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Learn about key science news via free online TED talks

Nathan Wolfe: What's left to explore?

What's left to explore talk

In “I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All.” ( Download the Universe, 06/01/2012), science writer Carl Zimmer introduces us to the TED talks, a free, online resource of lectures by scientists that some of our readers may not have heard of:
These talks are excellent for two reasons. One reason is that the science is substantive and fresh. The other reason is that the talks themselves are well executed. These are not academic lectures that people watch because their grade depends on it. These are talks that are intended for the curious public. To work, they demand a delicate touch–an understanding of what you can and cannot assume if your audience is made up of hundreds of thousands of people. They also demand all the graces of good oratory, such as the careful delivery of words, and strategic deployed rises and falls in cadence. There is no droning recitation of PowerPoint in the best of these talks.

There are over 1100 of these talks here. Adult night school on your own time in your own home for free.

Zimmer warns, however (in the process of trashing a speaker he doesn’t like), of one pitfall:

The problem, I think, is lies in TED’s basic format. In effect, you’re meant to feel as if you’re receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they’re only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn’t much time left over to actually make a case–to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.

In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.

Well, like we teach our kids, if it sounds unbelievable, don’t believe it, and when in doubt, doubt.

Bacteria that live on arsenic? For that, see “Remember the arsenic eating bacteria? Paper in Science refutes claim.” We wonder if author Rosie Redfield will be asked to speak at TED on that paper.

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4 Responses to Learn about key science news via free online TED talks

  1. T.E.D. = Technology, Entertainment, Design – “Ideas Worth Spreading”

    Oooohh, they’ve got ‘design’ in their name!

    Not to mention:
    88 Languages
    7732 Translators
    28885 Translations

    Quite a bit more than ‘Adult Night School’! ;)

  2. A few weeks ago, I spent a number of days viewing TED talks. While initially exciting, I soon realized I was just watching sales pitches, poseurs, and speculative pop science.

    The standing ovations at the end of these talks remind me of the audiences in Ronco products infomercials. Watching a fast sales presentation for “the revolutionary Popiel Pocket Fisherman” is fun, but at the end you realize it’s all BS.

    TED talks are “Vegematic science”. You’ll learn a lot more (and be more entertained) watching a single lecture by Feynman than by a TED talk.

  3. I do wish you’d leave Felisa alone. She did the arsenic work for a white-haired old professor who has been working on aresenic bugs for decades, but she gets all the rap. The bugs really do grow on arsenic. And it really does have implications for Darwinism and “descent with modification”–as in, “what are these bugs descended from?” The hypothesis is that they may represent a separate Origin-of-Life. And yes, that would be big news. And yes, this does upset Darwinists.

    But even if it turns out to be ordinary DNA, it is a remarkable fact that biochemistry can adapt to a cellular poison like arsenic.

    And no, one doesn’t have to answer Rosie’s vicious blog attacks, any more than UD answers trolls, which is why Felisa said she would only respond to peer-reviewed critiques. Rosie hasn’t actually managed a peer-reviewed critique yet, while Felisa (and her advisor) have quite a few.

    So try to be a bit more courteous to Felisa. I think she is closer, far closer to UD than Rosie.

  4. Often that is what it is, StuartHarris, but the mistake would be ours if we thought that meant it didn’t matter.

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