Friday, March 30, 2012

TED, You Can Do Better.

TED talks are excellent.  It is great to hear experts talk passionately about areas of their expertise.  Today a friend of mine asked me about how scientists feel about the relationships between genetic engineering of food and cancer.

I told him that there were no associations other than correlations, and asked that he point me to any evidence to the contrary.  His scientific evidence was this TED talk by Robyn O'Brien:

A passionate plea from a concerned mother-- based on her feelings, not facts. C'mon TED. Let's not keep our minds so open that our brains fall out.

As you watch this video note:

1. She does not know the difference between correlation and causation.
2. You can't prove something safe, you can only show evidence of harm.
3. If you age-adjust cancer rates, they are going down. She's manipulating statistics and reaching for a correlation.
4. She's lying (or ignorant) about no studies. It takes years of studies and millions of dollars to develop these plants -FDA, EPA, etc.
5. Farmers always had to pay for high performance seeds, and have done so for 100 years.  Farmers still pay to grow many high-performance plants that are not GM.
6. Now she ties in health care costs. Non sequitur.

Sad for a TED talk. It is her uninformed opinion, and the audience just ate it up. She didn't show one piece of data to tie food to any of the problems stated, it was just what she thought.

And, she said that peanut allergies are up massively... yet there are no GMO peanuts. Hmmm. Forgot about that one. How convenient.

These are the most dangerous people- the Oprahs, the Hitlers of the world. Compelling, seemingly informed, emotionally appealing against a conspiratorial enemy, peddling dangerous disinformation.

If we follow this level of evidence we'll be teaching biblical creation as science in schools, fearing food, unvaccinated and suffering from preventable disease, on a colder 6000 year old flat planet in the middle of the universe, with a moon we never landed on and a president with no birth certificate.

Either we base our decisions on facts and science--  or what we think. I'll take facts, every time.

But the world around us falls victim to credulity, believing feel good stories from persuasive speakers, without any evidence to base their newfound fears.


Anonymous said...


TEDx are interdependently organized events that merely pay a licensing fee to use to TEDx name and screen official TED talk videos at the event. TED has absolutely no say on which speakers are chosen to speak at TEDx events.

Anonymous said...

I second Anonymous. Don't confuse a TEDx event with a true TED event. Very different things.

Anonymous said...

I love this: "If we follow this level of evidence we'll be teaching biblical creation as science in schools, fearing food, unvaccinated and suffering from preventable disease, on a colder 6000 year old flat planet in the middle of the universe, with a moon we never landed on and a president with no birth certificate." But why "colder"? Won't the planet be warmer? You're not suggesting the evidence doesn't support climate change?

MiketheScribe said...

I disagree. Their brand goes on it, and so they are therefore indirectly endorsing it.

What about a TEDx talk encouraging radical religion, with all the terrorism, mysogyny, gay-bashing and anti-science views?

TED needs to vet the TEDx talks too, or their brand will soon be hopelessly tainted.

m. s. said...

Absolutely agree with MikeTheScribe. I have always been suspicious of TED -while many official TED talks are awesome, they seem to be blown very much out of proportion, and often to be more sensation than true information.

Anonymous said...

Mike/m.s, maybe you should actually read the TEDx policy and what it's for.

Here's the About TEDX:

At TEDx events, a screening of TEDTalks videos -- or a combination of live presenters and TEDTalks videos -- sparks deep conversation and connections. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.

And here's how they vet speakers:

Anyone, anywhere in the world, is eligible for a license to organize a TEDx event. However, TED holds the following exceptions:

Organizers under age 18 must be supervised by an adult.
TED does not grant licenses to those associated with controversial or extremist organizations.
TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.
Organizers may not affiliate the TEDx or TED brand with other conferences, or with commercial endeavors.

TED reserves the right to revoke any TEDx license; renewal for a second term is not guaranteed.


You'll note that speakers encouraging radical religion, terrorism, etc., as Mike suggested, would be disallowed.

However, the discussion of GM foods does not breach any of these rules.

TEDx talks are not put on by specialists in their respective fields in a forum surrounded by other specialists. They are people, like you or me, who want to encourage discussion.

