Geeks among you might be familiar with TED, a series of conferences that started 0ut very tech-oriented but now deals with everything including complex global issues and cutting-edge science. Its motto is ‘Ideas worth spreading’. I used to be a big fan when I discovered that they made their talks public under a limited CC license. You can watch about 500 of them here. After a hardcore science talk by someone with no public speaking skills poring over reams of data in excruciating detail, these seem like a breath of fresh air.
But on closer inspection, I found that TED has two major issues:
1) Dumbing down. The flipside of the ’simple is beautiful’ 20-minute time limit and lay demographic, which makes the talks so accessible, is usually oversimplification of an issue or one-sidedness.
2) Dramatisation. They seem to love ‘revolutionary ideas’ (see how often that pops up in talks descriptions). Sadly, science and technology are not solely sudden breakthroughs by crazy geniuses. These geniuses require the more prosaically heroic work of tens of thousands of hours of plodding by unsung everyday scientists, and they are often wrong. As it turns out, crazy ideas are often just that.
TED, to its credit, doesn’t make any claims about the veracity of the claims but it does give people a shared platform with former US presidents, serving prime ministers, Bill Gates, and various Nobel laureates. That’s one big springboard.
So have they been over-promoting fringe scientific theories? Well they do feature repeated appearance of Craig Venter and Kary Mullis both of whom are mavericks with odd views when they stray from their own expertise (Mr. Venter wanted to use the reference human genome for commercial gain and Mr. Mullis is a global warming denialist and an AIDS denialist. Note the armchair.)
And then there’s this recently published talk. It’s Elaine Morgan, a distinguished writer and Oxford graduate who has been a strong voice in the feminist movement. She is defending the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, which other than writing and the feminist cause is one of her great interests. It broadly refers to the idea that certain unique feature of humans among primates such as our thinner hair, and perhaps even bipedalism, can be explained by a history of aquatic or semi-aquatic life after the chimp-human split about 5 Million years ago. As she outlines its, it sound really neat. It also has a certain romance. But note that she doesn’t discuss the evidence, just complains that it has ‘never been properly looked at’. She also uses an argumentum ad Davido Attenburgo. It has been, and is generally considered seriously flawed for multiple reasons. There is Oreopithecus, a swamp-dwelling extinct (partially?) bipedal primate which would be nice as supporting evidence but we don’t really have anything that relates to the human lineage.
Those who know Colin well know that Evolutionary Biology frustrates him mightily, for while its foundation is strong the minor specifics that acadamics spend most of their time quibbling over are often debated in a hypothesis-rich and experiment-free context. This is because evolution is difficult to experiment on since it operates on geological timescales far greater than a scientist’s lifetime. This results in what he calls ‘armchair science’: sitting back in your gown with a pipe and saying “Well, I think this explanation is the more sensible-sounding one, don’t you old chap? Hurrah, we’ve cracked it. Open the port, would you Jeeves?”
Much to his satisfaction, I’m sure, both Kary Mullis denying global warming and Elaine Morgan discussing a fringe theory of human evolution is done from a seated position.
In short, TED has given a lot of publicity to a hypothesis which probably did not merit it. For some serious discussion of the actual science, people far cleverer than me have discussed it on the blogosphere recently, presumably in response to questions arising from TED publicity. Highly recommended reading:
Greg Laden of Scienceblogs
Oh, and so that I don’t bash TED too much, here is one excellent TED talks by Hans Rosling - the one that originally got me hooked:
With the infinitely powerful lens of hindsight I now see that this is because he shows data. Lots and lot of it. In fact he has to talkveryfast and use an animated data visualisation tool to be able to present all of it in 20 minutes. Without these added bonuses, the amount of data in most TED talks is minimal.