A letter posted on the TEDx blog has some misleading markers confusing good science with acceptable science.

A letter posted on the TEDx blog in December 2012 set out some “basic guidelines” to help organizers distinguish between good and bad science. Under the marks of good science, it had these words:

“It does not fly in the face of broad existing scientific knowledge.”

This statement runs smack in the face of many scientific discoveries that are made even today. To be hosted by an organization whose tagline is “Ideas worth spreading”, TEDx, and TED with it, should be more careful about what they’re establishing as “acceptable” areas of science considering one of the ideas they’ve spread well is the power of curiosity and challenging prevalent orders.

I understand that their intention is to keep organizers on the lookout for quacks, but to mark good science as conformant science is to diminish its ability to prove us wrong when we need it. Maybe those organizers with a sensible discretion would be able to see the difference between good science because it is objective and logically, cogently arguable and good science because it is known science. But how many won’t?

There are other markers on the list on TEDx’s blog, and most of them are acceptable, such as this: “Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation.”

See the irony?

In the list of markers of bad science, there is an allusion to conformant science once more: “[Bad science] speaks dismissively of mainstream science.”

Whenever I read something like this, the first thing that pops into my mind is the story of Dan Shechtman, the discoverer of quasi-crystal structures in the early 1980s. Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011 for this development – as well as hanging on to it even though it threatened to topple the formidable yet insular theories of chemistry-giant Linus Pauling.

Shechtman lost his job and and a lot of credibility in the scientific community as a result, before they were restored when scientists from Europe were able to replicate his results.

The point is there has been a lot of usurping of scientific knowledge. Its history hasn’t been smooth – not all our ideas came from one millennia-old proto-idea. And to find ideas worth spreading, we mustn’t only look to the past. Such markers are, in my opinion, alarmist.