TED Talks and Mountebanks

Sometime last week, another “what’s wrong with millennials” video went viral on Facebook. It features a very young-looking man named Simon Sinek eloquently explaining the “millennial problem” with a series of hackneyed generalizations and over-simplifications. I hovered over the video long enough to get the gist of his argument, then kept scrolling because I’ve heard his shtick before. However, I grew curious: who is this guy, and why do so many people trust what he has to say?

A quick Google search finds that Simon Sinek is an author, motivational speaker, and marketing consultant. In 2009 he gave a TEDx talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” that has over 30 million views.

30 million. That’s more than Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability, a video that is on TED’s own “11 must-see TED talks” list (I discussed Brown at length in my last post). To see what all the fuss is about, I watched Sinek’s talk, which is the third most popular TED talk of all time.

Please watch the video before reading my synopsis below, for the sake of approaching it with an open mind.

Given that Sinek is a motivational speaker, the vagueness and spin of his points do not surprise me. Given that he is not a neuroscientist, a historian, or a psychologist, though, his haphazard forays into these realms are extremely galling. At around 5:57 he claims that “none of what I’m telling you is opinion – it’s all grounded in the tenets of biology.” Right. He then launches into a gross over-simplification of mental processes that would make any neuroscientist (or person who appreciates the immense complexity of the human brain) cringe. His suggestion that the Wright Brothers’ and MLK’s success as innovators and leaders resulted from their unique sense of “why” understates the mystifying and complicated forces of history that scholars spend years analyzing. Even his “Golden Circle” theory sounds comically hucksterish – I couldn’t help but think of Lyle Lanley from the monorail episode of the Simpsons.


TED’s motto is “Ideas worth spreading.” I am concerned that TED has become a platform for bad science and bullshit. The lecture format has a lot to do with this – it favors eloquent rhetoricians over elegant research, a phenomenon parodied even by its own speakers:

For the record, I much prefer the video below as a parody. This kid is pretty annoying...


TED talkers have a certain affect that these parodies capture pretty well. A few years ago, Sarah Silverman defied this expectation. She gave a talk that she treated as, not surprisingly, a platform for her stand-up, and included a bit where she said “retard” a bunch of times. It wasn’t her A-game, but it was ballsy. The audience and the moderators were a bit stunned, naturally. The Head of TED, Chris Anderson, came onstage immediately afterwards – and apologized to the audience for her talk! In an environment that supposedly promotes new, fresh perspectives, disowning a speaker who courts controversy is embarrassing and tactless (after receiving some backlash, Anderson apologized for apologizing). Their clean, optimistic tone makes TED talks easily digestible by school classrooms and the like, yet this friendly gloss eschews speakers who may delve into risqué terrain.

TED does host some really brilliant, authentic minds, and many of their ideas are “worth spreading,” but there are also suspect players like Sinek, Brené Brown – who uses “wholeheartedness” as a research variable – and Jason Russell AKA the Kony 2012 guy. Only intelligent, informed criticism can counteract half-baked ideas, yet the format of TED events do not lend well to public conversation, inquiry, or debate. The TEDx programming guidelines specifically prohibit panels and Q&A’s as part of the event. Speakers are vetted and selected by the organizers – of course this is necessary when curating a public speaking event, and while I’m not confident the process would be improved by being more democratic, I remain skeptical about the biases of the process. In a relevant Quora thread, one TED organizer breaks down the criteria for choosing a good TED speaker into three qualifications:


  1. Your idea
  2. Credibility
  3. Communication Ability


Here is his description of the first criterion:

What is your “idea worth spreading”? As in, what is the central thesis of your talk? I would make this as specific as possible, since broad topics (“here’s my lessons from running a business”) are over-done. Frankly, if something is expected, there is no reason to “spread” it any more.

I agree that specific is better than broad, but that last sentence irks me. Good ideas, like free speech, are always worth spreading, even if they are no longer original. Fresh, untested ideas can be poisonous, and the only proper antidote in a liberal society is discourse and rebuttal. While it’s far less catchy, TED’s motto should be “ideas worth considering.”

Sarah Silverman's TED Talk. It was taken off the TED website.

Ultimately, any TED event is heavily mediated by its organizers, and is meant to function as an idea theater rather than a public forum. The problem with excluding panels, Q&A’s, and open dialogue between audience and speaker have become obvious to me: mountebanks like Simon Sinek are treated with the same clout as dedicated intellectuals like Sam Harris or innovators like Alejandro Aravena (the Aravena talk is poignantly ironic – he advocates the benefits of community participation before a captive, voiceless audience).

In addition to promoting a more democratic environment within their events, TED could utilize its organizing power to seek video responses to its most popular talks. YouTube dismantled its response feature years ago, but now offers embedded suggestions and playlists based on your viewing data. Its argument for getting rid of RE: videos is that they were not very popular – I found that they were too unmediated, a hotbed for gushing vloggers (although some of these personalities are still among my favorite on the internet). I believe that TED could easily muster up enough muscle to resurrect a rebuttal feature that opens the floor to responses from across the internet, yet filters out the trolls and provides a diverse sample of only the most credible sources.

