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Nonsense, Skepticism, and TED Talks

Someone gave a TEDx talk in Charlotte a few months ago about something called “Vortex Mathematics,” a talk so compelling that the audience leaped to its feet in applause. However, “Vortex Mathematics,” it seems, is total nonsense. Sone scientists are pretty upset that the talk was given at all: here’s one, and here’s another who is concerned about the damage that talks like this might do to “the sterling TED brand.”

I’m not sure how “sterling” that brand is. A few years ago it seemed that everyone was excited about TED talks as a way of spreading amazing new knowledge to the world, but the bloom is definitely off that rose. As Nathan Jurgenson commented not long ago, “TED is the Urban Outfitters of the idea world” — a gussied-up faux-authentic simulacrum of the real thing.

Like everyone else who has seen them, I’ve enjoyed a number of TED talks — but as entertainment more than as actual instruction. I don’t know how you couldn’t enjoy Sir Ken Robinson’s well-known talk on schools and creativity, but if you try to unpack his assertions there and figure out whether they’re true, you don’t have much to go on. And TED’s rules of attendance are meant to insure nothing more than passive listening: the last thing they want is someone googling a dubious claim in the midst of a talk, or tweeting skepticism.

I can understand the rules — the idea that it won’t hurt us to put away the gadgets and just listen for eighteen minutes — though in the context of an ideas-and-research conference I don’t actually agree with the prohibitions. But if TED is going to have such rules, maybe they should make another recommendation: “Please consider moderating your applause until you’ve had the chance to investigate our speakers’ claims and find out whether they hold any water.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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