Natural News attacks TED for tightening standards

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:

Mr. Adams:

“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.”

TEDx:

“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

Mr. Adams:

“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

Mr. Adams:

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.

TEDx:

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:

Table II from Wakefield et al. 1998 (RETRACTED)
Table II from Wakefield et al. 1998 (RETRACTED)

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

Mr. Adams:

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):

PubMed search results "autism causes" (limited to papers published in 2013)
PubMed search results “autism causes” (limited to papers published in 2013)
PubMed search results on "autoimmune disorder causes" with results limited to papers published in 2013
PubMed search results on “autoimmune disorder causes” with results limited to papers published in 2013PubMed search results for "infertility causes", limited to papers published in 2013
PubMed search results for “infertility causes”, limited to papers published in 2013
PubMed search results for "cancer causes" limited to papers published in 2013
PubMed search results for “cancer causes” limited to papers published in 2013

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:

http://photoninthedarkness.blogspot.com/2006/01/field-guide-to-quackery-and.html
http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/Pscience/science-pseudoscience.pdf
http://www.astrosociety.org/education/astronomy-resource-guides/astronomical-pseudo-science-a-skeptics-resource-list/
http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/11/08/10-questions-to-distinguish-real-from-fake-science/

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.

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14 thoughts on “Natural News attacks TED for tightening standards

  1. David Colquhoun October 6, 2013 / 10:00 am

    Congratulations on an excellent demolition, Of course anyone who has taken any interest in the weird and wonderful world of quackery will be only to familiar with Mike Adams. His delirious outbursts give the impression that his criteria for truth of a proposition is that nobody with any sense believes it. And, more importantly, that there is evidence against its truth.

    From a European perspective, it’s quite surprising to see that he is not only violently anti science, but also violently pro-gun. See, for example, “More doctors prefer the AK-Vaccine-47 rifle by Merck”. He described Piers Morgan as a “subversive foreign agent” for advocating a bit of gun control (of the sort that every American whom I know personally would advocate). Greatly to my amusement he seemed to think it would be impossible to go on British TV and advocate the end of the monarchy. I have news for Mike Adams. It happens all the time.

    The strong tendency for violently anti-scientific views to be associated with the extreme right of politics seems to me to be deeply worrying for the future of the USA, and insofar as it exists in other countries, for them too.

    Many congratulations for standing up for science. Most scientists think that TED has not gone far enough in cleaning up its image. For example you can read good stuff on the curious views of Dean Ornish on the Science-based Medicine site http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?s=dean+ornish

  2. Anonymous October 6, 2013 / 11:09 am

    Thanks for this post and also for David’s reply above. Ignorance is, well … ignorance.

  3. anngrafics October 6, 2013 / 11:11 am

    I did not mean to post anonymously:
    Thanks for this post and also for David’s reply above. Ignorance is, well … ignorance.

  4. Ben October 6, 2013 / 4:07 pm

    The original letter is a good development, but it definitely has a finger in the dike quality to it.

    “Ignorance is, well … ignorance.”

    They are quite methodical at assessing a mark, building confidence, and then extracting money. The cottage industry of publications that surrounds this whole movement is a classic rent-seeking special interest, and they’re relentless.

    The fundamental mistake in claiming that this is ignorance is that they are evaluating different economic options and choosing the path of career fraud that is borderline legal. So trying to educate them won’t work.

    And educating the marks (who are all of us!) is not a solution. A con-artist works on human psychology, not ignorance. Worse, if you think you’re smart enough or well educated enough to not be conned, you’re the perfect mark.

    “The strong tendency for violently anti-scientific views to be associated with the extreme right of politics seems to me to be deeply worrying for the future of the USA”

    Those accusations are frequently made, cause needless division, and there’s no basis for them. While being pro-gun is common on the right, they are also pro-government, simply preferring a more decentralized and limited government. The “extreme right” in the US are middle-aged white people who didn’t know what “tea-bagging” meant. When they have rallies, they sing the national anthem, listen politely to speakers, and then leave the area cleaner than they found it.

    Violently anti-government ideology is exclusively left-wing because revolutionary action is left-wing. The clenched fist is a left-wing symbol, and when the anarchists are throwing molotov cocktails at the G20 summits and setting cars on fire, you won’t see a single conservative there.

    And plenty of anti-science views are left-wing; the anti-vaxxers, for instance, are largely left-wing flakes like Jenny McCarthy, and you’ll find precious few Tea Partiers trying to sell you aromatherapy, raw milk or crystals.

    • David Colquhoun October 6, 2013 / 6:35 pm

      @Ben
      I can scarcely believe that you said
      “Violently anti-government ideology is exclusively left-wing”

      Well. I guess I should have known better than say that on a US site. Please remember that I write from a European perspective. That means that the US right is almost impossible to understand. Unless you count Golden Dawn (now mostly arrested) there is just no equivalent here.

