Dumbing Down Research: How “Facts” Can Go Wrong

AUBURN LEE

At its core, TED is entertainment. It plays on authority to sell a message while promoting neither intellectual debate nor reasoned thought.

Debate 4, Auburn Lee FeaturedAn economics professor writes a catchy rap album about the inner structure of the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, another economics professor talks about whether the Federal Reserve should stay or go—on TED. One of these professors is a genius, and one of them is a cognitive kill-switch.

There’s no question that both professors are simplifying the information. In both cases, their target audience is people who don’t know much about the Federal Reserve. But there’s an important distinction between simplifying to introduce people to a topic, and simplifying to get people to believe you. You teach children science by teaching easy-to-understand concepts first, then later pointing out exceptions to the rules. You don’t teach children science by persuading them to accept generalizations, and then leave it at that.

Much of the time, however, that’s exactly what happens. Research findings are distilled into catchy factoids that are then sent to Time or The New Yorker or The Wall Street Journal, where they gain credence among readers as scientific truth. They effectively act as political positions instead of knowledge, and are good for starting conversations or aligning yourself with a particular ideology but little else. Often, they are also misleading. Examples include “Females prefer symmetric males”, “Chocolate is good for your health”, “Schools kill creativity”, and, notoriously, “MMR vaccine causes autism”. As history proved with the last one, these “facts” can ruin lives.

This dumbing-down of research and knowledge is rampant, and TED is no exception. TED’s 20-minute lecture-style talks make the communication at once personal and authoritative. But at its core, TED is entertainment. It is a platform for selling messages, while promoting neither intellectual debate nor reasoned thought. It offers facts and statistics disguised as learning, which works simply because modern education is so obsessed with facts and statistics. If a cab driver told you about a big-data revolution in healthcare, or perhaps why we should build wooden skyscrapers, you might respond with skepticism. But when titles of authority are being thrown at you, is it more difficult to do so? If it is, that’s a good sign you don’t know enough about the topic.

Take Ken Robinson’s talk, “Changing Education Paradigms,” for an example of a popular feature on the TED website. In it, Robinson uses a graphic showing prescription levels for ADHD by state. Is that by percentage of children, or by number? A legend (numbers or scale) is conspicuously missing from the graphic, meaning that no data are being displayed, just an impression of data. In addition, there’s no way to know how often ADHD is diagnosed but not prescribed for, or how often ADHD medications are being prescribed for people not diagnosed with ADHD. For someone like Robinson, presenting data like this is either a serious mistake or a purposeful oversight. In any case, the ADHD discussion is only incidental to the larger discussion of education practices, and is brought in to lend “scientific” credence to a discussion which is largely not about ADHD. This is an example of how TED may be found guilty of dumbing down research for the benefit of the overall message—at the expense of promoting real learning.

Whether or not the economics professor I mentioned earlier means well or not, he’s failing to educate his audience and instead selling a position on an issue. TED is a cultural authority, not an intellectual one, and it has a vested interest in what information is featured on the program and what opinions to advertise as truth. It will make decisions according to the agendas of its sponsors.

As for the economics professor who wrote a rap album, his motivations could be money and street cred, but it doesn’t matter. He found a fun way to teach his audience about something in a way that will empower them to make decisions based on what they know. This is a challenge worthy of academics; making real learning accessible is much more difficult than convincing an audience to accept a conclusion to which they’re already predisposed. When done correctly, appealing to popular taste has the potential to produce a better-informed public, not a complacent one.

Auburn Lee is a Brevia staff writer. He can be reached at auburnlee@college.harvard.edu.