TEDxValenciaWomen, or How You’re Not Helping

TEDxValenciaWomen, or How You’re Not Helping

Cross-posted from Daurmith at Escéptica.org

On Saturday December 1st, there was a TEDx event in Valencia, Spain. It was a whole day event with the name of TEDxValenciaWomen. That is, there were talks with the TED.com name, format, and logo (which is usually good at science communication), in Valencia (of course), and it was done (mostly) by women.

Since I’m from Valencia, I am a woman, and I’m an Escéptica contributor, a blog written (mostly) by women, and considering that I like science in general, and TED in particular, I happily jumped from my seat to click on the link to the event.

And the happiness soon subsided.

You have to be more careful with the ideas you’re spreading.

Let’s start by saying I’m a fan of TED talks: they are amusing little bites on a variety of topics where curious, exciting, interesting, sometimes daring ideas are presented. I was attracted by the format of brief talks, the enormous potential for communication, the effort to subtitle them in several languages, the clear intention that it showed to do rigorous and fun science communication.

Little by little TED diversified, starting to touch on more social, political, or personal subjects. But in general it maintained the spirit of the talks, which according to its rules is:

Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community.

And now that we have established the basics, let’s continue. We left off with me clicking on the TEDxValenciaWomen link, waiting to find something like this, and finding this:

Love (ama), which also means MOTHER. Love, understood as expanding energy, empowers, liberates. It is union, joy, empathy, listening, collaborating, caring, etc. to one self (interior) and towards others, other situations, the world (exterior). “Ama-gi”, a moon, a Return to the Mother

BECAUSE…

Liberty, return to what we are, begets Happiness
Happiness generates creativity, health, joy, wellness, abundance…
Happiness is innovation

The event page kindy informed me that ama-gi is a summerian buzzword which literally means “Return to the Mother”, the subtitle of TEDxValenciaWomen, and also “Liberty”. And here is where the thing started to smell less science-y and more newage-y. I could spend the rest of the post tearing apart the brief text above, not to mention the event mission statement or the parallel activities (the kid’s activities included the Four Elements!). But okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: let’s look at some of the speakers. Along with people with excellent CVs such as Margarita Albors (whose talk was the best I saw all day), José-Félix Lozano Aguilar, or Pilar Mateo (who couldn’t be there, unfortunately), we had people who had in their bios things like:

  • “Specialist in Energy Movements for Earth Healing through Ceremonies, in harmonizing places and individual and collective environments, and Bach Flowers. She is a rebirther, therapist, and teacher of rebirthing” (Aura Küpper)
  • “Professional who synthesizes the spiritual and holistic complementary therapies with science in his work with people and organizations as a trainer and in his clinic” (José Rius)
  • “Precursor and facilitator of “plasmatics” as a self-discovery method of the healing capacity of each individual.” (Sergi Torres)
  • “Masters in Clinical psychology and Natural therapies. Expert in Bio-energy and holistic techniques, Egyptian transpersonal psycho-aromatherapy, and homeopathy.” (Adoración Ferreres)
  • The day of the conference I had to work, but as soon as I could, I logged into the streaming feed (which wasn’t working very well) and started following the Twitter hashtag #TEDxVlcWomen.

    Liberty, return to the Mother

    I can’t comment on the morning talks until the videos are available, if they are ever uploaded. But what I saw confirmed my worst fears. Some talks were good, or at least interesting: like the one by Margarita Albors, or the one by Marta Williams (coaching is not my thing, but she spoke very well and clearly connected with her audience). Other talks seemed scientific but were a bit lacking, like the one by Maria Dolores Raigón, who explained some things about ecological agriculture but left some things unexplained; and that’s good, it’s part of what makes TED stimulating. But the rest was immersed in a new-age feel-good and spiritual pseudoscientific matrix filled with LOVE, and the MOTHER, and ENERGY and lots of holistics and mantras that sound deep until you stop and think about it for half a second (if even). For example, the earth-shattering conclusion of the event was:

    Change your mind, change your destiny and only that way you can change the world #ama_gi #TEDxVLCWomen

    — TEDxValenciaWomen (@TEDxVlcWomen) December 1st, 2012

    Science was absolutely absent. Pseudoscience wasn’t. The presentations that included brain images were talking about the masculine and feminine hemispheres, and the integration of the self (or something like that), and the rest were pictures of dew-sprinkled grass, smiling children (“we have to be more like children”, said someone who clearly doesn’t remember being a child nor will he save the world), and images of a variety of mother goddesses. A lot of calls to let yourself be guided by feelings and intuition, lots of calls to save the world and be happy by doing something that isn’t exactly clear.

