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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lynne McTaggart

Sitting through 18 minutes of Lynne McTaggart's inane drivel was only a minor annoyance. However, now that an unnamed TEDxBrussels organizer went out of his (or her) way to defend their decision to invite her, I think I'm genuinely pissed. This avowed non-scientist's post (the only one published on TEDxBrussels blog since the event) is wrong in every possible way, completely misunderstands the criticism it purports to answer, and is frankly insulting to those of us who voiced said criticism.

Firstly, if your honest goal is to "join and extend the conversation" in an adult way, you really, really shouldn't open by drawing a parallel between the audience reaction to Mrs. McTaggart's talk and the campaign against WikiLeaks. No-one suggested Lynne McTaggart be silenced. You're welcome to "defiantly reserve the right" to invite her, if mindless posturing happens to be your thing that's entirely fine with me, but no-one's attempting to deny you that right. I and others have said that inviting her was a mistake, but we all agree it's a mistake you're fully entitled to make. Anyway, exposing and denouncing quackery is not an assault on free speech. On the contrary, it is one of the main reasons we need free speech.

By the way, I resent your assumption that I merely "disagree" with Mrs. McTaggart. I'm calling her a fraud. Big difference. I disagree with Republicans who say lower taxes are needed to stimulate the economy. I think they're wrong, but I'll admit that their theory is not a fully disprovable one. On the other hand, Birthers, who maintain the lunacy that Obama wasn't born in the United States, are simply paranoid and delusional, and I won't dignify their position by saying I'm just disagreeing with them.

So what's my beef with Lynne McTaggart? You assert "The charge is that her brand of science is not valid[…]", but no, that's not the charge at all. There are no "brands" in science. There is science, and there is pseudo-science. Spotting the difference between the two is not always easy, especially if, like most people, you only have a vague and second-hand understanding of what science is. It's not just a collection of disciplines, and it certainly has nothing to do with the person practicing it or the institution he belongs to. (After all, the most acclaimed scientist of all time changed our understanding of the universe while working as an obscure patent clerk.)

Science is a set of practices and techniques that enables mere humans to infer objective knowledge about the universe. To me, it is mind-boggling that this is even possible. Our brain evolved to help us evade lions on the plains of East Africa. Whenever it's used to ponder the fabric of the universe it unsurprisingly betrays severe shortcomings. All humans are prone to emotional outbursts, confirmation bias, and a flurry of logical fallacies. The scientific method is the best way we've found yet to avoid these trappings.

Contrary to popular belief, science isn't all that complicated to learn. Humanity's body of scientific knowledge is, of course, huge and always expanding, but the basic method is simple enough. You certainly don't need to go to college to learn it, although that is one popular option. What you definitely need, however, is to want to learn and practice it. You need the willingness to constantly put your beliefs and worldview to the test, and risk seeing the evidence expose them as fraudulent. You need the discipline to, whenever you get a new idea about anything, immediately assume the role of Devil's Advocate, and attack the idea from all possible sides to see if it survives the pummeling. You need, in the words of Richard Feynman, to always be ready to "bend over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong".

Lynne McTaggart is unwilling to even glance back over her shoulder. She throws around anecdotes about jars of water and peas sitting in laboratories and rambles about how they "noticed an effect". What effect ? How about all the experiments where they didn't notice an effect ? What controls were used to make sure the "effect" couldn't be explained without positing a parapsychological "field" ? By the way, I haven't read Mrs. McTaggart's book, and I don't intend to. (I'm busy.) Nor do I need to to know she's not interested in real knowledge. She proved that at TEDx, by closing her talk with a faith-healing session for a woman with a bacterial infection. This was not an experiment, although that's what she called it. Real experiments are designed to provide evidence that put theories to the test. Whatever happens to that women, it won't be evidence of anything. Bacterial infections have widely diverging effects and remission patterns. They occur all the time and usually go away within a few days. Sometimes they linger and no-one really knows why, and sometimes they go away unexpectedly fast, simply because that's what sometimes happen. (Judging by the throbbing in my throat, I've got a bacterial infection right now. I'm not overly worried.)