Not that I’ve fully hashed out this proposal – just a thought. In the meantime it is our responsibility as consumers to provide the discourse that TED events currently lack. A teacher at my school has “TED Talk Tuesdays” where the class will watch a video, and then provide a written response in building towards a class-wide discussion. This is an important step. I think educators should go one step further and ask students to think of reasons to disagree with TED lecturers, even if they personally do not – after all, acknowledging the other side of an issue is essential to persuasive writing and argument.

I do not think “mountebank” is too strong a word for Simon Sinek. Any scientist, doctor, architect, artist, educator or otherwise who gets up and gives a lecture are presumed to have done extensive research within their fields – while many may gripe about the truncated format, a thought-provoking TED talk will easily boost public exposure and that person’s social capital. Ideally, this happens for mostly good ideas and good thinkers – yet Sinek’s fallacious interpretation of history and neurobiology is one of the most popular TED talks of all time! Bullshit peddled through a reputable medium is still bullshit, and any fame gained on its behalf is not social capital, but social counterfeit.

What do I mean by bullshit?

Sinek’s explanation of Apple’s success is very one-dimensional and self-serving, insisting that advertising logic is synonymous with commercial success – but this is not the aspect of his talk that bothers me most. It’s his conflation of marketplace analysis and advertising psychology with historical analysis and, well, real psychology. He asserts that Samuel Pierpont Langley was less successful than the Wright brothers solely because “he wanted to be rich and he wanted to be famous,” which requires a kind of retroactive mind-reading more fraught than the project of diagnosing Van Gogh as bipolar. His “proof” that Langley was motivated for the wrong reasons is that he “quit”: he fails to mention that Langley was 68 years old when his Aerodrome suffered two consecutive crash landings, was lampooned by the press in a fashion Orville and Wilbur were immune from, and died three years later in 1906. Sinek’s convenient narrative manages to downplay both the Wright brothers’ technological genius and Langley’s otherwise fruitful and influential career in the sciences.

Sinek manages to sound convincing when he stays in his element between the 11 and 15 minute marks, modeling the Law of Diffusion of Innovation and describing why Tivo was a commercial failure. However, he then immediately shifts gears applies this theory to the success of Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader, claiming that King “didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America, but what he believed.”

Combining the greatest American activist of the 20th century and Tivo within the same marketing analogy is so contrived and patronizing that I have a tough time believing Sinek’s audience did not raise their eyebrows and turn to one another in disbelief. MLK was very explicit about what needed to change politically and socially in America, even as he relied on sermons to spread his cause. In Letter to a Birmingham Jail he posits “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive” as the first step of a nonviolent campaign. Not religious conviction: lynchings, bombings, and Jim Crow laws were always the inspiration of his polemics and activism. In fact, Sinek insists that MLK was not unique in being a great orator and a member of an oppressed class, yet he never admits that King was unique in his willingness to lead protests, to be jailed, to take blows and not hit back. Of course there were many other factors that allowed for King’s triumphs. News coverage of police brutality against peaceful protestors in Selma, Birmingham, and elsewhere was arguably more instrumental in arousing national sympathy than the Biblical rhetoric of Kings’ speeches. On that matter, here is Sinek’s analysis of King’s “true” motives:
“Doctor King believed there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by man. And not until all the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws made by a higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life.”
So, according to Simon Sinek, Martin Luther King Jr. was primarily an opportunistic theocrat – then a civil rights champion, a dogged protestor, and a black man living in the South in the middle of the 20th century.

“It just so happens.” He ended with this. 30 million views.

The cherry-picked MLK example brings up my larger qualm with Simon Sinek’s whole theory about leadership and marketing: the “why?” of a mission statement can blind people to the essential “what.” And “whys” can be inhumane and awful. The “why?” of an eternity in Paradise is what convinces ISIS fighters to strap on explosive vests. The “why?” of preserving the validity of an ancient, contradictory text is what allows fundamentalist Christians to ignore facts and deny evolution. In the 19th century, people like Simon Sinek took a great idea and misapplied it: the “why” of Social Darwinism sustained the projects of imperialism and institutional racism long after most wealthy nations had done away with slavery. All the terrible killers and fascists of history – Mao, Stalin, Hitler – used the “why” of their ideals to rationalize mass imprisonment and genocide.

In the words of Sam Harris, “bad ideas are worse than bad people, because bad ideas are contagious.” Simon Sinek may not be a bad person, but I find his pseudoscience and blatant misappropriation of marketing theories contemptible. Is TED to blame for his ability to propagate nonsense? Yes. Why is he labeled as a “leadership expert” on his TED bio – what is a “leadership expert”? Why does the “What Others Say” section only feature one quote – from Sinek himself?

Do his ideas deserve more criticism? All ideas do. TED is an idea theater. Online and at their events, they should be taking steps to embrace public discussion, inquiry, and debate. Otherwise bad actors may become more difficult to root out.


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