Sunday, January 26, 2014

Communicating science: TED talks

Is it even necessary to introduce TED talks?...  I guess everyone has seen at least one of these 18-minute-ish presentations on topics that deal with (broadly speaking) Technology, Entertainment or Design. These “ideas worth spreading” (as they are advertised), are presented during the TED Conference, an event occurring every year on the US West Coast since 1990. It is thanks to the development of the internet and video streaming, however, that TED talks have accessed global fame. The first talks were uploaded in 2006, and in 2012 the total views passed 1-billion! (According to, there are now more than 1,600 talks available!) With as famous speakers as Al Gore, Bill Gates or Bono, TED talks have become an unprecedented cultural phenomenon. 

Today TED conferences are organized not only in the US, but also in Canada, in South America, in Europe and in Asia. More than this, TED has become a label, since all over the world are organized so-called TEDx events, conferences that share the TED format but are organized by independent local committees. 

Given the format and the varied audience, TED talks are not meant to treat a topic exhaustively and should be accessible to the layman. This is not necessarily an easy job for scientists, still you can find almost four hundreds science talks on the TED website! It seems thus that science fares pretty well in the TED universe… 

Take as an example the excellent presentation of Bonnie Bassler, from Princeton University, on ‘How bacteria “talk”’. In the Science special issue that I mentioned in my previous post, Bonnie Bassler’s talk served to illustrate good science communication; I couldn’t agree more!

Of course I’m far from having watched all four hundreds presentations, but curious minds will find in the list such great presenters as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Craig Venter, and many more. And, good news, there are several presentations that deal with microorganisms! (You will find up to eighty talks that mention “bacteria” at some point or the other.)

TED’s potential for public outreach is truly enormous, and I think it’s good that scientists embrace this means of communicating science. But this doesn’t mean that everything is for the best in TED’s world; a growing number of criticisms and concerns are darkening the blue sky. For instance, the question of pseudoscience: TED presenters include people that are identified as scientists even though they promote ideas that lie at the border of science, or even stand plainly outside of it. Now the problem is that the public cannot a priori know who they can trust, and rely on the TED team to select valid speakers. A good example was documented by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who personally convinced TED to withdraw their support from TEDx talks  that arguably dealt with pseudoscience. See for instance Coyne's blog posts herehere and here.

Another criticism, which actually could be more worrisome than the former (after all, Coyne showed that the TED team took action when pseudoscience was concerned), is that too many TED talks are guilty of oversimplification. This criticism was recently formulated by Benjamin Bratton, Professor of Visual Arts at UC San Diego, in the pages of the Guardian and, interestingly, during a TEDx conference! In essence, Bratton claims that the promises highlighted in TED talks don’t hold. Some ideas may be worth spreading, but they will never turn into something real. I think Bratton has some valid points, and it’s probably good if TED reflects on these. 

To conclude on a positive note, there are many great science presentations out there thanks to TED, and it would be a pity not to enjoy them! Oversimplification may exist, but some people will use TED talks as an entry to a topic, and will further look for additional, more detailed information.

[Edit: other criticisms of TED are available for instance in the New Statesman, and at Download the Universe.]


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