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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.