TED Talks Too Mainstream for Scientists?

NISHANT KAKAR

Without public engagement, federal funding would wither away as yet another unpopular government scheme.

Debate 4, Nishant Kakar Featured“Bill Nye the Science Guy” has become the calling card of the most popular scientist in an elementary school kid’s world. Without Bill Nye, science would have remained a vague and distant realm for my childhood self, one full of bland symbols and numbers—anything but creative and fun. But does Bill Nye win Nobel Prizes for his work? No. Does he even play a role in advancing the scientific field? Probably not. Yet, his presence, along with other popular scientists, is vital for the health of the scientific community.

Popular scientists maintain the balance between privatized research and public knowledge. On one hand, let’s not forget how much scientific research relies on tax dollars. Without public engagement, federal funding would wither away as yet another unpopular government scheme. On the other hand, if research were done solely for public recognition, then academic scientists would become mere panderers. Researchers would focus on popularizing his or her work for the next national bestseller, rather than spend another day at lab, washing beakers for the next thankless experiment. So while the role of popular scientists—securing both the public’s support and their ongoing education—may differ from that of their academic counterparts, that role isn’t any less important.

It follows that popular scientists should be commended for their success. Yet fellow scientists don’t seem to agree: they criticize popular scientists for ‘dumbing down’ their talks and for putting too much emphasis on entertainment value. TED talks are a typical example. Despite the success of the program, a study by Indiana University Library and Information Science professor Cassidy Sugimoto found that TED presenters with backgrounds in academia do not get cited more often by fellow scientists. In fact, they are often ostracized by their colleagues, who often wonder whether they have ulterior motives. Even members of the public may accuse TED talkers for harboring their own agendas. Joshua Keating, a blogger at Foreign Policy magazine, claims that TED “glorifies ideas for their own sake, and rewards snappy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate.”

These criticisms may be valid, but TED-talking academic researchers who popularize science are still vital to their entire field. Let me explain why. The idea behind TED talks is to engage the public with intriguing ideas, without overwhelming them with the technical details. It is not a stage for researchers to communicate their work to fellow experts—in this respect, the study by Sugimoto misses the point. Entertainment value aside, TED talks help restore the public’s faith that researchers really are making progress in cutting-edge fields. More importantly, they also inspire young researchers to become the next generation of innovators.

In a digital age, the scientific community cannot shy away from using social media to increase their reach. This new connectivity has enabled researchers to broadcast on TED, YouTube, and news networks, to name a few, which can only boost national funding for their work. Popular scientists may be ridiculed by “pure” academics, but those academics may do well to remember that their own funding must come from the taxpayer’s pocket. Without popular scientists, research would be attacked as a hopelessly inaccessible ivory tower. Bill Nye’s rhymes and jingles might sound silly to your average scientist, just as TED-talkers might sound like fame-grabbing sellouts, but it wasn’t the American Journal of Physics that first got me interested in science. It was the Science Guy.

Nishant Kakar is a Brevia staff writer. He can be reached at nkakar@college.harvard.edu.