I try not to read the news because it makes me sad. However, TED talks are just long enough for me to listen to while I eat my breakfast and usually they’re of a higher quality with real content, so sometimes I’ll indulge.

However, I’ve noticed a marked decline in the quality of even the TEDs since they first came out. When I was a graduate student three or four years ago, the talks were these 15 minute summaries of a respected academic’s work. They served as a trailor for getting to know the thinker in greater depth should one choose to do so. Then I noticed some speakers weren’t academics or researchers or even policy makers, they started to include inspirational speakers. I remember one woman talking for 8 out of 15 minutes about how she knew the secret to finding happiness and it was simple, but not easy. It wasn’t until the 12th minute of the talk that I learned that her secret was, “patronize my books and consulting courses to learn more.”

This morning I found a link to a TED talk on “The Unstoppoble Walk to Political Reform” and I got really excited because I thought it was going to be a political scientist, or maybe a professional lobbyist, talking about how there were measurable features of our global society that were pressing for change in a way that made it inevitable if perhaps slow. It turned out that it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think there were any facts in the whole talk. There was one statistic about Intel processors, but I can’t really understand the relevancy of it. Instead it was an old guy talking about how a dead guy inspired him to start a campaign reform movement and It’s Totally Gonna Work So You Should Join In Here’s the Link To Our Donation Page!

I was really disappointed and didn’t finish listening to the talk. Later as my brain swirled this new experience around, I came to a small realization. Should academics have the monopoly on truth and knowledge? Certainly not. They’re a stuffy lot who make their living by being more right than other people regardless of whether they’re actually discovering anything meaningful or not. But if we allow ourselves to be informed by the non-academics, how do we know the difference between fluff and truth and propaganda? I think the answer is that we can apply certain tools, filters in a way, to the messages we are being sent to check if they have any truth in them.

One filter we can use is emotion. Are there emotional appeals in the message we are receiving? Sad emotions appeal to our sense of empathy and make us more inclined to agree with the speaker’s cause. High intensity emotions like amazement or anger get us riled up and make us more inclined to disagree with the mainstream ideas. So someone wanting to challenge the mainstream might use high intensity emotions to trigger our willingness to disagree. Using emotion is not wrong and can be a very effective tool for communication, but it can also confuse us as to whether we are hearing a compelling argument or if we are simply being manipulated to agree with a point.

Another filter is imagery. If a picture can say a thousand words, then it’s a great way to not actually have to say anything. The trouble with images is that they are not precise. Campaign images often depict completely irrelevant demographics when describing new policies in order to get people to react to the demographic without knowing whether or not the people they want to help are getting helped by their political actions. When imagery is being used to deliver a message it can be clarifying to take pause and ask what is this image actually depicting? Once you have your answer you can go about fact checking it in a way that just looking at a picture does not allow.

There are many other tools that one can apply to media in order to receive a clearer, more truthful message. Tone is valuable and serves to set emotion as well as establish a connection with the audience. Statistics are also a big source of misinformation. If 90% of statistics are wrong, then how can we know what’s right? It helps to ask if a statistic is just a correlation or if there is reason to believe a causal relationship exists. Medical and health related media is particularly susceptible to this error as they try to make recommendations based on a correlation that isn’t really under the control of the average human. Another trick is to check data sources. It’s easy to get some very extreme statistics if you don’t use a large enough data set and a mere hundred or so survey responses is hardly a large number for much of what gets reported. If you don’t have the time or the sophistication to check a data source, you can just flag it in your mind. Just like with an image or an emotional appeal, if a speaker is using a statistic to make a point, be wary that that point may be less obvious than it gets made out to be.

I love the idea of TED talks. I don’t want to write them off entirely, but the techniques I mention for filtering truth out of media can get tiresome and repetitive when you have to use them all the time. It’s nice to be able to just sit back and basque in the glow of a new understanding of the world. If only there were a way to exert pressure back so that we could let our guard down and once again enjoy the talks for what they are supposed to be. In the meantime, which may be a very long time indeed, I suggest listening with a skeptical ear.