TEDx talks turned to self-help

I’ve always loved TED talks. When TED started the TEDx events initiative, by which independent groups could use the TED brand to organise local events under specific agreements with TED, I was especially glad, since this meant that talks would likely be made available to a much wider community.

Sadly, TEDxGalicia 2011 disillusioned me when they included a Catholic monk amongst their speakers, who used his time to preach about how Catholic values made you a better person. I was baffled. I wrote to TEDxGalicia through Twitter about this, and they answered that this was OK because “all perspectives have equal right to be listened to”, despite TED policies explicitly state that “TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs”.

In 2012, TEDxGalicia didn’t include any monks as far as I know, but they did invite a football referee. If you follow me in Twitter (@verdewek), you probably know that I am of the opinion that organised football in Spain is to sport as organised religion to personal beliefs: a carefully constructed exploitation device that alienates people, sucks away millions of euros, and has very little to do with its purported mission. So I was, again, disappointed.

But the last straw came with TEDxValenciaWomen, a few days ago. TEDx Women events are supposed to focus on how women exert change in society through technology, entertainment and design. TEDxValenciaWomen 2012, however, was a haphazard collection of self-help talks from experts in reiki, Bach flowers, rebirthing, Mother Earth prayers, Egyptian aromatherapy, bio-energetic holistic techniques and the like. TED Accurate Content policies require that speakers are capable of confirming anything they claim on stage. I don’t think many of what was said at TEDxValenciaWomen can be confirmed whatsoever.

This was not only a 180-degree turn from TED policies. It was also an insult to women, since it clearly identifies women with emotional, irrational, credulous beings who don’t understand science but are fine with stupid pseudoscientific woo-woo.

My Twitter timeline was raging. I was away at a conference and didn’t have much time, but still I decided to write to TED through their Contact web page. Here is the letter that I sent.

I love TED talks because they promote science and critical thinking. However, I was very disappointed to see that the local TEDxGalicia and TEDxValenciaWomen didn’t meet the expected standards. According to your Accurate Content policy, “Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community. TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing “us vs them” language.”. Despite of this, TEDxGalicia had a Catholic monk (Paco Castro) as a speaker promoting a strongly dogmatic view of life in 2011, and TEDxValenciaWomen has a speaker (Aura Küpper) who claims to be an expert in reiki and Bach flowers. I doubt that these speakers can “able to confirm the claims presented” in their talks as your policy requires.
The image of TED as a science-related venue is suffering by these links to religion and pseudoscience. I have stopped trusting these local events as providers of top quality content, which is a big disappointment.
I hope this personal opinion is of your interest and contributes to improve TED.

They responded after a few hours promising to look into the problem. As far as I know, other people have started writing complaint letters to TED as well. If you think that TEDx talks should stay rigorous, and don’t like the turn that TEDxGalicia and TEDxValenciaWomen have taken, I encourage you to write to TED as well. Thank you!

Update on 7 December 2012. I’ve just seen that TED has released a letter to the TEDx community, “in light of a few suspect talks that have come out of the TEDx movement”. I’m glad that they have acted on this, and I’m proud to have been one of the initiators.

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Cesar Gonzalez-Perez

Cesar Gonzalez-Perez

Semantic Technologies for Cultural Heritage

I am a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Heritage Sciences (Incipit), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), where I lead a co-research line in software engineering and cultural heritage. The ultimate goal of my work is to develop the necessary theories, methodologies and technologies to help us ascribe meaning to the information that we manage in the cultural heritage realm. Previously I have worked at a number of public and private organisations in Spain and Australia, both in industry and academia, and in the fields of conceptual modelling, metamodelling and method engineering. I have started three technology-based companies, I am an elected member of the steering committee of the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) association, and I have written over 50 academic publications and 3 books.


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