When I wrote about Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED rant I only talked about the comment about the low success rate of TED suggestions. That was, admittedly, a small piece of his article, but the rest of it was so ludicrously overheated that I couldn’t really take it seriously. It continues to get attention, though, both in the form of approving re-shares on my social media feeds, and in direct responses such as a rebuttal from Chris Anderson himself and most recently a long piece by Christiana Peppard at Medium, which are getting their own collection of approving re-shares. So I guess I ought to talk more about the rest of it.

The conversation is mostly driven by a sort of fear that TED is somehow corrupting the precious bodily fluids purity of academic research. This is illustrated most dramatically by Bratton’s anecdote of a colleague who met with a rich donor only to be turned down because his presentation wasn’t “inspirational” in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell. This leads to the dramatic and oft-quoted line that “astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster.”

Which, you know, is a great line. But it’s kind of a bizarre statement at the same time, because that isn’t how astrophysics is run. Research funding is not generally obtained by directly approaching capricious rich people, for more or less exactly this reason– rich patrons can do weird things for weird reasons. Bratton’s anecdote isn’t an illustration of the normal practice of science in the age of TED, it’s a weird outlier. The bulk of scientific funding is allocated via a review process involving actual scientists, through grant proposals and review panels at agencies like NSF and NIH, and a variety of private foundations. This helps insure that the science being funded is both well-founded and interesting.

Now, it’s true, you can find scientists who will grumble to you about how the NIH and NSF aren’t any better than individual rich people, going for splashy faux-inspirational “science” instead of the solid stuff that’s sure to produce good results. Of course, you can also find scientists who will grumble that the NIH and NSF are plodding dullards who don’t have the imagination to fund truly ground-breaking science, instead going for solid but unspectacular stamp collecting. Generally you find both of them at once, on Twitter, right around the time a new batch of grant proposal rejections come out.

I really don’t see much evidence that astrophysics is being run like American Idol, though, other than the sour-grapes grumbling of people who didn’t get funded(*). More than that, though, I don’t see what TED has to do with this– TED is not involved in disbursing NSF monies, to the best of my knowledge, and listing TED talks on a grant proposal isn’t going to get you anything but weird looks. An NSF proposal that reads like a TED talk will go nowhere.

Peppard’s article is mostly about the attitudes of academics who object to TED, but also includes some head-scratchers, particularly the statement that “it’s worth considering whether Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would have been invited to speak at TED by the political and economic elites of their day (it’s doubtful).” Given that both of them operated fairly successfully in the individual-rich-patron mode of their day– see, for example, Thony C.’s description of Kepler’s snowflake pamphlet, offered as a New Year’s gift to a wealthy and powerful friend in the court of Rudolph II– I think they could manage to navigate TED. Galileo’s problems were arguably a result of being a little too TED-ish, in a 1630 kind of way.

And that’s followed by “Charles Darwin would have been debilitated by the mere suggestion of such a talk and would probably have delegated the task to limelight-loving Huxley,” which, again, is problematic in a couple of ways– Darwin wasn’t a total recluse as a younger man, but only after his health collapsed, and he was a best-selling popular author well before the Origin of Species. Again, I think he could’ve handled the Victorian version of TED (assuming that the Royal Society wasn’t already that…). More than that, though, I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with delegating the popular stuff to Huxley.

As to the overall question of what’s driving this, I think the answer is that there’s a tendency for people to object to opportunities that they feel are not available to them. This is particularly pronounced in academia, where people will fight amazingly hard against recognition for activities that consume a good deal of time and resources for people in other departments. It’s probably another manifestation of the aphorism about the fights in academia being vicious because the stakes are low.

Anyway, the key underpinning of all of this, both Bratton’s weird rant (his comment on my original post equating TED with Lysenkoism tripped my mental Godwin’s Law filter) and the broader stuff Peppard discusses is the idea that only certain topics are amenable to the TED treatment, and that this is Not Fair to people in other fields. Despite the fact that TED doesn’t actually drive research priorities in any meaningful sense, the fact that some people are more able to tap into that to gain personal fame makes the whole thing morally suspect.

