Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Defense of TED

There was some TEDMED bashing going on in the comments to an article in the Washington Post, and I felt compelled to come to TED's defense. My comment raises an important point about communication and promotion of science to the general public—a topic near & dear—so I'd like to re-post it here and add some follow up thoughts.

The situation: some scientist types in the comments were slamming the whole TED enterprise with statements like:
TEDMED is for self-promoters, not scientists. 
Real scientists don't have time for this.
No working scientist in the field of human genetics pays attention to any form. 
My reaction:
Have to disagree. Science needs the TED hype machine, big time. Events like TEDMED provide a worthy service in promoting science and showcasing scientists to the general public. Scientists can use all the PR help they can get in making their work exciting and connecting with the masses (which funds most research here in the U.S.). 
TED encourages more public engagement in science & technology -- something that is especially important now given the trouble we're having with basic science literacy and graduating more science and engineering majors.
Real scientists should appreciate anyone talking up science, especially high-profile figures that have the broader cultural reach practicing scientists can't attain (since they're busy doing science and cranking out those papers). 
Yet science spokespeople that don't have sufficiently scientific credentials are frequently dissed by the scientific elite. Recent example: Alan Alda on Science Friday was dubbed by a caller as an "offense to science" since he's not a trained, practicing scientist.
Real scientists may be too busy doing science to pay attention to TED, but millions of real people do tune in, and that's real good, IMHO.
And BTW, there were some real scientists at TEDMED2012: Eisen, Petsko, Butte, among others.


  1. The "No working scientist..." commenter goes on to say that his latest paper contributes "more to the understanding of human disease" than Francis Collins' entire career. Probably fair to classify this as a troll (deliberate or not)...

  2. Yes likely some trolling here, but I didn't want the thread of trolls to go uncontested. The manuscript he's working on sounds like a doozy -- I'd to see what he has up his sleeve that trumps Francis Collins' career.

    While we're on the subject, another common target for pop-science bashers is Carl Sagan. who did much to excite lots of people about science. Later in his life he addressed the risks of poor scientific understanding in the general public (e.g. Demon-Haunted World).

    One of the dangers of poor science understanding here in the U.S., Sagan says, is that "we've arranged a society based on science & technology in which nobody understands anything about science & technology and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if people don't know anything about it?"

    Any remedies? I think one thing we could do more of is invest in science outreach to the broader population, showing real-world applications to modern challenges. Venues like TED and MythBusters do a good job of this - but we could use more resources for the folks that want to go deeper, want more than a cool video.

    More efforts like these would, I predict, go a long way to improve the funding situation (see here, here, and here).

  3. Some resources to help go deeper:

    * TED-Ed. And see: Can TED Talks Really Work in a Classroom?

    * Khan Academy - 3200+ free educational videos.