Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones takes TED to task not for the kind of controversial TEDx talks that Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake gave but for the mainstream TED, writing at The Awl:
The long knives have been out for TED Talks for some time. Benjamin Bratton called them “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” Evegny Morozov called the TED publishing arm the “insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering.” The gist of these arguments is that TED Talks are vapid, culty mass-selfies that fetishize technology for every solution. It is “placebo science” meant to make its audience feel good about learning and themselves, where ideas can hang out and do whatever, man—just turn the safety off on your brain-gun.
If not read in the voice of a perpetual techno-cynic, these might not be such terrible things. Is middlebrow entertainment bad? If cynics want to complain about shallow, self-indulgent infotainment there’s a whole world of sitcoms, reality television, and History channel documentaries on alien-Nazi collaborations for their critical ire. If touchy-feely talks about cultural norms and where ideas come from are so bad, then wait until they get a load of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for the past twenty years.
There have certainly been great TED Talks—I highly recommend Ben Goldacre’s talk on shoddy science and clinical trials for pharmaceuticals or Molly Crockett’s monologue on the bollocks of current neuroscience research. These have helped give a voice to the underserved while highlighting potential innovations that truly could improve the world. Fantastic and informative talks by very respected scientists, bringing attention to projects that would otherwise be destined for the back pages of Scientific American.
But then there are also TED Talks that are blatant pseudoscientific garbage. These aren’t nebulous meanderings on where ideas come from or the contentious talks on new age and quantum energy seen at the smaller TEDx events (kookiness that the organizers have already tried to clamp down on). These are the main stage talks on subjects with wide social implications. These are the TED Talks that simply repackage right-wing talking points for the stoned California tech elite with a gloss of technological innovation and a contrarian interpretation of how the world actually works. In Bratton’s words, there’s a reason many of them have not come to fruition.
TED’s lack of substantial peer review and its emphasis on what is new, what isn’t divisive, and what is entertaining rather than accurate or well-researched means that horrendous nonsense can get a wide audience of the rich and powerful. TED’s lack of rigor in filtering out candidates and its emphasis on performance and inspiration has allowed the scientific equivalent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to give speeches at Woodstock. The problem is not that technology is evil or that nothing should be touchy-feely. It’s that TED—which operates under the Sapling Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Chris Anderson—let down its guard and the inmates took over the asylum. These are ideas that are not worth spreading. They are, in fact, bad ideas and TED should feel bad for having spread them…
[continues at The Awl]