TED to TEDx: How to Avoid Bad Science in Talks
At this point I need to tell you that in 2011, I gave a talk at TEDxBoulder (about preventing asteroid impacts), and the video of my talk was chosen to go on the TED site. There were quite a few speakers at TEDxBoulder, and it was a riveting event. However, I need to add that one or two speakers said things that were what I would categorize as pseudoscience: claims that were not backed by real evidence but instead based on unreliable data. It wasn’t a huge deal at the time, but it did make me uncomfortable.
Which is why I was very pleased to read that today, TEDx Director Lara Stein, along with TED.com Editor Emily McManus, issued a public letter to all TEDx organizers warning them to be on the lookout for pseudoscience talks.
I asked McManus about their motivation for the letter:
First, I have to shout out (again) [Forbes.com contributor] Emily Willingham’s list, which really helped us think about communicating about this problem. It’s intimidating to non-scientists to imagine that they have to personally judge science on its merits when they’re not experts, and it’s easy to get shouted down or overtalked when you’re feeling insecure about what you know. So our hope is to give our TEDx hosts some basic tools to think critically, and to let them know they have both the right and the responsibility to be skeptical.
The letter is wonderful. It gives a specific example (saying, “If you hear anything that sounds remotely like, ‘Vaccines are related to autism,’ — RUN AWAY” which warmed me to the bottom of my immune system) and also a series of guidelines that are actually quite good. It outlines patterns of good and bad science talks that are meant to be used as a first-cut method to raise alarms if needed.