Mark Schulman: Defending Science Against the 'Futurists' and 'Marketing Gurus' of TED
The TED organization isn't the first to censor scientists for having unconventional ideas. It's just the latest.
It's worth remembering that for hundreds of years, "scientific evidence" was used to justify the convenient assertion that people of color were racially inferior. Today we call that "misusing science" and "pseudoscience" -- but at the time it was mainstream scientific thought. Nothing about it was true, but the scientific mainstream laughed at radicals who said so.
For years mainstream scientific studies denied the connection between smoking and poor health. It was "insurgent" scientists who finally made the case. During the "reefer madness" era, it was considered a matter of settled science that marijuana was a "gateway drug" that would lead to a life of violent crime, and that comic books coarsened the young and destroyed empathy. For a scientist to say otherwise was to invite censure -- even though they were empirically correct.
Which is to say that there is such a thing as "bad science" and "pseudo-science," but that even scientists have a pretty poor record deciding what it is sometimes. When social forces try it, when social organizations or politicians or businesses try to tell scientists what is and isn't science ... well, do I even have to mention Galileo?
Now TED, an organization made up of marketing gurus specializing in 15 minute talks about how "the (SOMETHING) is going to change EVERYTHING," has taken upon itself the role of scientific censor, telling real scientists, with real credentials and significant publications, what their research can and can't say.
In the interest of keeping "bad science" out of TEDx talks, they've pulled the license from the West Hollywood TEDx event that was to feature the work of several prominent scientists who have conducted research that they say challenges established scientific paradigms. (Also featured were several non-scientists making non-scientific presentations -- also a regular staple of TED.)
Challenging established scientific paradigms isn't a threat to science: it's what science does. It's how we got from Isaac Newton to Einstein.
But TED has pulled the license of the West Hollywood TEDx, rather than let Larry Dossey give a presentation. Dr. Dossey has an M.D. from the Southwestern Medical school in Dallas, helped establish the Dallas Diagnostic Association, the largest group of internal medicine practitioners in that city, and was Chief of Staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital. He's served on NIH panels, edited peer reviewed journals, and his research been published in scientific journals of the highest caliber.
He is, in short, qualified to speak in his field. TED, however, would rather pull the license of an organization than let him present his conclusions.
That's not science: that's censorship by an organization more concerned with marketing than evidence.
Then there's Russell Targ.
Targ believes in the reality of psychic phenomenon -- a controversial claim. But he's also a published and peer reviewed scientist, who's received two awards from NASA and served at the Stanford Research Institute and researched this very subject. He is, in short, a qualified scientist and acknowledged subject matter expert who is capable of making a case.
Do we dismiss his research before we consider the evidence? Or do we consider the evidence? TED has declared his research to be "out of bounds." It's deciding, for us, what the science says.
TED, it must be clarified, is not a scientific journal. It is not a peer review board. It is not even a subject matter expert organization in any scientific sense, though there are some scientists on its "brain trust" -- along with actresses Meg Ryan and Anna Deavere Smith, some "marketing gurus," "design gurus," "futurists," and entrepreneurs. For "futurists," actresses, and "design gurus" to tell real scientists that they're not serious about evidence strains credulity. For TED's anonymous "science board" to issue silent decisions, without explanation, about the work of scientists in areas they may or may not be qualified to judge, is to turn the concept of science as an open, reasoned debate on its head.
I don't necessarily agree with any of the scientists who are presenting at the West Hollywood event -- now "exTED" instead of "TEDx." Candidly I'm not even familiar with some of the presenters. But I'm glad the presentation is going forward. Like Voltaire, we must defend the voices of those we might not agree with. Trying to take the controversial ideas out of science leaves us with broken science. Science advances because someone challenges conventional wisdom. If conventional wisdom only wins because TED's got its back, it doesn't deserve to win.
Make no mistake: we will change our minds in the future about some things we think are "scientifically settled" today. That's what happens. The more TED cuts itself off from genuine debate, the less informed TED audiences will be about real scientific revolutions. I don't know if any of the people presenting at West Hollywood exTED will truly change the scientific paradigm --- I'm skeptical -- but I know we'll never advance the edge of knowledge if we cut off legitimate scientists for having unpopular conclusions. Even if they're wrong.
Mark Schulman, PhD, currently serves as president of Saybrook University, a premier graduate institution for humanistic studies in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. He is the former president of Goddard College (Vermont), and president and professor of humanities at Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He has published extensively on progressive and emancipatory education, distance learning, technology and culture.