Image courtesy of David Biello
“How do you navigate the bleeding edge of science?”
This is one of the biggest challenges David Biello faces in communicating revolutionary scientific ideas to a wider public. Biello is the Science Curator for TED Talks, where he helps scientists and researchers turn complex and multifaceted ideas into digestible speeches lasting no more than 15 minutes.
Before taking on his current role, Biello spent a decade as the Environment and Energy editor for Scientific American. He has been reporting on energy and the environment since 1999, leaving him with the adage of having reported for “long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed.” He jokingly points out that he could republish articles from his early career with updated dates and statistics and they would still be relevant.
Biello has also authored three books. His most recent book, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, explores innovations which could help save the world and humanity and profiles the people behind these ideas, including a scientist wanting to fertilize the seas or a low-level Chinese government official doing everything he can to clean up his city.
A few weeks ago, Biello talked with MediaFile over the phone to discuss his position at TED, what makes a good TED Talk, his goals for the future and how years of science journalism prepared him for his role as TED’s Science Curator.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jansen Baier: Would you just tell me a little bit about yourself and your background? Who is David Biello?
David Biello: I’m not sure I know that. I’ll give you a short version of the story, working backwards. I am currently the science curator for TED Talks, I am a writer and I’m a dad. And how I got all those positions is a decade’s long career in journalism, primarily focused on energy and the environment. That means climate change, but also a number of other challenges the world faces on the environmental front.
I got my start because my fellow journalists were often afraid of science and math. And I wasn’t, because of a failed desire to be a chemist. I pursued writing instead. And, luckily enough, I found a way to combine those two.
JB: To dive a little deeper into your role at TED, how would you describe what you do as the Science Curator?
DB: Yeah, so nobody knows what a curator is. When I applied for the job, I was like no way am I the right person for this, but it actually turns out that being an editor at Scientific American is very similar to being a curator at TED Talks. Basically, you’re helping the experts speak for themselves.
So you find folks who have an amazing idea, say mRNA for vaccines. Then, you put them on stage to share that idea, and in between, you help them craft their message and communicate in a way that’s accessible to a broader population than just their fellow researchers. You are also a little bit of a therapist because folks have a lot of stressful nights when they’re thinking about public speaking or whatever other concerns they may have.
There’s a whole lot of being a perpetual student. Being a quick study turns out to be important because obviously, I don’t have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. But, I often have to get up to speed real quick on some new developments in dark matter. It turns out journalism is great training for that.
JB: In that process of helping people bring their ideas to fruition, or a TED Talk, what would you say are the biggest challenges? And what are the most rewarding parts?
DB: The most rewarding part is seeing them get on stage and triumph. We’re seeing their talk go out into the world and reach millions of people. And even inspire–this sounds almost mythical on the internet–good internet comments! Like, “Wow, my mind is blown”, or “Wow, I’m really interested in neuroscience. ”
The challenges are always different, which I guess keeps it interesting, but one of the most common challenges is an overreliance on jargon. Each scientific discipline has its own language and shorthand. That’s very important for quick communication among researchers, but when communicating with a wider public, the sprinkling of jargon tunes people out. I have to work hard with people to find alternatives, and inevitably, those alternatives take up more time. That is a challenge because TED Talks are time-limited.
JB: What type of science content do you steer away from at TED?
DB: We certainly try to avoid pseudoscience. You will, at least during my tenure, not see someone who is skeptical of the human causes of climate change or anti-maskers or something pandemic-related like that.
But climate change is easy, right? There are other areas where the science is sort of emerging, and it’s on that borderline between “Is this science? Is this a real finding?” or “Is it pseudoscience? Is it just wrong?” That is a tricky area because we do want to have the latest and greatest science.
Let’s take the example of mRNA vaccines, which are saving lives around the world. For decades, the scientific consensus on them has been that it’s never gonna work. Don’t do it. The scientists involved sort of stuck with it, because they’re like, no, we can figure this out. It’ll be a tremendous vehicle, not just for the COVID vaccine, but for any kind of vaccine.