      The tragedy of it is that I can’t recall a single person among my many US friends who would disagree seriously with my views on these matters. I enjoyed my 2 years at Yale very much (and was only the victim of crime once, though that crime was perpetrated by the police). But the extreme polarisation that has gripped the USA since GWB is truly terrifying. It seems to be destroying a great country. The person who should really be terrified is you.

    • David Colquhoun October 6, 2013 / 6:47 pm

      I guess it would be best to stick to science, where we more or less agree. The first part of your comment is spot on, I think.

      • Jennifer Raff October 8, 2013 / 2:13 pm

        David, there’s a wide range of opinions on guns in the United States, and as I’ve said, beliefs on this subject here don’t necessarily correlate neatly with political ideology. I’m quite liberal, but I and most of my liberal friends are pro-gun ownership (with reasonable restrictions). I realize this is a baffling component of American culture to Europeans, but I assure you that it doesn’t make my friends and me violent (the title of my blog and my hobbies notwithstanding 🙂 )

        Ben, I would agree with you insofar as both “sides” have their anti-science nutjobs. And you’ll see that I attack the “leftist” woo here just as much (if not more so) than that coming from the right. (Although on the subject of vaccines, I think we’re increasingly seeing opposition from both camps). But I don’t agree with the statement that “Violently anti-government ideology is exclusively left-wing.”

        Anyway. You are free to discuss whatever you like here in the comments (I’m not enthusiastic about censoring discussions), but I’m going to bow out of political discussions here. Appreciate the kind words, though.

    • ginckgo October 15, 2013 / 8:54 pm

      You must not be paying attention to what’s happening with the Republican Tea Party faction actively trying to destroy both US government and economy by causing a default, that to me is not pro-government.
      As for anti-science: most of the ‘left’ anti-science is focussed on medical and health, such as vaccination and alternative therapies. The anti-science surrounding evolution and climate change is almost purely from the ‘right’.

    • pjdkrunkt October 22, 2013 / 6:43 pm

      The last half of this comment is so patently untrue that it’s unreal. You’ve obviously never worked in sanitation if you think that older conservatives don’t leave trash… in my personal experience this group is the WORST about it, you’d be surprised how many older men especially don’t even think twice about leaving public spaces a ruin that they would never tolerate on their own property.

      And while “anarchy” in the Occupy movement is a left-wing stance, “anarchy” in the Libertarian movement is a clearly right-wing movement…. the fact is that anarchy is what BOTH sides come to when you go around the circle far enough to reach the other “middle”. The word I think you are grasping for here is “extremist”.

      As far as your assertion that pseudoscience/pseudomedicine is patently “left-wing”, you really do need to take a look around. Almost the entirely of the anti-vaxx movement is right-wing anti-regulation, anti-big government Libertarians. It is a classically religious-centered stance, going back to the original anti-vaccination movements, and the Amish and several other smaller religious communities are mainstays of the movement. And Jenny McCarthy isn’t “left-wing”, she’s just a good old-fashioned nut. The anti-Pasteurization movement is similarly entrenched in Libertarian “free thinker” politics. Collodian-silver exists as a movement almost entirely on the right, promoted by right-wing blogs and talk-shows.

      The left-wing certainly has it’s share of woo… Kombucha guzzling, homeopathic dousing, ionized water buying hippies are such a common thing that they have no less than half-a-dozen target-marketed grocery store chains just for them!

      • pjdkrunkt October 22, 2013 / 6:46 pm

        And to be clear, I see people on different sides of the political spectrum falling for Mike Adams specific brand of idiocy. I don’t really care if he’s personally “left” or “right” as he’s a fraud, a liar, and mass manipulator who reaches amazingly large audiences with his anti-science, anti-government malarky.

        • Jennifer Raff October 27, 2013 / 5:10 pm

          I’m actually going to be doing a post on this in the next few weeks. Stay tuned…

  5. Jin-oh Choi October 15, 2013 / 8:41 pm

    BTW. You may want to link using “Link without pagerank – donotlink.com” (http://www.donotlink.com). So that you don’t increase there presence on search engines.

  6. Luke Weston October 15, 2013 / 9:11 pm

    Remember, this is the guy (Adams) whose crappy anti-vaccine rap song “Vaccine Zombie” claims that if you believe vaccines are good then you’d “even believe the 9/11 commission”.

    He just can’t help himself but also include his 9/11 conspiracy beliefs when making a crappy “rap” about how vaccines are an evil conspiracy to cull the human race. Crank magnetism at its finest.

    Is there any point in trying to have a rational, intelligent dissection of Adam’s claims? Is it really going to accomplish anything?

    • Jennifer Raff October 15, 2013 / 9:22 pm

      I think there is. Surprisingly, I actually know people who believe this stuff while having genuinely good intentions—they just get misled by the crap he spews. As long as people are putting out misinformation, there needs to be those willing to counter it. Even if it feels futile some days.

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