    The TEDxValenciaWomen spectacle last Saturday was, in brief, harmful.
    To Valencia, because of the wasted opportunity to have an event that would enrich the intellectual lives of the public.
    To women, because the stereotype that women are more gullible and less rational is not helped by having a whole day of gullible and irrational talks given mostly by women.
    To TED, because lately they have been embarking in a permissive road of ideas not clearly anchored in reality, and attracting strong criticism for it. This event will not help them with that: most feedback I’ve seen on Twitter and on blogs about this were negative.
    To science, whose comprehension by the general public (which I consider of vital importance for society) suffers constantly by the continued rise of pseudoscience and the lack of initiatives really committed to quality science communication. I thought TED might be one of them, but I see I was wrong.

    Frankly, we deserve better. So, on Sunday, I sent a message to TED (you can find the original here):

    The TEDxWomen event celebrated yesterday in Valencia (Spain), which can be found on http://www.tedxvalenciawomen.com and was hashtagged in Twitter as #TEDxVLCWomen or #TEDxValenciaWomen, was a sad disappointment and reflects very poorly on TED’s image and reputation. The event disregarded completely this part of the TED rules in particular:

    “Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community.”

    I watched most of TEDxValenciaWomen’s afternoon session via streaming. While a few of the speakers gave engaging, thought-provoking and intellectually sound presentations, most of the event (including the parallel events) was a pathetic mix of pseudoscience and wishy-washy superficial pseudo-feminist spirituality, with lots of mentions to “The Mother” and an abundance of unsubstantiated claims on the healing powers of LOVE, sacred geometry, goddesses, and in general easy sentimentalism, shaky psychology, and shakier neuroscience. The speakers’s bios were rife with holistic healing, Reiki, experts in “Bio-Energetic and Holistic Techniques”, “Egyptian Psycho-Aromatherapy”, “Rebirthing”, “plasmatics”… You get the idea.

    I am from Valencia, I am a woman, and I have a scientific background and a fierce love for science. TED talks have always been a great way for me to find interesting, challenging and fascinating topics to learn about, all of them soundly based in facts. I used it as a very welcome counterpoint to the onslaught of magical, mystical, woo-filled events that seem to crop up everywhere these days.

    I hoped that in TEDxValenciaWomen I could listen to people talk about good science and interesting social topics. I hoped I could learn about feminism without all that “mother-goddess” nonsense. I hoped I could learn about neurobiology without someone insulting my intelligence with a talk that told me about the “masculine” left brain and the “feminine” right brain. I hoped I could learn about social inequality without someone suggesting that we should simply open our hearts to the healing power of LOVE for all our troubles to be over.

    I hoped, in summary, for a TED event, anchored in reality. What I got was a mockery, loosely put together out of wish fulfillment and half-backed ideas that hurt, in this order, TED, Valencia, Women, Science, and common sense.

    I had to tell you this hoping that you’d be able to prevent such shameful events in the future. They don’t do justice to the TED logo and to a concept I dearly love.

    Apart from me, @puratura published her own letter to TED, and she encourages people to copy it and send it in their own name. A sample: “Women can be as rational, logical, and intelligent as men, and we deserve interesting speakers that actually talk about “science, technology and the enterprising spirit”, not just magicians that walk on stage”.

    And @verdewek has sent another letter: “The image of TED as a science-related venue is suffering by these links to religion and pseudoscience. I have stopped trusting these local events as providers of top quality content, which is a big disappointment”.

    Corollary:
    While writing this post I found (via @ adiplotti) this tweet by the organizers of TEDxValenciaWomen:

    We will consider all your opinions for improving # tedxvlcwomen – TEDxValenciaWomen (@ TEDxVlcWomen) December 2, 2012

    We’ll see.

    EDIT: TEDx responded by sending a letter to all TEDx organizers. And it’s a good letter! Read it here!

