The TED conference happened last week. I’ve been a fan since I saw the Raspyni Brothers juggle (I was trying to learn to juggle during my first year of grad school). I was as amazed as everyone else when I saw Johnny Lee (in an early example of the maker movement working its way into the mainstream) demonstrate his Wii remote hacks. For my crazy-right-winger-disaster-preparing-friend at Desultory Salutations, I bought one of Michael Pritchard’s super water filter bottles. As far as I know, he hasn’t filtered and consumed his own urine. Not through the bottle anyway.
But TED can be up and down. My concern is that the Big Idea journalists like the recently discredited Leherer and even real scientists with Big Idea books to promote like Dan Ariely will take over the conference. Their talks usually have the characteristics of good TED talks: they come at issues from a new angle, and they have an optimistic faith in positivism accumulating knowledge and making a better and better future. But what makes TED appealing to me isn’t just a Big Idea backed by poorly described and exaggerated scientific findings, it’s the small advances in science that shed light on the scientific process and are presented by real scientists or activists. For instance, Sheila Patek describing the process of figuring out how shrimp strike their prey, Vilayanur Ramachandran describing advances in neurology, or (trigger warning for this video) Sunitha Krishnan talking about her work rescuing sexual slaves.
All of these talks eschew the Big Idea. They stick to what their work demonstrates, and don’t feel the need to try to expand their message to some grand platitude. I’d rather have to contemplate the implications of the work myself than to have a small “truth” expanded into a grand but empty Big Idea. A later Ramachandran talk demonstrates this; you can see how uncomfortable he is trying to make a basic finding into a big idea when he tries to take the discovery of mirror neurons into the realm of the explanation for human civilization. I also would have preferred him to stick to the science, and let the Big Ideas develop on their own.