This article by Natural News was brought to my attention a few weeks ago. The author (and founder of NN), Mike Adams claims:
“…the group that organizes so-called “TED talks” has been thoroughly hijacked by corporate junk science and now openly rejects any talks about GMOs, food as medicine, or even the subject of how food can help prevent behavioral disorders in children. All these areas of discussion are now red-flagged from being presented on any TED stage. This is openly admitted by TEDx itself in a little-known letter publicly published on December 7, 2012.”
Let’s go through a few of Mr. Adams’ allegations and compare with what the letter actually says. I’ve underlined some relevant phrases for emphasis:
1. Banning topics:
“The letter also advises TEDx organizers to, “reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes,” meaning anyone who talks about GMOs, “food as medicine” or similar topics.”
“In light of a few suspect talks that have come out of the TEDx movement — some of which we at TED have taken action to remove, some being examined now — and this recent thread on Reddit [http://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/1444lm/the_ted_name_is_being_dragged_through_the_mud_in/], we feel it is important to reach out to all TEDx organizers on the topic of bad science and pseudoscience.
Please know this above all:
It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes.
2. Red flag topics
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. An expanding, depressing list follows:
Food science, including:
GMO food and anti-GMO foodists (EDIT 10/3/13: “Foodist” was the wrong word here and we recognize it was offensive to many.)
Food as medicine, especially to treat a specific condition: Autism and ADHD, especially causes of and cures for autism”
Mr. Adams is indeed correct that talks advocating for pseudoscience, bad science, and hoaxes are to be rejected. TEDx is right to do so. However, he obviously misrepresents TEDx in saying that topics such as ‘GMO food’ aren’t allowed to be discussed. According to TEDx, speakers on these subjects are required to undergo ‘extra scrutiny’ in order to make sure they’re not advocating pseudoscience. Seems reasonable to me.
2. Food as medicine
“The TED organization, incredibly, believes that food cannot be medicine and does not contain medicine.”
TEDx posted an addendum to their guidelines after Mr. Adams’ post, specifically addressing this issue:
In fact, we have many great talks on food and health that challenge entrenched ideas in smart and creative ways.
A few of our suggestions: Dean Ornish and William Li, each on how food affects our wellness … food activists like Jamie Oliver, Tristram Stuart and lunchbox hero Ann Cooper … Peter Attia with a bold new idea about obesity … guerrilla gardener Ron Finley …Gary Hirshberg on GMO labeling… Jimmy Botella on natural foods and GMOs … and Tyrone Hayes’ research into pesticides in our food chain.
3. Pseudoscience and the vaccine controversy
The TEDx letter attacking “pseudoscience” is, itself, filled with factually false information. The letter says, “Andrew Wakefield’s attempt to link autism and vaccines was exposed as a hoax last year.”
That statement is blatantly false. For starters, Dr. Wakefield never conducted any studies whatsoever that linked autism and vaccines. That is a complete fabrication / delusion invented by the intellectually dishonest critics of Dr. Wakefield. TEDx obviously believes that if a lie is repeated often enough among critics of real science, that lie become a “truth.”
Secondly, the actual hoax is on the medical journals and critics of Dr. Wakefield who were caught deliberately lying about his research and inventing wildly false claims in order to try to discredit him. They are currently being sued over their false allegations, by the way, and as the facts of this lawsuit come out, Dr. Wakefield will be completely vindicated.
The consequence of bad science and health hoaxes are not trivial. As an example, Andrew Wakefield’s attempt to link autism and vaccines was exposed as a hoax last year. But while his work was being investigated, millions of children went without vaccines, and many contracted deadly illnesses as a result.
TEDx does indeed say what Mr. Adams claims. But let me respond to a few points that Mr. Adams makes. First, I believe that when Mr. Adams says that “Dr. Wakefield never conducted any studies whatsoever that linked autism and vaccines,” he is either lying or has not actually read Dr. Wakefield’s retracted paper.
For example, here is Table 2 from Wakefield’s study:
In Wakefield’s conclusions, he writes:
“We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine. ”
Sure sounds like that paper was inferring a link from the data to me! Wakefield himself asserted a link in a subsequent (2011) interview with the New York Times:
“His faith in his theory also remains intact, which he made clear when I asked him, in a separate interview, if he still believed M.M.R. caused the autism in the children in the Lancet paper. “Is that a serious question?” he said. “Yes, I do still think M.M.R. was causing it.””
(I’ve written before about the evidence refuting an MMR-autism link. And to preemptively respond to the most recent wave of “MMR causes autism! The courts have shown it!” arguments, I’m going to link to an excellent blog post by Eric Hall on the subject: “New Published Study Verifies Andrew Wakefield’s Research on Autism – Except It Doesn’t”.)
4. TEDx has a relationship with Monsanto
So thank you, TED, for showing you total insanity, your complete detachment from reality, your abandonment of humanity and your offensive, incestuous relationship with the Monsantos of the world.
TEDX (in a response):
If you’re coming to this post because of an allegation that TED has “banned discussion of GMOs” or has a relationship with Monsanto, please know that these rumors are not true. We have not banned these topics, and we have no relationship with Monsanto.
Mr. Adams then rambles confusedly for many paragraphs about the placebo effect, accusations of ‘scientism’, and how “Corporate-driven science has zero answers” to the “mysterious diseases such as autism, autoimmune disorders, infertility and cancer.”
Oh really? Does Mr. Adams define all NIH- and NSF-funded scientists as “corporate-driven”? I would imagine he does, since the vast majority of us disagree with his pseudoscientific nonsense.
However, he did make an interesting allegation, so I decided to see what the state of research was on these “mysterious diseases”. I did a quick PubMed search for publications on causes of each one, limiting results to *just* those published this year. Feel free to browse through the titles and abstracts for yourself (pubmed.gov):
Enough with Mr. Adams. If you are getting your scientific information from Natural News, I urge you to consider a different approach. Teach yourself how to read and understand the scientific literature, and try to read primary research articles as often as possible (I know there’s an access problem, and I have no good answer to that, I’m afraid).
If you’re going to read secondary reporting on scientific studies, learn how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. I’ve written my own guide to this, but I also quite like this one:
Marks of good science:
It makes claims that can be tested and verified
It has been published in a peer reviewed journal (but beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t.)
It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field
It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy
Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation
It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge
The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a phD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification
Marks of bad science:
Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth
Is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others
Contains experimental flaws or is based on data that does not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims
Comes from overconfident fringe experts
Uses over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies and may combine with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested theories.
Speaks dismissively of mainstream science
The source for the above guide is the TEDx letter. Here are some more resources:
If you read Mr. Adams’ website regularly, I suggest you apply these criteria to some of their “scientific articles” You’ll see exactly why he reacted so defensively.
I’ve seen some appalling examples of TEDx talks, such as this one (whose speaker advocates EFT as a cure for eating disorders) and this one (claiming that the speed of light is dropping). So I commend TEDx for tightening its standards regarding what is allowed to be presented. I hope that we will see better content from them in the future.