I bet Lynne McTaggart performs that same "experiment" every time she gives a talk. Actually, I know she does, she even bragged about it. But she could do it thousands of times and compile testimonies from all her subjects and they could all be ecstatic about how well the chanting worked and it still wouldn't be evidence of anything. The scientific method is simple enough, but the human body is complicated, thus evaluating the efficacy of a treatment is notoriously hard. Lynne's "experiment" doesn't even attempt to control for cognitive bias nor the placebo effect. These effects are so well-known that she can't possibly be unaware of them. Since she obviously decides to ignore them, I conclude she's not really interested in finding anything out. It's just show-biz. And there's nothing wrong with show-biz, until it starts masquerading as scientific inquiry. (By the way, I again find exception in your claim that "[scientists] present at TEDx Brussels, […] all participated in the experiment, all closed their eyes and linked hands with their neighbours. They were relaxed and enjoyed the moment. It was entertaining." — I didn't and it wasn't.)

You end your post saying TED should be about presenting challenging ideas. I fully agree, and this is my one reason why Lynne McTaggart shouldn't have been there. Never mind that her scientific posturing might fool some people and actually hurt public understanding of science. Never mind that her mere presence at TEDx is an insult to the brilliant scientists who also took the stage that day. Never mind that her books and websites are transparent fronts to tempt the sick into buying shiny baubles that at best won't do them any good. Never mind that, as part of the anti-vaccine movement, she can be said to have blood on her hands. The real case against her speaking at TEDx is that her ideas are not new, and certainly not challenging. For decades people have been saying we're all in a mystical field that interconnects all things and our thoughts can act on it and it's all because of quantum. It is entirely unsurprising that someone foolish enough to believe she understood quantum theory, and who didn't know (or didn't care) about confirmation bias and the placebo effect, would promote such theories and try to make money doing so. I like nothing more than being challenged, but you'll have to try harder.

Monday, December 6, 2010


When I heard that Brussels was hosting the largest TEDx event ever I signed up immediately. Now it's over, and I'm very happy I did. I'd certainly love to attend the real thing in Monterey, but until that becomes even faintly possible Brussels will do very nicely.

Organization was spot-on. Talks were scheduled to start at 15:43 and end at 15:53, and they did. Pacing felt just right: long breaks and longish sessions meant you didn't lose time shuffling in and out of the room, never felt overwhelmed and had time for meeting people and meaningful discussions. Every word could be heard clearly from everywhere. Whatever it is they're using for projectors, I want one for my home cinema, although I'd need a much bigger flat; the only thing comparable I've ever seen was at a Jean-Michel Jarre concert. WiFi didn't work, but, well, WiFi never works at conferences. (Good news is: I won't feel too bad if we screw this up for ER2011.) And obviously these are not normal people: there were 1000 attendees and 2000 WiFi devices in the room. At one point I wanted to download iMovie for iPhone so I could quickly edit and upload a clip I'd shot, and in that crowd there is nothing even remotely exceptional about this. Of the many iPhone 4 users I must have been one of the few who didn't have iMovie already. Anyway, I couldn't: as everyone with Belgium cell-phones or international roaming (i.e. everyone) switched to 3G the cell towers around the stately Palace of Fine Arts were hit with the kinds of bandwidth demands rarely seen outside the Bay area, and more or less gave up.

Talks were many and varied, about robotic cars, interstellar space flight, commoditized EEG as a human-interface device, how the digital doubles in Lord of the Rings were made, the internet of Things… My favorites were probably the ones about economics. Dambisa Moyo's talk on How the West was Lost, delivered with no slides while sitting on a couch, especially resonated with me. I don't think it's lost yet, and nor does she, but I've felt for a while that Europe and the US have some tough choices ahead and that they're not discussed nearly enough. Even though I'd be the first to say that you can be a nerd yet not socially awkward, seeing someone with a PhD in economics being that charismatic felt a little uncanny.

Although overall quality was staggeringly high, there were a couple duds. You'd think watching the founder of Doctors Without Borders talk about how innovative finance will save the world can't be anything less than good, but everyone I talked to agreed that Bernard Kouchner's talk was a huge waste of everybody's time. Not only was he late and slow and inarticulate and had lousy slides which he actually turned away from the public to read from the screen, (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not) no matter any of that, the real problem was his entire talk boiled down to: "getting a few countries to implement a Tobin tax is a good idea". You know, I actually agree with that. And I'm immensely grateful that someone as obviously gifted and influential as Mr. Kouchner is trying very hard to get it done. (Especially since, living in Belgium, I'm constitutionally unable to vote for anyone who even bothers having any opinion on anything other than language borders.) However, when I pay for the privilege of spending 18 minutes of my time listening to a world-class speaker, I expect to get a little more information out of it than can be found in the average tweet.

