently that's what they teach these days at Pépés' church.

  2. I like some of the TED talks but there is an element of Oprah-like pseudo-intellectualism.

  3. We live in the Age of That's So Cool! Since information is zapping around the cybersphere as never before, it has become a kind of currency. People used to have to have some talent to get up on stage and entertain people. Recite a poem, sing, play an instrument, act, etc. Now extroverts and show-offs dream of getting up there and giving TED talks. Steve Jobs is held up as a 'guru of presenting' when in fact his presentations of Apple products were nothing special.
    And people gobble up books like Freakonomics because 'that's so cool!' to know all this stuff that in fact is not all that worth knowing.
    Heaven forbid that people should be encouraged to explore, to inquire, to make discoveries, to learn about THEMSELVES and what they find meaningful, etc. That's not nearly as marketable as spreading the meme that a flashy presentation style and knowing more about the latest factoid than the next guy is what gets people to like you.

    1. Yes. Everything you said.

      I agree that TED is frequently superficial and sometimes stupid, as well as sometimes being short for TEDious. But, really is a blog not an ironic platform from which to be saying that? I'd guess the BS level of TED is very low as compared to most blog comment threads. Especially the ScienceBlog type area of the blogosphere. And that's not even talking about World Nuts Daily and the rest of the right wing and the mainstream media sources.

    2. TTC, you have a very good point. :)

  4. David Deutsch's TED talk on explanation inspired me to get his book The Fabric Of Reality, and I wasn't disappointed.

    1. David Deutsch is a good example of a physicist being just as naive about evolutionary science as anyone else and as prone to rely on faith outside of their specialty. Rather obviously misplaced faith in that book, as I recall.

    2. And Mr. McCarthy, a man of no notable accomplishment, adds yet another productive scientist to his bad mouth list.

    3. SLC, "skeptical" psychic detective* and hagiographer can't stand it when someone disses the "skeptical" pantheon.

      *He knows no more about me than what I choose to say, anything else is rank speculation.

      SLC, well, this is an improvement over your prurient interest in my personal life a few threads back. I still don't give out samples.

    4. Re Anthony McCarthy

      As I previously stated, I have no interest in Mr. McCarthy's personnel life so he is a liar in making that claim. However, I am on solid ground in stating that his publication list in peer reviewed scientific journals is slim to none, as opposed to the scientists he bad mouths so freely.

    5. Oh, so you made statements about my personal life by random chance?

      his publication list in peer reviewed scientific journals is slim to none,

      Then you'd have no problem with my criticism of James Randi, Paul Kurtz, .... and if "slim" is the criterion that would include folk like PZ Myers. Maybe Richard Dawkins whose CV is notably skimpy in that area.

      I could note that you've had mighty nasty things to say about Rupert Sheldrake, Brian Josephson and others with an unusually large number of such reviewed publications. Not to mention several several rather well reviewed journals we've disgreed about, as opposed to the review free Skeptical Inquirer.

    6. "David Deutsch is a good example of a physicist being just as naive about evolutionary science as anyone else and as prone to rely on faith outside of their specialty. Rather obviously misplaced faith in that book, as I recall."
      As you're probably aware, this comment is unhelpful for anything other than you don't like the book. "Misplaced faith" doesn't give any sort of indication to the kind of errors made.

    7. Kel, basing an argument on Richard Dawkins' inventions would qualify.

    8. "Kel, basing an argument on Richard Dawkins' inventions would qualify."
      Wait, Dawkins doesn't understand evolution now?

      This still doesn't really give an indication to what kind of errors he made. Can you please show something substantial?

    9. If TTC is referring to Dawkins' program that got a computer to stitch together the Shakespeare line, "Methinks it was a weasel", then I would think it's fair to say, not that Dawkins doesn't understand evolution, but that in that particular case he seemed not to understand how to make a good case for it. I think he himself now admits this.

    10. If that were the case, andyboerger, then it would be baffling as Deutsch doesn't address that program in his book. The sole chapter in the book dedicated to evolution is mainly about how the information content of DNA is what makes life a special phenomenon that differentiates it from other physical events in the universe. This is why I'm really not sure why it is TTC thinks the book gets it woefully wrong on evolution; it's hardly going out on a limb in saying anything controversial nor deep about the process itself.

    11. Kel, yeah; I agree. I would be interested to hear exactly what TTC is referring to in that case. As you said, noting controversial or deep about the summary you just provided.

    12. I'll see if it's in the library when I go on Saturday and give details.

  5. I'm a creationist and on a evolution forum discovered the TED talks.
    I scanned them and was surprised at kooky ideas.
    Still i remember a excellent on discovery of how cockroach legs worked so well and then they made a mechanical thing like them . It really showed discovery and innovation.
    Another one showed how looking at somethin in a colour could be changed into another colour by moving the gaze of ones eye. something like that THAT i found very interesting.
    Probably lots of good stuff b.
    The strange stuff is probably within the spectrum of historical dead ends.
    Its just not remembered.

    I watched the video on the demise of guys.
    It is a bad thing to see guys not have their status in schools and degrees that is historic.
    If it was the other way around it would be a priority of the government.
    its silly to think their is re wiring from using computers etc.
    I doubt porn affects relationships however being a Christian i see it as evil and welcome its censorship.
    I accept in a fair and square way women in getting high degrees and all that but I don't like them getting more.
    Especially as i see men as the creators of civilization should inherit it.
    Further i don't see women competing well with men outside school.
    So i conclude school rewards being studious as opposed to being ambitious.
    In fact i think women are more interested in degrees and school because they are less ambitious and have less options but still want rewarding professions and employment.
    Anyways high education is a reflection on a person and it is a bad way right now that males are failing in this education reflection relative to females.
    I suspect a unnatural a=desire has been put into women by the feminist movement to be equal with men but really they are not interested like men in achievement and so congregate and acclimatize more easily into education.
    i don't think the males are doing anything wrong but rather the females are outperforming them for unnatural motivations.
    An example of this being there will be more female shrinks but very little succes in the business world.
    Business success is separate from the final semester marks.

    TED can inform and start investigation into new subjects.

    Do they allow creationist subjects on TED??
    If not would they allow on TED a discussion of why not??

    1. Two questions:

      1.) Why do you post here?

      2.) Why do you write in a manner that is almost entirely incomprehensible?

    2. @Anonymous: "Why do you write in a manner that is almost entirely incomprehensible?"

      He wants to give us an object lesson on how education is failing men?

    3. Canadian Booby Byers provides evidence that not all nutcases are Americans.

  6. Robert: you could have said that so much quicker by just typing "I am a misogynist".

  7. 5000 whining atheists vs the Great Prophet

  8. There are just too damn many of them. There can't be *that* many revolutionary ideas out there. But still... there are many TED Talks that are downright amazing. Frans De Waal, Sam Harris, Sir Ken Robinson, Bill Gates, and the chick who talked about mushroom burial suits have all done some really spectacular talks.

  9. I wrote earlier this year, Do TED lectures need better vetting? -

    If you're going to offer something as having some sort of standard ("worth hearing"), it seems obvious that it'll need some sort of curating or vetting.

    Some TED talks even feature straight-out "woo". Embarrassing.

  10. If you really want to see kooky, go check out the discussions in the TED group on LinkedIn. What kind of cutting edge idea would you expect to be the subject of the most active thread in the group? How about 25,000 odd posts about whether or not there's a god and some of the most incredible nonsense, abuse and outright craziness I've seen anywhere. I thought it was a parody or unofficial spin off but no, it's the official TED group and the moderators appear to strongly favour the religious factions.