I find this attitude kind of bizarre, as well. After all, it’s not like there was ever a Golden Age in which all research topics were equally well regarded by the general public. Public attention has gravitated to particular problems, in somewhat unpredictable ways, since time immemorial. There were probably philosophers in Athens who secretly cheered when Socrates drank the hemlock, because that publicity hound was distracting from the purity of their much more deserving research. TED is a delivery system, nothing more.

But beyond that, I don’t really buy the notion that some fields of research are so irreducibly complex that they can’t possibly be made “inspiring.” That’s a cop-out from people who are too lazy or arrogant to make the effort. Somewhere at the core of every research topic, there’s a powerful and inspirational idea.

How can I assert this so confidently? Because I’ve been in academia my entire adult life, and I know what these jobs pay. And more importantly, I know what’s required to get one of these jobs. You don’t put up with the myriad hassles of grad school– long hours, low wages, lousy working conditions– because of the fabulous riches that await. You do it because something in the subject you’re studying is sufficiently interesting to make it all seem worthwhile.

No matter how arcane or esoteric a research subject might seem from the outside, there’s an inspirational core in there somewhere that keeps people devoting long hours to the study of whatever it is. And if you can find that idea, you can communicate it to others.

The range of subjects that are TED-worthy is much wider than you might think. I mean, the TED@NYC event I spoke at in October (from which the “featured image” was taken) featured a talk by Karen Levy about sociological research on long-haul truckers. This is not, on the face of it, a fascinating topic, but she made it sound interesting. I’m not going to drop physics to start hanging out in truck stops interviewing drivers, but in under six minutes on stage she was able to convey the idea that this is, in fact, an area worth looking closely at. If she can make that sound interesting, there’s something in whatever you’re studying that can be given a popular treatment.

A related argument is that there’s just no way to convey all the complexities and subtleties of real research to a general audience, because the public can’t handle complexity. Again, I find this unconvincing– The Theoretical Minimum is a math-heavy discussion of the Lagrangian formulation of classical mechanics, and it hit #13 on the New York Times bestseller list. If you do it right, you can be smart and popular, you just need to find the right angle.

Now, you don’t have to do this. Again, TED does not drive research priorities or funding, so there’s no professional obligation to TED-ify your research if you don’t want to. If the idea of presenting your work in a short inspirational format gives you hives, you don’t need to do it. Somebody else can be Huxley to your Darwin, and your academic career will be none the worse for it.

But if you look carefully at what you study for a living, and ask yourself what it is, deep down, that attracted you to this question and keeps you studying it, I bet you’ll find a clear and inspiring idea, something whose essence could be conveyed to others to help them see why what you do is worthwhile. If you can’t find that inspiring idea, I would submit that you might want to consider a change of career.

——

(*) Please note that this is not an argument that there isn’t a problem with current funding rates. If you want to argue that worthy proposals go un-funded, I absolutely agree, and if you know of a plan that would triple the current NSF and NIH budgets that could get past the modern Congress, I’m all ears. That’s a separate argument, though, orthogonal to the “Is TED evil?” discussion. My claim is just that the current process is about the best we can do given the inadequate funding we’re stuck with for the moment. It’s certainly not something that’s irretrievably warped by TED-ism.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    January 13, 2014

    I think he could’ve handled the Victorian version of TED (assuming that the Royal Society wasn’t already that…).

    I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the Royal Society was exactly that.

  2. #2 Greg Fish
    January 13, 2014

    Bratton is certainly off on his suggestion that TED somehow dictates science priorities or plays a big role in routine, day to day research activities. Nevertheless, his criticism of the tech part of TED is more spot on than not.

    It’s a great place to go and pitch ideas about how awesome it would be if []insert buzzword here] solved all of the world’s problems and get attention the funding from angel investors, but it’s not being billed as that. It’s being billed as this great disseminator of ground-breaking ideas for the populace at large.

    And that’s the problem. TED is 85% marketing and 15% new ideas just being talked about being advertised as a foundry for a new, enlightened, tech and science-savvy world.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    January 13, 2014

    And that’s the problem. TED is 85% marketing and 15% new ideas just being talked about being advertised as a foundry for a new, enlightened, tech and science-savvy world.