But that's not even the talk that really pissed me off. That would be Lynne McTaggart's, acclaimed author of "What Doctors Don't Tell You", who spoke about the Intention Experiment, i.e. the idea that "the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field" and can be influenced by thought, and her experiments to prove it. The talk was quite polished and competently executed, and even featured a complimentary hands-on faith-healing session at the end, but the problem is this is not actually an idea worth spreading. It's an idea that, in a perfect world, would have long ago been gagged, garroted, thrown out the window, shot, cremated, dispersed out at sea and never mentioned again.

By the way, I do understand that a conference that tries to be at the leading edge of both technology and art will have a few, for lack of a better word, "edge cases". People who are controversial but may possibly be right. Sometimes the difference between the brilliant out-of-the-box thinker and the nutjob is only visible in hindsight. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Lynne McTaggart is not a pseudoscientific hack, but rather a visionary who's starting a revolution in how we perceive the fabric of the universe. It's possible. But I would bet a lot of money against it.

Anyway, if I'm spending a lot of time on the two talks I didn't like, it's only because I enjoy bashing people vastly more successful than I. They really didn't matter. After Lynne McTaggart came Paul Collier, who started by asking a trick question that tripped the entire audience (not 90%, not 99%, but literally everyone) and went on to give the most amazing talk about natural resources in developing countries, how they can help the poor improve their quality of life, and what he's doing to ensure they're used for this purpose. And after Bernard Kouchner came Stromae, who got the entire audience to stand up and sing and dance. Picture that: an audience of nerds, dancing in the fanciest classical concert hall in Brussels.

As enjoyable as the event was, from the start I felt somewhat weird about it. Only standing in the bus back home did I figure out what it was: it's not, actually, a conference. Both academic conferences and trade conventions are gatherings of people who come together to discuss their work. Yes, this involves a lot of people talking in front of slides, but this is only a means to an end. The end is to get people in a given field to discuss what they do. That's not at all what TED(x) is.

At TEDx, you don't meet the speakers. To be honest, I didn't really try to, but even if I had, the odds were severely stacked against me: there are 20 speakers for 1000 attendees. Add all the breaks together, and even under the ridiculous assumptions that speakers don't talk with each other, you only talk to speakers, never go to the bathroom and are comfortable talking to Nicholas Negroponte while sampling the cheese platter, statistically you can only hope for four minutes of face time with speakers in the entire day.

So you don't even try to. What you do is talk to random attendees, about nothing in particular. During the coffee breaks of a normal conference, you meet people who closely share your interests and discuss these. TEDx feels more like a speed-dating/networking session targeted at the kind of crowd that attends TEDx. It's a great crowd. Mostly young technophiles with a creative bend, yet diversified. I chatted with a retired English professor about underwater photography. I learned how the Yugoslav wars were perceived by Croats who were six-year-olds at the time. (Apparently it was kinda fun if you were lucky enough to be a child and not get killed.) The place is chock full of amazing people: scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers… and not the kind of engineer who's a lifelong employee at a major utility company, but the kind who taught himself graphic design and understands the music business and wants to use that combination of skills in a unique way. Everybody reads Malcolm Gladwell. Many want to be Tim Ferriss.

The "conference" part, with the speakers and the slides and the introductions, is actually a sort of day-long entertainment that simply happens to be co-located with the networking session. Nerdy entertainment certainly, and great entertainment. If I were to list the five best talks I've ever attended, four of these would be from today. (The fifth would be the EuroPython keynote by Hans Rosling, who also spoke at TED in Monterey.) At TEDxBrussels, you get to see Nicholas Negroponte throw his laptop on the ground and tell how he dares intel or other competitors to do the same with their prototypes when he faces them. You get to see a fashion show by Bibi Russell, a former top model who gave up her modeling career to create a fashion house that employs 35,000 workers in rural Bangladesh who make fashionable clothes you really want to wear. You get to see truly amazing people make passionate statements about the world and wild predictions about the future. As Rik Torfs said in closing, they're unlikely to all be right. "Maybe we're just telling jokes. But they're good jokes, by brilliant people." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty good day to me. It's a surprising event, unlike anything I've ever been to and not quite what I expected. But one thing's for sure: I'll definitely go again.