Tony Delamothe: TED Day Two: The many paths to changing the world

Day 2 began with a choice: a clinic on sand sculpting or breakfast with Al Gore, both scheduled to begin at 7am.

I felt I owed it to the VP. I had asked him about the health consequences of global warming after his 2006 TED talk, which formed the basis for “An Inconvenient Truth.”  What I brought back from that conversation helped prepare the ground for the Climate and Heath Council that was later set up.

If Gore was angry at the beginning of his breakfast presentation he was almost apoplectic by the end. Why weren’t reasonable people believing the scientific consensus on global warming? There were now 12 separate and different lines of evidence, all pointing in the same direction, he said.

He likened polluters’ responses to those of the tobacco industry after the US Surgeon-General’s report of 1964. Their machinations had delayed proper action for four decades.

He documented the various ways that climate scientists are vilified. The main charge made against them is that they espouse their positions in the hope of getting further research grants. Some receive death threats, or suggestions that they kill themselves as their contribution to reducing global warming. Meanwhile, there are  now four climate lobbyists for every member of the US Congress.

He said it was time to defend the integrity of scientists and of the scientific process, but that the internet has complicated this. Popular opinion, warped by special interests, rather than science can become the new proxy for truth.

He spoke of the need for new tools to help in the assessment of evidence. In a thought experiment he suggested that opinions be weighted by credibility; say with a 10 for a peer reviewed paper, a 2 for something published in a respected journal, and zero for a blog post, article, tweet, speech, video, and book.

But it struck me that, sadly, this isn’t how the world operates. A presentation later in the day by documentarist Morgan (“Supersize Me”) Spurlock only underlined this. He was previewing his latest film, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” about the business of persuasion, where non-transparency rules.

Antonio Damasio’s quarry was self and mind. Neuroscience’s Stephen Hawking (at least in terms of complexity) believes that the self is located in the brainstem – a not very distant echo of Descartes choice of the pineal as the seat of the soul. He sets his case out in more detail in his latest book, “Self Comes to Mind.”

Bill Gates curated a session devoted to his foundation’s enthusiasms. A man who’s suffered his share of vilification, he came across as straightforwardly nice – like a twinkly eyed vicar. We heard from Amina Az-Zubair how Nigeria will meet the Millennium Development Goals in time and from Bruce Aylward about the encouraging recent progress towards polio elimination.

Last year, Jamie Oliver had won the TED prize and this year he was back to say what he’d achieved, or failed to achieve, given the intransigence of some of America’s education authorities.  His performance matched Gore’s for anger. However, there’s a new television series in the works, and a massive truck labelled “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” is about to take to the US highways. Its iconography looks borrowed  from the Russian Revolution.

This year’s TED prize winner has adopted a much cooler approach to attempting to effect social change. French street artist, JR, comes across as a more political Banksy, with powerful projects in Brazilian favelas, Kenyan slums, and the occupied Palestinian territories. See his acceptance speech on

Tony Delamothe is deputy editor, BMJ.