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14.10.12

TED pulls pseudoscience talk

A few months ago TEDxCharlotte released a video from its event of a guy named Randy Powell just talking a bunch of pseudoscientific-but-grand-sounding nonsense about "Vortex Mathematics".

Carl Zimmer mentioned it in his evisceration of TED's weak science draw (specifically Philip Zimbardo's talk) which lead me to ask a question about the talk over on Quora.

Specifically, I asked, "Is Randy Powell saying anything in his 2010 TEDxCharlotte talk or is it just total nonsense?" It got a lot of great answers (which is what I was hoping for) including the currently top-rated response from Jay Wacker, Stanford professor of theoretical physics:

Wow. Such fucking bullshit. Well, I am theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he's throwing out. And he is simply doing a random word association with the terms. Basically, he's either insane a huckster going for fame or money doing a Sokal's hoax on TEDx I'd bet equal parts 1 & 2.

and this one from Joshua Engel (one of my favorite Quora users):

This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about TED talks. The argument is gibberish; not a single point makes any sense. But without a transcript, it's tricky for me to make a point-by-point refutation. I have to stop, transcribe, then explain. It's a slow and tedious process. The question is, is anybody engaging in that kind of critique for the talks that aren't obviously deranged? Or is everybody just accepting what they hear and then letting the video move on to its next point? Video is a poor way to make an argument. It's a good teaching tool, since it's very convincing when the subject is actually valid. But it's equally good at making an invalid argument with little opportunity for critical thought.
 You can get a feel for Mr. Powell's work in this video:


Well it would appear that TED has officially responded by removing Mr. Powell's talk from their TEDx YouTube channel. Specifically, TED editor Emily McManus left this response on my Quora question:

Randy Powell's talk onstage at TEDxCharlotte 2010 came under criticism for its lack of scientific validity. Criticism came from mathematicians and science writers as well as threads on specialist science and math blogs and other online communities. Members of the TED and TEDx teams watched the talk, sought further advice from experts, and ultimately agreed that the criticisms had merit and were serious enough to warrant removal of the talk from the TEDx official YouTube channel, in compliance with our policy.
Randy Powell was given several opportunities to directly defend his work, but did not do so. In a phone conversation with members of the TED and TEDx teams on September 12, 2012, Powell stated that his brief onstage talk at TEDxCharlotte did not include complete data on his work. He could not point us to that data online during the call, but agreed during the call to email TED his data, including a detailed 10-page paper, for a further independent review by a mathematician and possible replication of his experiments by a physicist. Neither the paper nor any other data was ever received. We consider the matter closed.
In response to this incident, TEDx has clarified its policies on the scientific validity of talks and is working with independent TEDx organizers to help them access more and better resources for vetting speakers.
Personally I don't think that removing the content to scrub its record is the best way to go but it's interesting to see that TED is at least taking some steps to clean up its scientific appearance.

33 comments:

  1. c.30 seconds of watching the video above should have been ample evidence!

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  2. I'm interested in your point "Personally I don't think that removing the content to scrub its record is the best way to go." We debated this a lot, but there's a vital difference between a paper and a video: Video travels alone. If we put a note or a retraction in the accompanying text on YouTube, but the talk is shared as an embed or shown full-screen in a classroom, there's no reliable way to make sure people see those caveats. Weighing the options it seemed best to remove it.
    (And of course, there's a clear and unscrubbable record that this talk happened, in dozens of critical blog posts and forum threads. It will always serve as a teachable moment for this developing form of media.)
    Just as a thought experiment, how would you have played this out in the same circumstances? Really interested, and let me know if you'd rather have this conversation back on Quora.

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    1. Emily, thank you for taking the time to respond. The fact that TED is even concerned about this is heartening. As others have pointed out, you are not a scientific organization, so have no real obligation to uphold scientific accuracy other than out of concern for your public image.

      The reason I believe removing the video is not the right way to go is because, as you noted, this video is already "out there" and there's no pulling it back. As a user it looks like you're trying to sweep something embarrassing under the rug even though everyone already knows it's there.

      It's the Streisand Effect. Just acknowledge on video on the TEDx channel on YouTube that a review suggests that the talk is nonsense--maybe even put a popup notice on the video itself--and let it be. It shows you're doing your due diligence without seeming like you all are panicking trying to hide something that is just sort of silly.

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    2. I don't understand why people are beating up on TED. I'm a researcher and I enjoyed Randy Powell's talk as very creative entertainment - and isn't that the E in TED? It was hilarious. No moderately intelligent person would consider to this to be anything but satire. I can see Randy enjoying himself delivering his talk. Too many people around lacking a sense of humor. Randy Powell did an Alan Sokal on TED. Chill out, people.

