The trouble with TED talks

In the cult of TED, everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged, says Martin Robbins.

I’ve long been amused by the slogan of TED, makers of the ubiquitous TED talks. TED’s slogan is this: ‘Ideas worth spreading.’ Apparently TED has some ideas, and we should spread them. What ideas? Ideas that TED in its infinite wisdom has picked out for us, ideas which are therefore implied to be true and good and right. What should we do with these ideas? We should build a message around them - slick presentations by charismatic faces captured in high definition - and we should spread that message far and wide. If this doesn’t yet sound familiar, try replacing ‘TED’ with ‘GOD’. ‘Ideas worth spreading’ sounds more like the slogan of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It’s nearing midnight, and I’m sitting in my pants in front of the computer holding a tumbler of scotch, the curtains closed, the lights off, doing something I don’t do enough of these days – just watching. This is not how TED Talks are supposed to be consumed. The genius of the format is that nobody really watches them: we play them on iPods or we run them in our browsers while working on other things, but it’s rare that people put one on the television and sit down and really focus on them. They come at us from the side of our vision, sneaking past our preoccupied neural circuitry and planting little seeds in the nooks and crevices of our minds, like mould spores on a damp window frame. In the darkest hours of countless nights I’ve woken convinced that a solar-powered cup holder will end third world debt, but not really knowing why.

I start with a talk by Rob Legato, and sixteen minutes later I’m aware of only three things: the talk was awesome, I can’t remember anything of substance from the talk, and I’m now watching a weirdly artificial standing ovation - by sheer coincidence a camera happens to be pointed at some of the first audience members to rise to their feet; then the rest of the audience follows, compelled by social instinct to follow their peers. Of course standing ovations occur more frequently in homogenous audiences, and what better crowd could there be than social elites who’ve invested thousands of dollars for the opportunity to bask in the warm glow someone else’s intellectual aura.

I choose a talk by Ben Goldacre next, a man whose work I know and enjoy. Ben’s high-speed presentation style was once described by a fan as like being ‘skull-fucked with his data-cock’, and his appearance at TED did little to restrain his exuberance, but I found myself switching off after a while; I’d seen his talk before, at The Royal Institution. In fact, virtually none of the talks I watched were particularly new or original – presentations that are that well-polished rarely are.

One of the common charges against TED is that it’s elitist, and yet many of the speakers were the sort of people you might find at your local ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event. The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.

The videos aren’t given star ratings; instead you have to rate them by checking words from a list: ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘persuasive’, ‘courageous’, ‘fascinating’, ‘beautiful’ and an array of similarly vapid adjectives. Cameras lurk below the eye-line of the speakers looking up at their sharply defined forms, picked out by spotlights against dark backgrounds like a Greek god’s statue in a museum display case. The crowd acts as a single helpful entity; laughing when it should laugh, whooping when it should whoop, awwing when it should aww. Quotes are picked out and highlighted as if they carry some profound truth: “There's no such thing as a dumb user,” says Timothy Prestero, a designer who has clearly never read the user comments on Comment is Free. Or indeed the articles. There are no questions here: in the cult of TED, everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged.

The problem with this evangelical approach, discarding the voice of scepticism and mindlessly parroting ‘fascinating’ ideas instead of challenging them, is that you risk spreading some utter codswallop. A couple of weeks ago, TED posted a list of the 20 most-watched TED talks to date. Occupying third and fifth place is pair of talks viewed more than sixteen million times, dedicated to a “paradigm-shifting” technology with “thrilling potential” from 2009. It was called ‘SixthSense’.

Nope, nor me. And yet its inventor, Pranav Mistry, is described by the on-stage TEDster as a ‘genius’ and “truly one of the two or three best inventors in the world right now,” the latter assertion based, amusingly, on “the people we’ve seen at TED.” That Mistry is talented and clever I wouldn’t dispute for a second, but words are cheap, and they get cheaper when overused. The presentation looks to my tired eyes like a slightly ropey sales pitch, except the ruthless interrogators of Dragons’ Den have been replaced by a whooping, clapping audience displaying the world-weary cynicism of an arena-full of Beliebers. Anyone who posed a meaningful question in this environment would be treated like they’d thrown a shit in someone’s face.

With the world’s easiest audience, many inaccuracies and errors go unchallenged. A talk by Terry Moore on algebra was littered with unsourced claims about Spanish language and history. Their coverage of science topics is at best superficial, and sometimes downright misleading. Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s infamous claim that bacteria could incorporate arsenic into their DNA led to a huge backlash from the scientific community, during which she refused to engage with critics and said that: “Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated.” Not long afterwards, she signed up to do a distinctly un-peer-reviewed TED talk. ‘Ideas worth spreading’ . . . except in this instance the ideas didn’t survive peer-review.

Ultimately, the TED phenomenon only makes sense when you realise that it’s all about the audience. TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place. People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite. That intelligence is optional, and you need to be rich and well-connected to get into the conferences and the exclusive fringe parties and events that accompany them, simply adds to the irresistible allure. TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’.

A suitably vague but uplifting photo of hot air balloon. Photo: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.