Unfortunately, some TED talks about science don’t live up to Huxley’s example. The problem, I think, 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.
That’s Carl Zimmer writing about TED talks. He goes on to review Philip Zimbardo’s talk on how the internet “digitally rewires” brains and the effects that has on men. I haven’t seen the talk in question nor read the book, but what Zimmer has to say can a apply to many a TED talk past and lots of popular science in general.
I often find my opinion of a popular science outlet drops the moment they cover something within my areas of nigh-expertise. It’s a very disappointing feeling, to realize what had seemed such a brilliant series may have been misleading you the whole time. Somehow with programs like TED, even being moderately scientifically literate, it’s easy to forget the lack of significance in one study or one research team’s findings. Narratives make for compelling entertainment, but they can distort science.
I wrote up a piece on a song over on the End Times blog.
I like clever songs. Silly songs. Novelty songs. I’ve attempted to write many such songs. I believe making someone laugh is one of the most important things you can do in life. But at some point in the last few years, sitting at the piano to pull together a new song began to feel weighty. If we were going to perform it night after night, it felt essential that each song mean something.
I am not the first person for whom science and its larger perspective of the cosmos served as a kind of foil to the chaos and suffering the world presents. I will not be the last. But this perspective has its limits, especially to those whose immediate suffering is so vast, it renders science’s framework for explanation meaningless.
This article had been sitting open in a tab on my phone’s browser waiting for me to find the right moment to tear it apart, but a week later I don’t have the same desire to attack the piece. It’s a kind of fluffy philosophizing-out-loud that I don’t believe should have a place in journalism.
The author contrasts how he found relief in astronomy after the death of his brother with the failure of some to find appeal in scientific explanations for the recent earthquake and tsunami. By the second paragraph warning flags were already waving. Not only are these experiences not equivalent, but the search for explanations should here side with the earthquake. Science isn’t likely to be called in to explain a single driving accident. We can talk about the statistics and sociology of driving impaired, but a single incident isn’t the ideal subject to an investigation.
But Frank isn’t really looking for explanations of the two experiences. He wants answers to the (supposedly) Big Questions: why are we here, why is there suffering, etc. In the sense that these questions are meant, science of course can never offer explanations regardless of circumstances (and it’s debatable whether any other human practice could do better). Among the tightly bundled assumptions hidden inside those questions is the anthropomorphic demand for explanations to be accompanied with intentions. It’s that same attitude that allows Frank to call the scientific framework “meaningless” as if science were even capable of carrying meaning without a sentient creature being there to create it.
Thus the article it reads like Frank is insulting his readers for not being poetic enough to find meaning in science as he did when he turned to astronomy after the death of his brother. It’s not what he meant to say at all, but when you try to turn fluff into philosophy you take that risk.