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    3. No, he didn't. The "Sokal" interpretation is my personal favorite, too, because hey, funny. But unless there's a long-con here (which, let's be honest, wouldn't be worth it for such a minor thing) that's not what's happening.

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  3. @Emily McManus, I don't think it would be too difficult to add a translucent watermark indicating that a video was inaccurate/misleading.

    Also, if viewers being logged in to Ted lets you get a partial list of those who've seen the video, informing them of a retraction upon login/via e-mail might be helpful.

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    1. Great ideas, Nathan. A permanent watermark was something we discussed. Unfortunately, with the way YouTube works now, you can't permanently modify a video once it's been uploaded. You can put a floating layer of text over the video, but that text can be unclicked and dismissed.
      The video never appeared on TED.com, so we could not track logins. It appeared on the TEDx YouTube channel only, because the talk was given at an independent TEDx event. I mention this mainly to explain the mechanics behind why your second suggestion, also very sensible, wouldn't work in this case. I'm curious if you've seen this kind of email notification done elsewhere, either for a paper/digital journal or for video: tracking what's been viewed or read and then mailing further information about it (especially without an opt-in, which we can't assume everyone would choose). I'd love to know if you've seen other sites do that. It's an idea worth pursuing for sure.
      I am very sincere about asking for more thoughts and ideas; would love more comments like Nathan's either here or on Quora. Just as paper publishing is shaped by the mechanics of printing and shipping, online video has its own mechanics, restrictions and abilities, and we're all figuring out how to make them work.

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    2. @Emily First, thank you for the time TED took on this subject. I am sorry that it took as long as it did but am also not sure why it was not brought to your attention sooner than Bradley's question on Quora. I assume that you have removed it from the TEDx Charlotte video stream too? You don't say in your reply.

      Regarding other ideas re the video . . . I do not know much about Youtube but do see that they put advertisements that run before certain selected videos. When I have seen those it has not been obvious that there is a way to turn them off. (There was a long Mitt Romney ad on OK-Go's Rube Goldberg video of "This too Shall Pass" recently. Believe me; by choice we would have avoided having to watch that!!)

      With all the activity that TED brings to Youtube did you ever try contacting someone up in the higher echelons to see if they would run some kind of warning before the video and do it as a donation instead of charging TED. (I am sure Romney's campaign paid a premium for that ad since that video has over 37M views already.)

      Lastly, thank you for all the great work you and your team do. Having been project manager for a TEDx event, I can assure any doubters - like Mr. Anonymous chimpanzee in the post below - that TED does provide a lot of guidance and oversight to TEDx events. TEDx teams seriously try very hard to vet their speakers. TED tries hard to only select the best of the videos.

      As of November 1, 2011 there had been 2609 TEDx events. I would assume by the end of this year 2012 that there will have been over 4000 total. My best estimation is that the average for number of talks per TEDx event is somewhere around 10 - so that is 40,000 talks. (@Emily could you please give us the correct stats if mine are way off?) Given the sheer volume of the number of talks a few slips are bound to happen.

      My favorite saying is "Mistakes happen. It is how the mistakes are dealt with that shows the integrity of a person or organization." Thank you to Emily and the TED team for the time you have put into dealing with this bogus video.

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    3. FWIW, a lot of people manage to block pre-video ads, too.

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  4. "People with small minds usually have large mouths"

    The whole TED (Technology Entertainment Design) founded by journalists (demographic noted for pseudo-science, bad science reporting, etc) is flawed to begin with. Q: Where is the "peer review" to keep out nuts like Powell? A: there is NONE

    Of course, TED will get "penetrated" by kooks..since TED is run by kooks. This is nothing different than science journalists publishing nonsense.

    reader from Cincinnati, OH November 1, 1999:

    "Everyone who gave this book one star should realize that this book is
    entertainment. Hancock is not a scientist or an academic of any kind - he's a
    journalist! ... Of course Hancock tailors the facts to fit his theories - he
    is not constrained by truth, science, or even ethics. He is a journalist.
    ...This book, and all those like it that preach pseudo-science, appeal to the
    majority of people in this world who are scientifically challenged. Most
    Americans don't have enough scientific knowledge to understand the technology
    they face everyday, much less untangle the fact and fantasy in this book. It
    is entertainment, but it's dangerous - science interpreted by a journalist!"
    -- review of "Fingerprints of the Gods"
    [ crackpot conspiracy=extraterrestial civilization in Antarctica were our
    ancestors ]

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  5. Granted, Nerd Nite is no TED or even TEDx, but this is my nightmare scenario. Every month I cross my fingers, hoping this isn't the month I accidentally let some jackass onto our stage (actually, I'm pretty sure it's already happened, but it just didn't blow up).

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    1. Oh wow, yeah. I've never thought about that possibility in your position. Sucks.

