For years, TED Talks have been criticized for oversimplifying issues, but in recent months the heat is turning up a notch. First there was the Slate takedown of the Allan Savory TED Talk on how more cows could stop climate change. Then there was the comedian who pranked the conference group with a fake parody talk through the unofficial TEDx platform. That was followed by a TEDx Talk where the speaker persuasively argues that the conference is “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.”
Lastly, The Awl ran an extensive story today on how “blatant pseudoscientific garbage” is sneaking into official TED talks more and more. It dissected six inaccurate TED talks that were rooted in research contested by academic communities. Its conclusion: “TED’s lack of substantial peer review and its emphasis on…what is entertaining rather than accurate or well-researched means that horrendous nonsense can get a wide audience of the rich and powerful.”
In the midst of the media criticism, this week TED Talks launched “TED-Ed Clubs” for youth. It’s a program to help students, age 8-18, develop and refine their ideas and practice public speaking.
In theory it’s a great program. TED Talks are lively and entertaining, and have accomplished the miraculous feat of getting the masses to voluntarily watch educational speeches. Why not empower youth with the same public speaking skills?
In practice it’s a little concerning. TED-Ed Clubs curriculum focuses on presentation over fact-checking, much like the TED Talks themselves.
For example, one meeting topic is: “How to present part 1: Understanding the beginning, middle, and end.” Another meeting topic is, “What makes a great idea?” However, a meeting topic like “How to fact-check and validate your beliefs” is not listed.
Perhaps TED includes research material vetting as a subsection of one meeting. It’s not clear, because the organization has not made the detailed information available online. But given the fact that TED Talks themselves don’t appear to require peer review or fact-checking, it seems unlikely TED-Ed Clubs for kids would. (We’ve reached out to TED for clarification and will update this when we hear back.)
The last line in the TED-Ed Clubs video is this: “Students: the world is waiting to be redefined by your biggest, smallest, boldest, quirkiest, bravest, most inspiring, and most brilliant ideas.”
“True” or “factually accurate” or “scientifically tested” don’t quite make the cut. Granted, those words are less compelling and emotionally exciting than “brilliant” or “inspiring.” But therein lies TED Talks’ problem: it places a higher importance on a great speech or simple idea than on the fundamental facts or falsehoods or debate behind said idea.
TED is essentially teaching children: Your idea is good simply because it came from you. Here’s how to convince people to believe you.
TED has become a hugely influential power in conveying ideas around the world. But as critics have explored, it’s problematic that the TED style lends itself to charismatic thought leaders with simplified, heart-warming, or unexpected “truths.” What complicated facts, that perhaps don’t lend themselves to an easily digestible 20-minute talk, are being overlooked? As Slate says, “Awkward intellectuals with a critical opinion and without something to sell don’t make it very far.”
And now, TED’s taking that power into the classroom, teaching willing children from a young age to follow its lead.