While science bloggers are filling in for the rapidly disappearing species known as the “science journalist”, new outlets for communicating science to the public have arisen as well. Perhaps the best known and most viewed of these outlets is TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), whose 18 minute TED Talks present entertaining and inspiring messages, often revolving around new scientific breakthroughs. While the production values of TED Talks are always top-notch, questions are arising about the quality and veracity of the content.

I’ve generally been a fan of TED Talks, and can immediately recall several that were completely astonishing. This talk, featuring examples of cephalopod camouflage and behavioral coloration still blows my mind every time I see it:

But increasingly, TED Talks are being called out for their lack of quality control. The “Vending Machine for Crows” talk was one of the first to be noticed to be inaccurate, and more and more (and more) have been called into question. The inconsistent nature and lack of vetting has made me approach TED Talks much more skeptically, and I have a hard time watching them without assuming that what I’m hearing is at least an overstatement of fact, if not complete fiction.

We are often confronted with the shortcomings of the journal peer review process, but the TED Talks perhaps give us a glimpse of what journals would be like if we relied entirely on post-publication peer review. Sure, the egregiously wrong talks have been criticized, but the number of viewers aware of those criticisms is likely much smaller than the number who have viewed the talks and taken them as factual. It seems much harder to correct the record after the fact and the unclear level of reliability reduces trust, something we surely want to avoid.

Martin Robbins goes so far as to compare TED Talks to religious proselytizing, and that the content itself is less important than how the audience feels:

Ultimately, the TED phenomenon only makes sense when you realise that it’s all about the audience. TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place.

Even so, Carl Zimmer notes the incredible power that the production values and style add to the presentations. If the academic research world wants to reach the mainstream audience in a fascinating and entertaining manner, there is much to learn from TED Talks.

This being Friday though, I don’t want to leave things on such a serious note as you relax over the weekend. Perhaps one of the greatest things about TED Talks have been the parodies they’ve inspired. We’ve posted them before, perhaps this one being the best skewering of the “social media guru” ever presented. Conan O’Brien has recently had comedians doing their own trailers for imaginary TED Talks as well. While Patton Oswalt’s is wonderfully absurd, Paul Scheer really seems to nail the form better:

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


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