The Downside of TED Talks as ‘Secular Megachurches’ December 31, 2013

The Downside of TED Talks as ‘Secular Megachurches’

Bouncing off some of the issues about seculars and the need (or lack thereof) for religion and church-like ritual I and others have been posting about over the past couple of days, I tweeted this yesterday:

Ha ha ha, right? If you’ve read more than a handful of my work, you’ve already seen me go on and on about how I half-jokingly consider Apple my “religion” and The Steve (peace be upon him) my prophet. Ha ha ha. Old news.

But when I made that tweet, I had no idea that this piece by Benjamin Bratton in The Guardian would go up hours later (thereby confirming my psychic powers). The subject? How TED talks have become, as Bratton describes them, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.”


The quickly sum up, Bratton worries that TED’s influence presages the Malcolm-Gladwellization of science, despite recent moves to kick pseudoscience out:

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy”, etc: what is called woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality. In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.

But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go.

The main complaint is that TED talks, according to Bratton, emphasize the science and innovation that feel good when presented in a 20-minute talk, versus what’s real or genuinely significant. As a result, less immediately-exciting research and developments lose out to the latest concepts that are more whiz-bang, but less meaningful.

And I suppose, in that way, there is a kind of “churchiness” about them, a gee-whiz awe-inducement about the Great Beyond which may or may not actually exist or come to pass. Religions offer afterlives and universal spirits, TED (sometimes) offers technologies or social science concepts that blow the mind, and that The Future will take full advantage of to the benefit of all. If we just believe.

In a way, it’s not entirely fair to TED-talkers. For one, they host plenty of talks grounded fully in reality and hard science. Other times, they host talks that genuinely spark new ways of looking at complex problems, or draw connections that deserve attention. But I suppose the point is that it’s hard to know which is which, and especially to the secular layperson, to decide requires a little too much faith.

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  • Jeremiah Traeger

    I’ve thought for a while that society would be much better off if instead of going to church every Sunday people would go to a TED talk.

    I realize TED has a lot of emotional appeal and they are a bit idealistic sometimes. They get it right most of the time though, and there are many orders of magnitude of the amount of woo promoted by TED versus church. The two are incomparable.

  • Veronica Abbass

    Malcolm-Gladwellization. I like it! Thanks for the new word.

  • i’ve seen a few TED talks. i’ve been mostly ‘meh’ about them, although i’m sure some of them have been truly ‘mind blowing.’ i never thought of them as a sort of atheist church, tho.

  • Set van Kouwenhoven

    I actually saw Daniel Dennett speak at a University a few years back. Someone asked him what atheists could use in place of churches. “TED Talks” was his answer, although it sounded like a bit more of a question when it came out. It was a shitty talk.

  • rg57

    “they host plenty of talks grounded fully in reality and hard science”

    I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve only seen about a hundred videos that they posted online initially via their TED app. There was some real science, but the vast majority of talks seemed then to aim at technophilia, and the “awe” of science that had yet to actually be done (the “awe of hypothesis” I suppose). Plus a lot of geek entertainment, and product placement.

    But it just didn’t actually convey much information, so i stopped watching once I realized it wasn’t getting better.

    It does strike me in retrospect as what I would expect one brand of spiritual secular church might look like.

  • But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go.

    Is the difference between placebo politics and other politics whether he agrees with the politics?

    Is the difference between placebo innovation and other innovation whether he buys with the innovation?

    What Republican or Democrat politics is not placebo politics?


  • Casual observer

    There are superficial parallels between TED talks and religious services, but the differences in principle and content are fundamental.

  • cyb pauli

    How about we all agree that church is church and that non-church, no matter how many superficial parallels can be drawn between it and church, is not church? That would be hella rad.

  • TVG

    Perhaps they need a few TED talks about evaluating and getting the most from TED Talks. I’m only partly trying to be funny. A good guide, manual or textbook will often have information about the scope of the work and how it can best be used or understood.

  • I’m always a bit uncomfortable with Ted Talks. they strike me as sales pitches, for ideas rather than products, but they do strike me as sales pitches. Still, they don’t have many of the contraptions of religion (such as an established canon). On the other hand, I wonder if the big mega-churches may have some similar qualities. Information as entertainment and religion as entertainment. Maybe the analogy is stronger than I first thought.

  • Randay

    TED also has had good talks on culture and music. I think of the deaf woman percussionist and the woman theremin player they had.

  • Trolling Tulsa

    Don’t knock Ted too hard, folks. It was a Sam Harris Ted Talk several years ago that finally tipped me over the “come out as an Atheist” edge. While it was difficult, I credit TedTalks a lot for making my life much happier and free.

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