    Yes, and…?
    I mean, I agree that there’s a lot of hype involved, but that’s not exclusive to TED. Go through the pop-science section of your local bookstore, and you’ll find that most of the titles that are face out have a large component of hype– physicists are on the verge of a Theory of Everything! evolutionary psychology explains everything! the Singularity is right around the corner! I’m not convinced the hype-to-reality ratio is all that much worse at TED than at Barnes and Noble.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm
    January 13, 2014

    When everybody thinks the same thoughts, nobody thinks at all. TED’s value is not limited to what it says. If an audience member, motivated or bored stiff, thinks of something crazy new, relevant to the talk or not, TED works. Imagination is intelligence having fun. Nobody ever had fun filling out a grant funding request.

  5. #5 Alex
    January 13, 2014

    Marketing of science doesn’t bother me. Marketing science to elites in an annoying format doesn’t even bother me.

    What bothers me is the people I know who hear a talk about AN IDEA THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING (usually an idea about business or politics or society or education, not physics) and then go around telling everyone else about it. OK, so they liked listening to that talk. Great. That doesn’t mean the rest of us need to change our lives. Especially if next week you’ll hear a different talk and be jazzed about that.

  6. #6 Alex
    January 13, 2014

    BTW, this is relevant:

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    January 13, 2014

    TED definitely has a highly spoofable house style, but I’m not sure the THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING folks are any worse because of it. It streamlines the discovery process for them slightly, but those people were annoying before I ever heard of TED.

  8. #8 Alex
    January 13, 2014

    True. If there were no TED talks, the guy down the hall from me would be reading motivational books or something. Even worse, he’d be telling me about motivational books.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    January 13, 2014

    What bothers me is the people I know who hear a talk about AN IDEA THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING (usually an idea about business or politics or society or education, not physics) and then go around telling everyone else about it.

    As Chad says, these idiots were around before TED became so well-known. I’d heard jokes like “buzzword bingo” and “buzzword-compliant” long before there were such things as TED talks. Like Chad, I have seen no evidence that the phenomenon has gotten significantly worse in the TED talk era. I speak as someone in a subfield where submitting a buzzword-compliant proposal is generally viewed as a plus (though not a sufficient condition for being funded).

  10. #10 Greg Fish
    January 13, 2014

    I’m not convinced the hype-to-reality ratio is all that much worse at TED than at Barnes and Noble.

    You’re probably right, but again, the problem is that TED was basically designed to elevate techno-utopian hype to a whole new level and gives this hype the kind of megaphone and a patina of respectability no Barnes and Noble could. That’s a bad thing. Just because it already exists doesn’t mean we should just wave it off.

  11. #11 incitatus
    January 14, 2014

    “But if you look carefully at what you study for a living, and ask yourself what it is, deep down, that attracted you to this question and keeps you studying it, I bet you’ll find a clear and inspiring idea, something whose essence could be conveyed to others to help them see why what you do is worthwhile. If you can’t find that inspiring idea, I would submit that you might want to consider a change of career”

    contrariwise i would suggest that if your career is based on something so shallow as a soundbite you should consider a change of thought process.

    but seriously how can you complain about one mans sweeping condemnations by making another, equally ill-founded one? There are better things to knock.

  12. #12 Wilson
    January 15, 2014

    On a not-entirely-unrelated topic …

    Chad, I’m assuming that you would have let us know if you’d heard whether or not you’d been picked for March’s TED conference. (If you have already mentioned it, I apologize for missing it.)

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    January 15, 2014

    If I’d heard anything I was allowed to share, I would share it. Though the one speaker from October whose video has been featured on TED.com said she was told not to say anything about it before the video went live, so even if I had been told that I was picked to go to the main TED conference, I might not be able to say that.

    (For the record, I haven’t heard anything, one way or the other. At some point, I’ll probably email them to confirm that I’m not invited, but not for another couple of weeks.)

  14. #14 Wilson
    January 15, 2014

    Cool, thanks.