Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
Tonight, I want to talk to you about a national crisis. A global crisis. A crisis of such tremendous proportions that you may not even be aware that it is engulfing you and your loved ones and your neighbors in flames.
What is this crisis? It is a crisis of our brains. The brains of our fellow citizens are being digitally rewired. How? Here is how. Hundreds of millions of people are gazing at online videos, spending billions of aggregate hours slack-jawed in front of their monitors. These videos are sucking up all the time that these people would otherwise spend reading the great books that you and I grew up with. Remember those days back in the Reagan administration when we little tykes would page through Cicero and Racine? No more. Instead, we face an epidemic of short-term distraction. These videos last no more than 18 minutes, and often less. As soon as one video is over, we can choose from hundreds of others with the click of a mouse. Each one is different from the last, flooding our brains with an unnatural wealth of variety. Very soon, we even become addicted to that variety. Yes, that's right, addicted. It's an addiction no different from cocaine, heroin, vodka, bingo, Ben & Jerry's, Law & Order streamed on Netflix, or MySpace.
Wait, I meant Facebook. Nobody uses MySpace anymore, so that can't be addictive.
Right. Where was I?
These videos are so addictive that they are cracking the very foundation of human civilization. The endless barrage of these tiny films erodes the circuitry in our prefrontal cortex that normally enable us to focus for long periods of time and compose Petrarchan sonnets to our loved ones. These videos evade the true complexity of life. They provide us with easy resolutions. They flatter us, rather than forcing us to ask tough questions about ourselves or our political system. We become zombies as the reward centers of the brain explode like fireworks, leaving us helpless victims for mind-controlling masters. Is it any wonder that the rise of these videos to global domination correlates perfectly with the rise of Kim Kardashian? What else could possible account for this coincidence?
Therefore we must take immediate steps to ban TED talks.
The phenomenon of TED is a mixed bag. Let's leave aside the matter of the many thousands of dollars it costs to actually go to a TED conference, and the dubious ingroup effect that the ticket price promotes. I've never met anyone who shelled out that cash, and, chances are, you haven't either. But many of us know someone who has watched a TED talk for free. Their online videos have staggeringly huge audiences, of which I am a member. So let's just consider the videos. And, since Download the Universe is dedicated to science ebooks, let's just consider the videos of talks by scientists.
There are many good things about these talks. For one thing, there are a lot of them. In the United States, you can watch cable news for five hours and see, on average, only one minute of science coverage. Science documentaries are degenerating into odious tales of mermaids. TED waters our antiscientific desert.
A number of the science talks on TED are excellent. In this video Princeton biologist Bonnie Bassler describes how bacteria talk to each other, and what that might mean for everything from glowing squid to antibiotics. The writer Joshua Foer gives a precis of his best-selling book, Moonwalking With Einstein, on becoming a memory champion. MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden discusses how he's engineering neurons in living brains so that they will turn on and off in response to light.
These talks are excellent for two reasons. One reason is that the science is substantive and fresh. The other reason is that the talks themselves are well executed. These are not academic lectures that people watch because their grade depends on it. These are talks that are intended for the curious public. To work, they demand a delicate touch--an understanding of what you can and cannot assume if your audience is made up of hundreds of thousands of people. They also demand all the graces of good oratory, such as the careful delivery of words, and strategically deployed rises and falls in cadence. There is no droning recitation of PowerPoint in the best of these talks. People often fixate on the high-end video quality of TED talks--the quick cuts between several camera angles, the crisp audio. But one of the most important reasons that TED talks are so distinctive has to do with the speakers themselves. They work very hard to compose and rehearse their talks.
And in crafting their presentations, these speakers are not selling out. Rather, they're continuing an old tradition in science. The technology of TED may be new, but scientists have been giving these talks for a long time. In the late 1800s, the English zoologist Thomas Huxley, lectured about evolution to throngs of working class Londoners. And even earlier, Michael Faraday waxed poetic about the flame of a candle (the subject of Deborah Blum's recent review here).
Unfortunately, some TED talks about science don't live up to Huxley's example. The problem, I think, lies in TED's basic format. In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.
So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn't much time left over to actually make a case--to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.
In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.
The problem can get even more serious in TED's new franchise, TEDx, which is popping up in cities around the world. Again, some TEDx talks are great. Caltech physicist (and DtU editor) Sean Carroll talking about cosmology? Whatever you've got, I'll take. But some guy ranting about his grand unified theory that he promises will be a source of unlimited energy to fuel the planet? Well, just see how far you can get through this TEDx talk before you get loaded into an amublance with an aneurysm.