Now, there were a lot of twists and turns to get that technology working, but look at what it’s done for us now. Because the mRNA technology is so simple, once you understand it, you can develop a vaccine extremely quickly and efficiently and get ahead of an evolving virus, saving lives.
But that was not the scientific consensus even five years ago, right? Or even up to five years ago it was like, oh, this may be promising, but it’s a long time off. So how do you navigate the bleeding edge of science?
We definitely put that stuff on stage. And the key here is what I would call framing. The idea has to be presented in such a way that it’s clear that it’s a hypothesis or more theoretical. A lot of folks want to make grandiose claims about their idea or their technology or their science. Instead of saying that this is going to save the world, you’ve got to say this may save the world. And that’s very important to me. The other thing that helps with that is that all TED talks are now fact-checked.
JB: And for the inverse of that question, what type of science content do TED Talks love and absolutely thrive on?
DB: I think it’s just really any kind of new and revolutionary ideas coming out of any of the sciences. So it could be neuroscience, it could be chemistry, it could be health and medicine. But something that’s really novel and really has the potential to change the world.
Maybe we would put on stage somebody who has a great idea for how we can change cement, which is a huge contributor to climate change. If it was a country, I think cement would be the third biggest polluter after the US and China. So the folks who have an idea for how you could reduce or even eliminate or reverse the pollution from cement, that would be a big deal.
That’s the kind of thing we want to put on the stage. We also want a little bit of surprise. Like, oh I never really thought about how cement is everywhere around us, right? It’s in our homes. It’s in infrastructure. We rely on it even for the clean energy transition. Think of the cement used to build wind turbines. It’s on the roads. It’s everywhere.
That’s why it’s such a big problem. So fixing that, and getting people to think about it differently, that’s the kind of thing that really works well. If you happen to be a very charismatic person who has solved the cement conundrum, all the better. Generally speaking, I’m much more interested in the big idea than the big personality.
JB: Could you tell me about the challenge of balancing scientific nuance with the short length of a TED Talk, while simultaneously trying to draw people in?
DB: That is a perennial challenge, and probably should have mentioned that in the challenge section. You have somewhere between four and 14 minutes to explain a big idea. And even at the far end, 14 minutes sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn’t. You really only have time to share one idea and go into detail on that one idea. That’s a big challenge.
At the same time, you need to leave room for that framing I talked about. Let’s say we’re talking about this cement with less CO2. And we have to be really honest and upfront about where that is, is this just an idea on paper? Is it that we think that this could be cement without CO2 or is it cement that’s actually being made without CO2. In which case, that’s much more of a bigger deal. But, maybe it costs more, right? And we need to be honest about that.
So that’s the trick. It’s figuring out how to convey this potentially complicated scientific idea in a short amount of time and with the appropriate amount of nuance? And that also is sort of what makes it a little bit fun. It’s like a puzzle. How do we do this? What’s the right instruction?
JB: What are your short and long-term goals as the science curator for TED Talk?
DB: Short-term is to keep getting novel, revolutionary science out there. It’s almost like a science education journey that we’re on, getting folks to recognize that science is for them. That it’s something that literally anybody can be involved in, in one way or another; it’s just a tool. So short term, my goal is to kind of improve the situation around science in the U.S. and around the world, because we need it. We’re facing huge problems, and we’re not going to solve them without this particular tool.
And I guess that translates right into the long-term goal. I’m hoping by spreading these ideas and putting them out there, that we can actually change the world. The long-term goal is for these videos to actually have an impact and change our course, where a course correction is necessary.
Like in climate change, or in conserving other plants and animals and living things that share this rock in space with us. Or changing the course of human space exploration or whatever else it might be. Sounds a little grandiose, but it’s actually true.
JB: Final question, is there anything else that you want to add that you think is important, isn’t discussed enough, or you believe needs to be said on anything we discussed?
DB: Good question, I also end with this question. I really think that we have the opportunity today to change all the problems I just laid out. If you were a journalist coming up when I came up, there was a very ossified structure to journalism and only certain ways to do things. All that stuff is thrown out the window because of the struggles of the media business. You want to start a podcast? You absolutely can. Journalists sort of control the means of production, which means now is a great time for experimentation.