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Saturday, December 08, 2012

TED Tries to Clean Up Its Act

I claim that the top three criteria for good science reporting are: Accuracy, Accuracy, and Accuracy. Everything else falls into fourth place or lower, including the presentation style.

There have been a number of TED (or TEDx) talks on science that fail the top three criteria [TED: Alexander Tsiaras, "It was hard not to attribute divinity to it" ] [The Trouble with TED].

Apparently the high command at TED has woken up to the fact that they are being bamboozled by pseudoscientists. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy alerts us to a letter that they recently sent out to all TEDx organizers [TEDx Talks: Some Ideas Are Not Worth Spreading]. (I love his title!)

Here's a copy of the letter: A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science. And here's the opening praragraphs—you should read the entire letter because it contains a lot of information about how to recognize bad science.
Hello TEDx Community,

In light of a few suspect talks that have come out of the TEDx movement — some of which we at TED have taken action to remove, some being examined now — and this recent thread on Reddit [], we feel it is important to reach out to all TEDx organizers on the topic of bad science and pseudoscience.

Please know this above all:
It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes.

Vetting your speakers is hard work, and can lead to uncomfortable moments. But as TEDx organizers, your audience’s trust is your top priority, over and above any other personal or business relationship that may have brought this speaker to your attention. It is not your audience’s job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job.

The consequence of bad science and health hoaxes are not trivial. As an example, Andrew Wakefield’s attempt to link autism and vaccines was exposed as a hoax last year. But while his work was being investigated, millions of children went without vaccines, and many contracted deadly illnesses as a result.

We take this seriously. Presenting bad science on the TEDx stage is grounds for revoking your license.
Apparently TED will take down videos that spread pseudoscience. That explains why I was having so much trouble finding examples.


Lou Jost said...

What an extremely heartening response to the criticism!!

andyboerger said...

The Alexander Tsiaras presentation that you wrote about didn't exactly fail your accuracy test, and it wasn't pseudoscience either. As I recall, your real objection to it was that he DARED to, as a personal opinion, confess that it was 'hard not to see divinity' in the coordination of the physiology, and development of human embyos.

Are you saying that people working in scientific fields should be discouraged from even speculating, as an opinion, that something supernatural seems evident in the work they are doing?

Very relieved that you are not the 'thought police' in charge of TED talks.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Nobody's telling people what to think(though in various books of myths, even your thoughts will you be held accountable for, as some of them are sinful).

Anyway, they shouldn't take a stage and masquerade their incredulity as elucidated through scientific work. There are other forums for that, they can do that in church.

andyboerger said...

'they' should be allowed to express themselves in such ways, and with such words, as they feel best convey how they felt about or experienced something. He wasn't pushing his views on anyone.

The whole truth said...

andy, then why are you constantly arguing against Larry, me, and others here who express ourselves in such ways, and with such words, as we feel best convey how we feel about or experience something? We're not pushing our views on anyone.

andyboerger said...

because I enjoy arguing over ideas that I think are important. I think it is perfectly fine that you express your ideas in such ways, and with such words, as you feel best convey how you feel about or experience something, and would never want that freedom to be taken from you. I have said a few times here that I am grateful that this site allows dissenting views to be posted without censorship.

That doesn't mean that I find very much to admire in Larry Moran's ideas,or yours, and I have made that clear.

andyboerger said...

Furthermore, rumracket, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. It doesn't even have science in its name. Tsirias is a Renaissance man: painter, photographer, graphic artist, mathematician, etc. who has done commissioned work for NASA on the very important subject of virtual surgery on astronauts. It is doubtful that very many people in the world even CAN do what he does; therefore TED should be (and probably is) proud that he chose them over the 'other forums' you mentioned. No one at TED should be hanging their heads in shame because some uptight atheists may have felt uncomfortable with his words. It was an Entertaining presentation that incorporated Technology and Design. In other words, perfect for TED.

The whole truth said...

andy, you switch between your two faces about as fast as any other creobot I've ever encountered.

andyboerger said...

what on earth are you going on about now, twt?

The whole truth said...

Alexander Tsiaras:

"Even though I am a mathematician, I look at [fetal development] with marvel: How do these instruction sets not make mistakes as they build what is us?"

Not make "mistakes"? They're perfect? Apparently he has never seen or heard of a child born dead, blind, deaf, or with two heads, cancer or other illnesses, retardation, missing or malformed limbs, etc., etc., etc., and apparently he has never seen or heard of miscarriages or other problems regarding 'fetal development'.