    Born and raised in Mexico City, Daniela has finally decided to abdicate her post as an armchair skeptic and start doing some skeptical activism. She is currently living in Spain after having lived in the US, Brazil and Italy. You can also find her blogging in Spanish at esceptica.org.

    12 Comments

    1. …and the organizers of the event are trolling critics on Twitter and telling them TED USA is “delighted with the event”.

    2. Thank you for sharing and for sending your feedback directly to TED. This is extremely disappointing, and I hope they take your criticism seriously.

      My graduate school hosted a TEDx event in September and while most of the talks were solid, there were a few new age-y, flimsy ones that did not reflect the rigor I expect from TED presentations. I didn’t really think anything of it, though–my school teaches sustainable management, which was also the focus of the event, and while most of what we learn is science-based, wooish things work their way in, and I figured these few speakers were a part of that. But if this is part of a larger pattern–even if it is just with the TEDx events, it’s an issue. I wonder how much involvement the main organization has with the offshoot events.

      • I wonder the same thing, Anne. The summary TEDxValenciaWomen sent lacked some of the most egregious bios (I’m not yet saying this was done on purpose) and the values the event was supposed to promote were all right, no clear woo there.

        The Community Managers of the event also did a less than stellar job. Their attitude was by turns whiny and bullying, and right now they’ve changed to passive-aggresive, sendin me a weird tweet in which they state that TED is delighted with the event and thank me for promoting it. Okay. If that’s what TED truly thinks, I’m sure my e-mail will never be answered. But it’s a bit soon to tell. Maybe. I’m hoping.

        • There was also that tweet from the official event account telling a critic: “We will be surprised when you get a PhD :-)”

    3. While I agree that TED has the provable-science in their mission, I’m afraid they’ve always had a ton of old psuedoscience in their backlog.

      I’ve had a TED speaker at an event who knew very little about the science we were asking her questions about (her forte was the art installation that had a science component), and I gathered her TED event had been very accepting of the woo segment, and guided her a lot on presentation skills for the target audience.

      I love TED, really, but they are an Edutainment Business, and therefore have some wiggle room – and then TEDx is even less strict. Once would hope that they are tracking the top downloads and that folks are coming to them for their science speakers, not the wishy washy bits.

    4. I looked at the TEDx description on http://ted.com a couple years ago – as I recall, they were promoting the idea of putting on an “independently organized” TEDx talk just about anywhere, of any size, including in your living room with inviting the neighbors. About all I recall of the rules (besides saying “this event is organized independently from TED” and vague but good things like “be awesome” and “give your best speech ever”) was at least one of the talks had to be a video playback of one of the “real” talks at http://ted.com. On the other hand, the TED site has many videos from well-organized high-end TEDx events and appears to promote them, and that sure seems like endorsement of these otherwise-independently-organized events.

    5. Daniela,

      I’ve been interested in TED talks for a long time. I’m a real fan of them, especially when it comes to science.

    6. To expand on my previous comment, I wholeheartedly agree with Daniella that having non-scientific and pseudo-scientific new-age content is deplorable and it sucks. But I don’t know how much it can be reflected back to the original TED organization. TEDx is described here:
      http://www.ted.com/pages/about_tedx
      Of the things listed, this looks very pertinent: “Bias-free programming: Lack of any commercial, religious or political agenda”
      There’s more here:
      http://www.ted.com/pages/organize_tedx_event
      “TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.”
      This is much like, if not identical to, what I read several years ago. I trust the organizer(s) of this TEDx event won’t be doing another one.

      Some ideas are NOT worth spreading.

      • Benbradley,

        You’re some ideas definitely are not worth spreading.

    7. new agers make censorship look like a good idea, that’s how bad new agers are

    8. Having watched many TED presentations over the years via YouTube, I’ve noticed a decided decline in quality both in choice of topic and in the presenters themselves. There was a TED talk in my area not long ago, and I had half a notion to attend before I discovered that 1) it cost $100 and 2) the topic was something along the lines of “One Idea That Could Change the World … for 15 Minutes” (actually it was nothing of the sort, but I couldn’t resist nicking someone else’s TED parody.) So many TED talks remind me of the corporate team-building and PR exercises I have endured; others have been the sort of new agey and pseudo-scientific bunkum described above. It’s a shame, because the talks of 5-6 years ago were uniformly excellent.

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