This past Friday, TED sent out a mass email to TEDx organizers, ominously titled "A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science." TED, which has become synonymous with "big ideas," is getting serioius about fighting the pseudoscience which had been given nearly free rein at its regional TEDx conferences. After pointing to an angry /r/science thread on Reddit, the letter took a hard line: "It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes." If anything slipped through, TED wrote, it would be grounds for revoking an organizer's license.
The event closed with the chanting of mantras and songs for Gaia
But keeping hucksters off TED stages is harder than it sounds, thanks to the TEDx franchise model, which lets volunteer organizers set up semi-sanctioned mini-TEDs wherever they want. That allows for massive volume — over 400 TEDx events were held just last month — but puts quality control in the hands of a diffuse network of unpaid enthusiasts. If someone wants to use the format to promote superstition, the only thing stopping them is the local organizer.
The latest round of criticism stems from a reportedly disastrous TEDxValenciaWomen event on December 1st, which listed its theme as "Ama-gi: Freedom, Return to Mother." The event featured talks on crystal therapy and Egyptian psychoaromatherapy and, according to the schedule, closed with the chanting of mantras and songs for Gaia. Almost immediately, Spanish science bloggers pounced, calling it, "a great day for charlatans" and calling on TED to revoke the organizer’s license. For the most part, TED's response has been polite embarrassment. One speaker, rebirthing specialist Aura Küpper, seems to have been scrubbed from the website. "Once in a while things don’t go 100% right," said David Pla-Santamaria, official organizer of the Valencia event. "We are working closely with TED to ensure that we avoid this type of thing in the future."
A TEDxAustin talk from 2011 linking genetically modified crops with cancer.
How that will take place remains to be seen. TED has pulled talks before, including a notorious "Vortex Mathematics" lecture, but the approach has been akin to a lightly moderated comments section, with most offenders flying under the radar. According to Lara Stein, Director of TEDx, the organization prefers to avoid blanket policy statements on content. "In the past we have handled most of these issues as one-offs," Stein told The Verge. "Thanks to this discussion, we decided to take on the 'bad science' issue directly." In other words, critics had finally raised enough of a stink that the issue had to be resolved in public. The letter singles out GMOs, food-as-medicine and unorthodox autism research as "red flag topics" — the latter because of "the sad history of hoaxes with deadly consequences" — but otherwise left the issue to organizers' good judgment. As Stein put it, "This is not TED telling TEDx what science is."
For some critics, educating event-runners isn't enough. "The organizers themselves are purveyors of pseudoscience," said Mauricio Jose Schwarz, one of the Spanish writers who lead the outcry against the Valencia event. "It's a useless exercise to explain science and pseudoscience [to them]." Alejandro Monge, who led the anti-Valencia outcry on Reddit, points out another problem: by the time TEDx has revoked the license, most pseudoscientists have already gotten the exposure they want. "By then, someone has already made money selling books and power crystals to misinformed people, using TED's reputation as a front." A revoked TED license could be chalked up to the cost of doing business.
"They flatter us, rather than forcing us to ask tough questions."
The format may be an even bigger problem. The polished, 18-minute lecture usually aims for life-changing grandeur over the dull churn of data and peer review. That immediacy has created a new audience for science writing, but also a new source of prestige for pseudoscience. As science writer Carl Zimmer put it in his scorched-earth review this summer, TED talks "provide us with easy resolutions. They flatter us, rather than forcing us to ask tough questions." Good science can do that, but bad science does it a lot better, which suggests TED’s problems may be far from over.
When we showed Zimmer TED's latest letter, he was surprisingly optimistic. "It's worth fixing," he said of the TED system, for the good it does promoting public science awareness. (Zimmer himself has spoken at the TED Youth conference.) But then he pointed us to a TED talk from last month about massage-based brain therapy, a counter-example to everything the letter hopes to achieve, turned up in a few minutes on Google. "It would be great if TEDx were to take it down. And it would be even better if we never see that sort of talk on TEDx again. Will that happen? I can't predict the answer, but I hope so."