"The magic of the mechanisms inside each genetic structure saying exactly where that nerve cell should go — the complexity of these mathematical models is beyond human comprehension."

Exactly where that nerve cell should go? See my comment above, and no, there's no magic involved and the complexity of "these mathematical models" is not beyond human comprehension.

The quotes are from here:

steve oberski said...


'they' should be allowed to express themselves in such ways,

There seems to be an ongoing confusion about the right to freely express ones opinions versus the right not to be forced to provide a venue to every crackpot, woo miester and fraudster on the planet.

For example, andyboerger has the right to freely express his opinions, no matter how incoherent, inconsistent, repugnant, smug, condescending, ill thought out, immature etc. others find them.

On the other hand, Larry Moran has graciously provided andyboerger a forum from which to spout his nonsense, but this is a privilege, not a right.

So it goes with TED talks.

Pépé said...

Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates ejus

(The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein)

Inscription on the doors of the Cavendish Laboratory, put there by James Clerk Maxwell who was giving credit where credit is due.

Unknown said...

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

-- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), page 6

Pépé said...

On don't think Dawkins will be remembered for his science.

Anonymous said...

"Alchemy is pretty awesome, ain't it?" -Isaac Newton

Pépé said...

Religion is the link that binds man to God.
(Max Planck)

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Inscription on the doors of the Cavendish Laboratory, put there by James Clerk Maxwell who was giving credit where credit is due.

And the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan credited his mathematical insights to the Hindu goddess Sri Namagiri Lakshmi. Who cares what scientists believe in private, as long as it doesn't interfere with their work? As far as I know, there are no references to the Bible or the Summa theologiae in Maxwell's articles, or thanks for God's moral or conceptual support in the Acknowledgments section of any of his books.

Pépé said...

"Who cares what scientists believe in private..."

Maxwell cared since he had the Latin inscription of Psalm 111 verse 2 carved on the doors of the first Cavendish Laboratory. And that far from interfering with is work inspired him.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Yeah, Pépé, it's the same old Cavendish Laboratory where Crick and Watson carried out their breakthrough research on DNA.

Francis Crick: Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.

James Watson: The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was that my father didn't believe in God.

Scientists just do their thing, no matter what they believe in in their spare time, or what is carved over the laboratory door.

Pépé said...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Albert Einstein.

I wonder why probably the greatest scientist of the twentieth century said that? Maybe he saw the lame science done by all those atheist scientists!

Anonymous said...

"I'm great at point-getting" -Pépé

Google "argument from authority". And also google what Einstein thought about christianity, or any personal-god religions for that matter.

andyboerger said...

steve, despite the ad hominem (so typical of you), I basically agree with you here. TED is very wise to set the guidelines that they have. It does no one any good to continually provide a forum for snake oil salesmen; least of all to their own reputation. They are a private organization, though, and don't need to jump through hoops to please people who find words like 'divinity' radioactive.

I can assure you that they weren't thinking of the Tsiaras talk when they decided to set stricter guidelines. I can also assure you that when NASA commissioned him to help them figure out ways to do remote surgery on astronauts should the need arise, they didn't hold his metaphysical views against him. It would have been stupid of them had they done so.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Pépé, this quote-mining is pathetic. Einstein did not believe in a personal god; his "religion" (like that of Heisenberg) was a kind of vague pantheism -- more to do with philosophy that theology. Most of the greatest physicists of the 20th century were atheists: Bohr, Dirac, Schrödinger (even if he flirted with eastern mysticism), Feynman, etc., not to mention younger generations. Fermi was a Catholic at young age but turned atheist as he grew up; so did Bethe, for example. Of course, there were a few religious ones as well (Hahn, Pauli), but if you think it mattered professionally, prove it.

andyboerger said...

Piotr, I think that you and I are pretty much on the same wavelength about this. And I am guessing you agree with me that it doesn't really matter what Tsiarias believes, in that it hasn't stopped him from developing the marvelous technologies he has that so many have found useful and/or awe inspiring, right? He is doing the science/design, and if he has something worth showing and talking about, then he has a right to interject an idea or two that others may find questionable while talking about it.

Unknown said...

PépéS Sunday, December 09, 2012 12:00:00 PM

On don't think Dawkins will be remembered for his science.

Is Maxwell remembered for his faith or his science?

Would his equations be any different had he been Muslim or Buddhist or atheist?

