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.