I’ve only ever seen two TED talks that I liked. Here’s the first:

That’s one of my comedy heroes, Ryan North. He’s talking about what it’d be helpful to know if you ever got sent back in time for some reason. So it’s useless information, practically, but it’s an entertaining little talk. That said, I pretty much just adore everything North does without hesitation, so I’m not really being fair.

Second is this one:

I like this one because he’s literally just mocking all TED speakers. I don’t really know how they let him do that, but it’s pretty great. And when I watched this I realised something, I don’t really like TED at all.

It’s hard to place my finger on exactly why though. In theory I should be all for it. Bringing science to the masses in an engaging way can only be a good thing, right? As a pseudo-academic, I should be celebrating such a lively festival of ideas and discussion. But it just never quite sits right with me. Whenever I try to watch a TED talk, I usually switch off pretty quickly.

Maybe science is just too boring for me to get into? But how can that be the case when you’ve got Neil Degrasse Tyson on a stage showering you with wonders of our incredible universe? What’s the source of my disconnect?

But now, I think I’ve figured it out – and I’ll do my best to articulate it. Basically, I’m uncomfortable with a quasi-demagogic delivery of scientific ideas. Yes, that is a super pretentious sentence – so let’s break it down.

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TED is full of people like this. Individuals who are experts in their field coming along to tell you how EVERYTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE soon or EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ISN’T ACTUALLY LIKE YOU THINK IT IS. TED talks are on hefty subjects like the future of the human race, or even the entire universe.

So you sit there, enticed by a video with a title such as “the wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn” and then sit through about 20 minutes of lecture. Note the principle at work here, it’s pretty similar to clickbait article like Buzzfeed. The promise of something earth-shattering that draws you in to engage. But then the actual video itself is devoid of much real content. What you actually get is something along the lines of:

  1. A long-winded introduction of who the speaker is
  2. A long-winded explanation of what the speaker’s relation to the question at hand is
  3. A long-winded anecdote of a personal experience of the question at hand
  4. Some slides with some graphs on them
  5. A short history of what the subject and why this changes everything
  6. Some cursory remarks actually related to the question
  7. Lots of unsubstantiated conjecture
  8. Heavy use of rhetorical questions to imply depth

Basically, it’s a bad way of taking in information. The emphasis at TED is on entertainment over real science, no matter how it tries to convey itself. The speakers are there to amaze and dazzle you, which real science actually makes very hard to do.

Here’s a tweet I just saw, which is sort of relevant to the point I’m trying to make here-

This is something I touched on in my Big Bang Theory post recently. I’m against the ‘popularisation’ of science insofar at that means it being dumbed down (in principle, I’m all for more people getting into science of course). As this tweet says, it’s become cool to be ‘into science’ (thanks, TBBT!) but the ‘science’ that people are getting into is just this weird meme-tastic thing that is like science’s odd cousin. Sure, the basis of the stuff is science but it’s not actual science.

Basically I’m highly sceptical of the possibility of a single individual to deliver a meaningful explanation of any scientific topic within twenty minutes. To even reach an elementary understanding of many scientific principles requires years of study. I didn’t do any science subjects beyond GCSE, so even A-Level knowledge is technically beyond me. Could someone explain these principles to me? Sure. Could they cover a single subject in twenty minutes whilst also being entertaining? I doubt it.

Plus some of the speakers just come across as highly arrogant and patronising. Like shut up already, Bill Gates.

I’m not writing off all TED talks though. I’m sure there are some great ones out there that cover very specific topics. But I don’t feel they’ll ever be able to do justice to real scientific work. The work that takes years of experimentation, research and peer review. The real changes in science come gradually, only a few breakthroughs are ever made overnight.

A twenty minute talk can’t change the world. Twenty years of hard, highly specialised work can.

I couldn’t end, though, without sharing this. It’s a talk by Matt Inman (of The Oatmeal fame). It’s the kind of talk I like. It’s very funny, doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and manages to even smuggle in a few thought-provoking points without ever being grandiose. (Note that this isn’t a TED talk).