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

Yep, I suppose he has a right to express a personal opinion at his peril. Personally, I prefer science talks by people who know their subject thoroughly.

andyboerger said...

twt, it is fine to argue with Tsiarias, and disagree with him, as you are doing here. I am sure that he would be able to reply to you ably regarding your facile assumption that he has never "seen or heard of a child born dead, blind, deaf, or with two heads, etc." . Of COURSE he has. There is no reason to suspect that he is indifferent to or ignorant of such tragedies. But I won't argue for him in his place.

Furthermore, the talk he gave was hardly to prove to anyone else that humans came from god, but to show the technology that he himself developed to depict the growth of an embryo. He interjected his own personal belief in the talk, but the talk wasn't about that.

As for 'not beyond human comprehension', I think you and he probably have a disagreement over the exact meaning of his words. We may be able to 'comprehend' something in terms of its mechanics without being able to really understand how it came to be. An art historian can comprehend the works of El Greco or Klimt, but they wouldn't be able to reproduce them. They would still marvel at them. They will continue to marvel at them until such time as the artistic process is so completely understood that it no longer has the power to inspire. Neither the universe, the birth process, nor art, are even close to being understood to that level.

As I have argued here before, if you can't make it, duplicate it, reproduce it, fully comprehend it, and if you need to study it to learn more about it, and furthermore the more you DO study it, the more it reveals, you are not crazy to suppose that it may have come from an intelligence beyond your own. That is what Tsiarias is saying here.

Here is an example, from this very site: steve wrote:

Science is the only method we have of increasing our understanding of the universe and the universe is manifestly uninterested in our well-being.

But to the extent we can increase our understanding of the universe we increase our ability to control and improve our own lives. (end quote)

Do you agree with his overall point? Do you also realize that the part about the universe being 'manifestly uninterested in our well-being" is an interjection; a simple value judgment from personal opinion?

If steve were asked to give a presentation on science, would you object to the inclusion of that line? If not, then I don't see how you can object to the inclusion of the divinity line in Tsiarias' talk.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this.” - Albert Einstein

He seems to be a man of many words and thoughts :)

Pedro said...

Looks like Pépé shot himself in the foot (again).

steve oberski said...

Do you also realize that the part about the universe being 'manifestly uninterested in our well-being" is an interjection; a simple value judgment from personal opinion?

It's a judgement based on evidence, overwhelming evidence that all there is to the universe is material and that it can be modelled by hypotheses that so far have no need for a non material component.

There is not a single shred of contrary evidence that would indicate that the universe has a non material aspect and my position is that the concept of non material is incoherent and a non starter to begin with.

Now if I had presented patently ridiculous ideas like camouflage or human intelligence being proof for a teleological or designed aspect to the universe, that would be a value judgement.

No one would ask me to give a presentation on science nor would I do so as I am completely unqualified in this area.

But I'm honest enough to admit that and not make up stories about how reality works based on my fear of the dark and death.

Pépé said...

I'm not an atheist, and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
(Albert Einstein)

I'm satisfied that Einstein believed in God and recognized God's handiwork. I think that God doesn't care much about the various religions because we are all His children and He loves each and everyone of us.

Pépé said...

In quantum mechanics, a particle is a probability wavefunction (Schrödinger equation) that collapses to a particle, i.e. matter, when it is observed. Since the Universe is made of matter particles there must be an observer that collapses the particles wavefunction. Unless one believes that the Moon isn't there when no one his looking at it!

steve oberski said...


When Einstein cheated on his wife and abandoned an out of wedlock daughter, was he also recognizing your god's handiwork ?

Did your god love the victims in this little pageant as well ?

Reminds me of a story about that world class misogynist douche bag Mother Teresa:

One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, "You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you." And she joined her hands together and said, "Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me".

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

The Pépéronic interpretation of quantum mechanics.

steve oberski said...

Ah, Pépé, the little creobot search engine that could.

Sounds like a story for children.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." - Albert Einstein

Really, I couldn't much give a shit about whether a famous scientist was religious. Isaac Newton most definitely believed in a personal god, and many would say he was an even greater scientist than Einstein was.
My purpose in this discussion is only to dispel a common religious LIE, as if what famous persons believed on any matter has any bearing on what is true about the world, or what we are evidentially justified in believing.

Pépé said...

As always with atheists, no solid argumentation only ad hominem attacks. That's expected from immature folks who realized they are on the losing end, as always.

andyboerger said...

steve, your reply to me, above Pepe's comment, expresses True Believer adherence to a concept from start to finish.No point in arguing with it.

Anonymous said...

Pépé, no one is trying to argue with you. They're just saying you're an idiot. No reason to cry ad-hominem when your post is too stupid to try to argue against it.