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TED Talks and Science: Solution or Problem?

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This recent post about the value (or lack of value?) of TED Talks made me laugh. It made me laugh not because of the author’s hyperbole that these talks are the “recipe for civilization disaster” or because they are a “threat to society”. It made me laugh in recognition, because I’ve spoke to several people in the scientific community recently who have told me they want their own “TED Talk”. They want to create one of these TED Talk-type short presentations that explain a complex problem, with the expectation that it will turn into a viral video. And somehow, this viral video will solve their communications challenges.

I always try to explain to them that there is no simple solution: Effectively communicating science is hard work. Hard work that sometimes pays off and, unfortunately, sometimes does not. There is no guarantee.

But these TED Talk-type videos are so enticing. Many people love them and share them as the final word on a given subject. They wax poetic about how one “changed their life” or “altered the way they look at the world”. The truth is a lot more complicated.

First, of course, there is no guarantee that any of these bits will go viral at all. There are hundreds if not thousands of official TED talks and many more from the local TEDx events. Though most of these clips are available online, only a small fraction of them ultimately will go viral. Second, any single approach is just that: one small piece in a much larger strategic plan. A TED talk is fine if it is a small part of a larger, well thought-out communications plan that includes both digital and traditional approaches. But alone, it likely will do very little to elevate understanding. Finally, there is the possibility that these talks ultimately do little to encourage greater understanding.

The author of the post Benjamin Bratton, a visual art professor at University of California-San Diego and presenter at one of the local TEDx event takes the latter a step further and questions whether these talks have any value at all, “[H]ave you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change.”

He says the reason for this disconnect is oversimplification, “To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.”

This really is the key–explaining things in a way that everyone can understand without oversimplification.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More

The entire post really is worth reading, if only to remind ourselves that we can’t be lulled into believing that there is a simple solution to effective science communication, that if we really want to make change we have to be willing to “slog through the hard stuff”.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor


Author: Elizabeth Striano

Elizabeth Striano is a science writer and editor and owner of A Green Footprint LLC, which provides communications and sustainabiilty consulting services to environmental consulting firms, nonprofits, and a variety of businesses and organizations.

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