TED Talks Are Not Dead (And Why You Shouldn't Dismiss Alternative Medicine)

Twitter is abuzz right now with incensed individuals claiming "TED is dead," and my Facebook page exploded with people asking my opinion about this article, which appeared in Natural News earlier this week. It covers TED's decision to reject what they deem "bad science," including several subject areas that are "red flagged," such as talks about placebos, GMO foods, and food as medicine. Personally, I think the Natural News article is skewed, inflammatory, and agenda-driven, but I read the actual statement from TED, and had some thoughts to share.

As someone who is has spoken at three TEDx Talks and who has written a scientific account of alternative medicine, here's my take:

I think the intention of TED is pure. There are many charlatans out there who are married to their agendas, often with self-interested financial motives. And they use bad science, which real scientists can discredit in a heartbeat, but which may seduce the lay public.

Since this kind of pseudoscience could be used to back agendas that might lead people to make crucial choices about their health, I'm sure TED wants to ensure that their highly-respected brand isn't being manipulated to push someone else's dogmatic agenda.

And rightfully so!

You want to be able to trust that anything you learn on a TED or TEDx stage is trustworthy. TED is not saying they're stopping all talks about these issues. They've simply "red-flagged" these subjects. In their letter, TED said, "These are not 'banned' topics by any means — but they are topics that tend to attract pseudo-scientists. If your speaker proposes a topic like this, use extra scrutiny."

They also suggested TEDx organizers "look carefully at talks on these topics: ask to see published data, and find a second source, unrelated to the speaker and a recognized expert in the field, who can validate the research."

To ask TEDx organizers to play a role in quality-control about the scientific validity of a speaker's talk is certainly reasonable. That said, what concerns me is that there seems to be a closed-mindedness that calls into question whether there could be any scientific validity to the following topics:

  • "Healing, including reiki, energy fields, alternative health and placebos, crystals, pyramid power"
  • "The neuroscience of [fill in the blank] — not saying this will all be non-legitimate, but that it’s a field where a lot of goofballs are right now"
  • "The fusion of science and spirituality. Be especially careful of anyone trying to prove the validity of their religious beliefs and practices by using science"
  • "Food as medicine, especially to treat a specific condition"
  • "Autism and ADHD, especially causes of and cures for autism"

To be extra vigilant around people who are curious about these fields of scientific inquiry seems to send a message to the world that such fields of inquiry should trigger suspicion, mistrust, and red flags. We have come to know the TED brand as an organization willing to push many comfort zones, challenge many world views, and virally amplify "ideas worth spreading."

But the minute an organization starts limiting what they consider scientifically valid, it starts to smack of dogma.

For example, why in the world should a talk about placebos be red-flagged as pseudoscience? This TEDx talk I gave about placebos is all about cold, hard science, so why should it trigger extra scrutiny? My book Mind Over Medicine is full of real, legitimate science published in journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, proving that the placebo effect is real, so my talks haven't been censored by TED. I guess I fall into the category of someone with credibility and journal articles backing my claims, which again, seems like a reasonable thing for TED to expect.

But what about areas of inquiry for which we don't yet have a lot of scientific data, things like energy medicine? I don't understand energy medicine as a scientist, but I'm curious and currently researching it. Should a genuinely curious scientist (someone who isn't fueled by an agenda) be kept off a TED stage for researching energy medicine in search of scientific truths if we can't find a lot of journal articles yet?

If you look back at the history of science, most radical breakthroughs flew in the face of scientific dogma, and those on the cutting edge were initially dismissed by the scientific community as quacks and crazies. But science must remain objective. The minute we start censoring anything that threatens our worldview, we fall into dogma and lose the opportunity to be real scientists who seek only truth and are happy to be proven wrong.

For me, that's the marker of a real scientist. I've told doctors who challenge the data in Mind Over Medicine that I'm happy to be proven wrong, and if the argument I made is false, I will publicly recant. I have no attachment to whether or not the case I made for self-healing is true. I just want to illuminate truth. The truth can never be discredited, because it's just true.

When people show up with agendas, you can tell, because they're not willing to hear evidence that they might be wrong. But this kind of limiting dogma can show up in the pursuit of real science just as easily as in practical pseudoscience.

There are things we simply don't know yet, so finding proof for our theories is tough. And sometimes science just hasn't developed the technology to prove what we suspect is true. Years later, those who theorized something are proven right.

I support TED's quest to ensure the validity of the claims their speakers make. Screening out dogmatically agenda-driven pseudoscientists with financial motives and poor credentials seems wise. But I think it would be a mistake for TED to screen out genuinely curious scientists who are on the cutting-edge of ideas for which there might be questionable evidence.

What do YOU think?

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Dr. Lissa Rankin
Dr. Lissa Rankin
Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The...
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Dr. Lissa Rankin
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