And it's not TED's responsibility to silence views it disagrees with, nor is even TED's responsibility to have such views. TED is a forum that invites discussion. And official TED talks bring in the best of the best to frame those conversations, but TEDx does not.

And even then, TED has been known to inspire not just conversation, but debate. Consider the TED debate between Nuclear power and Coal. Should TED have vetted that conversation too, because you hold one particular view point rather than another? Maybe it should have chosen a particular viewpoint and went with a one-sided monologue rather than a two-sided dialogue.

Science is not one-sided. If you took offense to the talk -- as you should -- don't get angry at the forum for allowing this woman's voice to be heard, but rather illuminate all the reasons why the evidence does not support her claim, and ask why the fact that the author's friend used a TEDx video of a layman voicing her opinion should never have been accepted as any form of "evidence" in any kind of conversation.

Kevin Folta said...

All excellent points. First, yes, I do accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change!

I thought about this all day. TED's motto is IDEAS WORTH SPREADING.


Anonymous is right as usual The forum is a good one, it give us the opportunity to interrogate the content and discuss it.


Anonymous said...

Seemed like she was promoting a political agenda to me...

Mary said...

The TEDx comments I have been seeing among science folks have been disturbing. There's all sorts of quackery getting in--I think one was a homeopath. And I saw one guy whose presentation was nothing more than shilling his book--and it was shredded in the discussion.

I think TEDx is hurting the brand.

Mary said...

Interestingly, Simon Singh (@SLSingh, the Brit who won that libel suit by the UK chiropracters) went on a TEDx twitter rant this morning:

"RT @kashfarooq: TED really should withdraw their license agreement with TEDx Anti-vax levels of pseudoscience here: "

"Love TED, but hate bits of TEDx. This was a TEDx nightmare talk - massive shame to tarnish the brand"

"Euro TED boss @bgiussani says "we cannot monitor everything" & calls it "marginal risk". It actually means allowing dangerous pseuodscience"

MiketheScribe said...

m.s. thanks for the clarification and the information on TEDx policies and purpose - you're right, I had not read it, and it's clear the radical examples I used would not be allowed. I certainly agree that public forums like this are important to bring light to issues of the day - including those that are supported by faith rather than science (I'm thinking homeopathy and other such quackery).

That said, I'm going to have to stick with my original assertion that giving such fringe elements the opportunity to speak under the TEDx banner will harm the credibility of the brand.

Certainly, the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine folks, and even the conspiracy theorists have their right to a soapbox. But TED doesn't have to give it to them. TED has little to gain and much to lose.

Think about what would happen to the credibility of the venerable journal Nature, for example, if they invited a guest editorial from Jenny McCarthy on the perils of vaccination.

Kevin M. Folta said...

A thousand "likes" for Mike the Scribe. Right on.

Anonymous said...

That's fair enough Mike. And you definitely do have a point about these kinds of talks having the strong potential to tarnish the TED brand (especially since it's clear not many people can differentiate between TED and TEDx).

Having said that, my *impression* of TEDx is that it's only half about giving voice to independent speakers. The other half is about putting together a forum where discussion can occur and actual TED events can be displayed to a wider audience, with the independent speakers taking more of a side-note.

And this kind of forum I think is important. So maybe it might be better for TED to restrict the independent speakers a little more, but I get the impression it might be cost prohibitive to do so.

So you may be forced with a more pragmatic decision between two less than stellar options: either grant a forum to speakers like this as well as, what I feel to be the majority, other speakers with a legitimate message, or throw out the whole thing (again, because censoring would be too difficult to do on this scale -- not to mention the gray area implications of what you decide to censor, who makes that decision, etc.).

If you were forced to pick between those two options, which would you choose? In my opinion it's a tough choice, but I cautiously choose to allow more information than less, even at the risk of some bad information.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Anonymous, I've been contemplating holding a TEDx here in my town and inviting global warming, moon landing and holocaust deniers to present. Its Florida, so we'll put a Skunk Ape researcher in there too.

See the point? Sure, TEDx should be a forum to spark discussion, but not about topics that exploit the credibility of TED to promote non-scientific claims.

Kalen said...