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  6. I congratulate TED for this first step. I gave a TEDxConejo talk describing how we may all have "god" neurons in our brain, and how positive thoughts have positive neurological effects. On the surface, this can sound like neurobabble, but we do have nearly a dozen peer reviewed journal articles published to substantiate what would otherwise sound like New Age nonsense. We need to demand similar documentation from other TED speakers and popular authors like Deepak Chopra, Bruce Lipton, and anyone who tries to tie quantum physics to health or consciousness. Way too much crap out there that millions of people believe because these near-sighted people published books!

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  7. I congratulate TED for this first step. I gave a TEDxConejo talk describing how we may all have "god" neurons in our brain, and how positive thoughts have positive neurological effects. On the surface, this can sound like neurobabble, but we do have nearly a dozen peer reviewed journal articles published to substantiate what would otherwise sound like New Age nonsense. We need to demand similar documentation from other TED speakers and popular authors like Deepak Chopra, Bruce Lipton, and anyone who tries to tie quantum physics to health or consciousness. Way too much crap out there that millions of people believe because these near-sighted people published books!

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  8. Popups and text-overs are some of the most annoying crap on Youtube, and quite a few people keep them turned permanently off. Since a video itself can't be altered once it's uploaded, simply pulling it does seem like the most effective method of retraction for something that was only disseminated on Youtube.

    They could have pulled it, and re-uploaded it with the watermark suggested above, but since it is bunk, why go to the trouble? They've acknowledged it was bunk, and as they said, the only way to be *certain* that people didn't inadvertently see it as a supported TED talk was to remove that particular upload entirely. A Youtube user can't be sure that anything they do after uploading a video will be seen by everyone who might view the video.

    With the current software solutions, it was the right way to go.

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  9. Just wanted to put this here in case you were willing to write a post on it, since it came out of a neuroscience conference: http://boingboing.net/2012/10/18/why-casual-sexism-in-science-m.html

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    1. Heard all about it. I condone neither discrimination nor witch hunts; I believe in rehabilitation and education, not vengeance and revenge. Was this guy a douche? Definitely. Does a shitty comment made to what I presume was intended for just his friends merit a life-time of derision and people calling for his resignation/removal from U of Chicago and the AAAS? No. I personally believe that the appropriate response would have been for whomever took that screenshot to have a conversation with him to let him know that what he said was inappropriate and supportive of a discriminatory worldview and inspires an uncomfortable professional and educational environment.

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    2. Anonymous23:20

      thank you for this surprisingly sane response in the midst of an overheated blogosphere

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  10. "Specifically, TED editor Emily McManus left this response on my Quora question..."

    Which is as elaborate a non-apology apology as any I've seen. Couldn't they just say 'sorry'?

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    1. Hah political-speak encroaches on all domains.

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    2. Sheesh, I can't win, can I :) But yeah, I think you deserved to hear the very long and elaborate story, including the concrete actions that came out of this extremely shitty experience.

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  11. It gets better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fI93jeaXGvs

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    1. I kind of want to travel back in time to late high school/early college, get really messed up, and watch all 4.5 hours of that.

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  12. Mike Melendez06:38

    If the embedded video is representative of the TED talk, how did this ever make it into the series? Tachyons and gravitons are the same thing? Let alone that they are the same as Chi which is just energy? What does this say about the level of science knowledge among their reviewers?

    @Mark Walden: You may be doing legitimate science but you encourage the Randy Powells with the usage "god" neurons. The word "god" has a meaning and it has little to do with neurons, let alone Higgs Bosons. Leave the sensationalism to the yellow journalists, which I'm afraid may be mostly redundant today.

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  13. Anonymous22:52

    The whole vortex math thing is hogwash. The so-called "pattern" is just an artifact of using base 10:

    http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/184823/summing-digits-of-powers-of-2-to-get-1-2-4-8-7-5-pattern

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  14. S.Robeson12:31

    As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you're no longer a mathematician, you're a numerologist.

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  15. Obviously the Illuminati has suppressed the video in order to prevent human beings from evolving into higher levels of physical and spiritual metaforms via the flux thruster atom pulsar electrical venturi space time implosion field generator coil, which is now not available to us. Randy Powell will explain all of this in his next talk.

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  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Brian23:39

      "Don't let science become the new religion. Don't wait for science to give you permission to do the uncommon."

      Translation: don't let that pesky scientific method get in the way of me peddling nonsense on WOO-tube.

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  17. Anonymous21:54

    Great post!

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  18. I was going to read this, but then you used the word "Quora" and I barfed a little in my mouth.

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  19. Anonymous20:57

    Randy what happend to zero? And if we were talking about hex where are digits A, B, C, D, E and F?

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