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Friday, January 23, 2015

TED Talks -- Overrated?

I like TED Talks because they are only 20 minutes long, and you can tell that the speaker has spent a long time rehearsing.   They are supposed to be the speaker's "talk of a lifetime" and sometimes they probably are.  I'm going to have to try to make a list somewhere of my favorite ones, as well as my least favorite ones.  I'll put Arthur Benjamin near the top -- he's not really trying to sell anything but the joy of mathematics.  And Ben Goldacre, who is doing good work exposing the way drug companies basic lie, cheat, and steal their way to FDA approval and extended patent protection.

Some of my other posts are about others that I didn't like so much -- Tony Robbins about who knows what, Dan Pallotta about for-profit charity work, and Neil Pasricha, who seems to have discovered 10,000 things to be happy about, about 15 or 20 years after the book came out.  But even a bad TED talk is worth listening too, since, again, they are so well rehearsed.

Anyway, I just stumbled on this piece by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones, in which the author critiques several highly popular TED talks.  His concluding paragraphs resonated with me:

. . . . Whether or not somebody has an Earth-shattering idea with a flimsy study that goes against decades of scientific research and common sense has little to do with that idea’s potential for success. It’s a ripe atmosphere for anybody with a good stage performance and a quirky idea to sell whatever it is they are thinking about.
Awkward intellectuals with a critical opinion and without something to sell don’t make it very far. Insecure, unkempt, stammering scientists who obsess over details and believe in staid-sounding ideas can’t really cut the morning talk show circuit either. It’s unlikely that many of them will take to the stage to inspire thousands with grandiose visions about how everything was already working relatively well and also let’s not try to disrupt the construction industry or reinvent how we approach heart surgery.

In other words, just as we allow ourselves to be ruled by people -- i.e. politicians -- whose main talents seem to be self-promotion and public performance, we are increasingly allowing our thoughts about scientific matters to be influenced by the same sorts of individuals.  Something to think about.

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