The most vexing problem of all comes when a famous scientist gives a TED talk without feeling the need to hew to science or to deliver a coherent argument. And I can't offer a better case study than a five-minute talk that psychologist Phil Zimbardo gave last year on the troubles faced by boys and men today--or, as Zimbardo puts it in an annoyingly faux-cool way, "guys."
Before you watch this very short video, it's important to recall what Zimbardo has done. His most famous accomplishment was the so-called Stanford prison experiment, in which he had college students play the roles of prisoners and guards. In a shockingly short period of time, the volunteers had become absorbed into their roles, with the guards sadistically relishing their power. Zimbardo has served as the president of the American Psychological Association and has written a number of bestsellers and textbooks.
And then this distinguished psychologist came to TED and delivered a rapid-fire bombardment of disconnected statistics and sweeping generalizations without any serious evidence backing them up. In this talk, he ends with a warning that our species will descend to the level of banana slugs. It's like the punchline of a joke.
It pains me to think that hundreds of thousands of people have spent five minutes of their lives watching this stuff. Even one minute is too much. But if I got so enraged that I began to rant that watching TED talks is a dangerous addiction that is rewiring brains, you would--I hope--demolish my attempt to biologize my own bugaboos.
Yet that's exactly what Zimbardo is trying to do with guys. Guys aren't doing well in school. Guys aren't being good fathers. There must be an underlying cause. Well, guys are on the Internet a lot these days. And they watch a lot of pornography online. Bingo! The Internet, and online porn in particular, are addictions rewiring the brains of guys, and making them incapable of being true men.
The more charitable among you may think that there's a coherent argument here, one that is hard to present in just five minutes. Well, there's an ebook to go along with this talk, entitled The Demise of Guys. While it's far tinier than a tome, it does have a few chapters, and even some footnotes. Alas, if you drop three bucks for some insight, you will find a jumble that's just as incoherent and unconvincing as the talk. You'll spend half an hour instead of five minutes lost in its chaos.
The Demise of Guys is a mish mash of quotes and numbers. Zimbardo and his co-author Nikita Duncan give a column in the Daily Mail about bad boyfriends just as much credibility as a peer-reviewed paper. They cite press releases. They insert an unscientific survey of TED viewers about what they think about pornography. They leap from video games to ADHD to fatherless families, giving just a few hundred words of attention before leaping off to the next hot-button topic.
There's no question that there are some major shifts these days in the social role of men, and the psychological causes and effects of that shift are worth exploring. But The Demise of Guys charts a path to be avoided, not explored.
The most vexing part of the ebook is its claim that the brains of guys are being "digitally rewired" (their words) through an addiction to online video games and pornography. Zimbardo joins the growing swarm of doomsayers who complain that technology today is altering our brains. Of course, juggling and chess alter our brains, as does just about anything we do very much. If our brains couldn't be rewired, we would live our entire lives in a sub-toddler state. Zimbardo has a long way to go before he reaches the absurd heights of Susan "I point to autism, I point to the Internet, that is all" Greenfield. But he's off to a great start.
Zimbardo's treatment of addiction is even more flawed. He takes it as a given that the intensity of video games and online porn allow them to take over the addiction areas of the brain, and are thereby destroying men. He simply ignores any scientific literature about addiction that doesn't support his idea. There's lots of research, for example, that indicates that even the most intense drugs, like heroin, turn only a small fraction of people who try them into addicts. To understand why some people become addicts, it's necessary to consider the other factors in people's lives. Addiction is strongly associated with psychiatric disorders, for example, as well as unemployment.
Internet addiction--or, as it's usually called, pathological Internet use--also affects a small fraction of users. In a new study on nearly 12,000 adolescents, Swedish researchers found that only 4.4% suffered from pathological Internet use. That rate breaks down to 5.2% of boys versus 3.8% of girls. Why is the percentage so low, when so many people use computers? Perhaps because only some people are uniquely vulnerable to addiction, Internet or otherwise. In one study in Germany, 27 out of 30 people with pathological Internet use also have a psychiatric disorder. Their use of the Internet may have more to do with an underlying problem than with some mythical lure of the Internet itself.
For the parents of kids--boys and girls--who are consumed by their computer, this pathological Internet use can be heartbreaking. And in some cases it may indeed have a terrible effect on the lives of those children. But is this the demise of guys? Guys with a capital G? Hardly.
Zimbardo never seriously grapples with this kind of research in his book, even to mount an argument against it. Instead, he races off to his next anecdote, his next bullet-point list of statistics. And that's the most TED-like quality of The Demise of Guys. When a TED talk ends, the lights go out. There's no time for questions.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses