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Why TED’s move to enable speakers to provide annotated citations is such a good thing

A while back I wrote a post about the problem of pseudoscience in TED talks and how this problem was made so much worse by the failure across the board of TED talks to include references. This month TED completely redesigned their website and have now provided a space for speakers to provide minute by minute annotated citations. You can check out the feature in action on Ed Yong’s tremendous talk on mind controlling parasites. To search for citations in any new talk, scroll down below the video and click “annotated citations”.

The reason I’m so happy about this development is that the inclusion of references makes a resource fact checkable. Without references, we’re left to blindly guess what source a speaker is referring to when they tell us a statement as fact. This can be a truly nightmarish task which has often resulted in me staying up all night before finally being forced to resorting to contacting an author looking for sources. When an article or a talk contains references, this chore is reduced to a few quick clicks.

In the 21st century when connecting a fact to a source is as simple as taking two seconds to add a hyperlink, there is no excuse for creating work without references. We expect it of secondary school children, so we should expect it of journalists, academics and politicians. So credit to TED for taking this step. Now it’s time for publications such as the Mail Online who still fail to link to their sources when describing scientific research (as if their publication was still being printed on parchment), to follow suit.

One reason I doubt that tabloid news websites will be forthcoming in this regard, is that much of what is printed as science news isn’t actually based on scientific research at all, but instead is based on poorly controlled PR questionnaires dressed up as  science. All of the British tabloids are guilty of this tactic, as Michael Marshall makes painfully clear with the Bad PR blog. What does every news story on the Bad PR blog have in common? You guessed it, no hyperlinked sources. Why? Because if the sources where provided you’d be able to tell immediately that these stories are clearly nonsense. As things stand, the people reading these articles remain in the dark. This is why I consider any story that doesn’t link directly to its source to be more than a little bit fishy, and you should too.

But the benefits of referencing aren’t just the torpedoing of pseudoscience. References free you from the role of mere passive consumer of information. You can listen to Ed Yong’s talk for example and not just feel momentary amazed, with references you can dive right into the stories Ed tells. You can be amazed yet again, on a whole new level by discovering the story in its true complexity for yourself. The addition of references enables TED to truly fulfil its goal of hosting ‘ideas worth spreading’ rather to being forever limited in the place of mere ‘stories worth telling’.

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