I have a feeling a holocaust denier would breach their intended terms on the grounds of religious views/hatred, etc., but I get what you're saying.

I still respectfully disagree, however.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Kalen, Your points are well taken. We clearly both agree that in order for a TEDx 'critical thinking' arena to work, people have to be open to new ideas and be able to assess data objectively and critically.

Unfortunately that can't happen, at least not now.

We have to keep educating the masses, but that's a tough job when websites, books, documentaries and celebrity mouthpieces are much more compelling.

I completely understand your point and in a perfect world the marketplace of ideas should sort itself out.

Mike - CA said...

The dialogue in the comments is disappointing. The point is that there are several issues in her presentation with correlation. This is how research begins after the fact to then prove or disprove causation. Changing the discussion to TED in general evades the point and in itself is irresponsible. I find it interesting that you dismiss any possible relation out of hand instead of at least recommending some research be done. Your rational is equivalent to the argument that global warming is a temporary heat wave and that Erin Brockovich was wrong to even begin her efforts in the first place. The slippery slope this dialogue alludes to is not of “flat planets” but the further dumbing-down of US citizens by NOT asking thoughtful questions and allowing news media to dictate rather than investigate and inform (that used to be called journalism). I have to question the motivations of the first dissenters... Remember TEDs tagline "Ideas Worth Sharing". This presentation qualifies.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Mike-CA, I'm sorry but that is not true. She did not come out and say that she was hoping to see someone "test the hypothesis that GMO foods are harmful". She came out and said/implied in no uncertain terms that transgenic foods cause allergies and cancer. She did not say, "These are interesting correlations that should seed research." The research was seeded, experiments done, and results do not fit her conclusions.

My slippery slope. Can't a guy write something with a rhetorical flourish? Geez. Let me just state for the record because you don't quite understand. I don't REALLY think the O'Brien's talk will spark discussion about flat earths in the center of the universe. It was a sarcastic extension to absurdity based on the scientific step back O'Brien and her ilk reinforce.

And bad, false and misleading ideas are not worth spreading. Lies are not worth spreading. Assailing good science with no science is not worth spreading. Doing it under TED's mantle is disgusting.

G said...

I completely agree with Mike-CA. I was expecting a very different line of argument and was dissapointed with the fruitless talk about TED vs TEDx.

In hope to inspire a more informative and productive discussion of GMO's and its effects, I am including a link to an article from the The Times of India which talks about the socioeconomic effects of GMO's after ten years of farmimg GM cotton in the region. Quite alarming, in my opinion.

Respectfully, G.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Hi G. Keep in mind one thing when you read these articles-- the Bt cotton failures are due to intense drought. There is no way that any Bt could have saved it. Conventional crops would have crashed as well.

The difference is that they owe substantial amounts for the seed- that is why farmers are in debt. That would be true, to a lesser extent, even if not GMO cotton.

What the article fails to point out is why there was such rapid adoption. In most areas where it is grown, farmers use much less insecticide and have higher yields. They make money-- if Mother Nature cooperates and provides water.

The success of Bt cotton in China and the USA show that it is not the crop itself that is the problem. For China it has been an environmental victory, with over a million TONS of insecticide NOT dumped in the environment since 2002.

I'll do a whole blog on this sometime. Thanks for your input.

Anonymous said...

I just want to save bee's

Anonymous said...

Stop killing bee's

Kevin M. Folta said...

There are absolutely no data that show effects of transgenic crops on bees. None.

There are plenty of plant scientists I know that study/raise bees as a hobby. None of them worry about GM crops.

Truth Seeker said...

I feel like I wasted my time reading this Illumination: Ted dialog. I just want to say that science is the love and respect of Truth. The discipline in science practices reflect that fact. Therefore, all voices should be heard so that the lines of communication stay open. All the while, we are feeding massive amounts of grain (GMO or not) to animals dominated by humankind. We are clearing the earth, little by little, of our forested ecosystems and using valuable energy and water that could more directly support humankind. And experiencing all kinds of preventable diseases that burden real people and families beyond belief. I say, vote with your wallet and buy more organic fruits and vegetables, beans & legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds and help move the economy in the healthy and compassionate direction.