Monday, November 16, 2020

You'll be shocked to learn that one of the most popular TED Talk stars is pretty much just lying to your face

Simon Sinek is one of the most successful of the TED Talk celebrities and this is one of his most popular videos.

Around the eight minute mark Sinek starts talking about the development of heavier than air flight -- something I know a little bit about -- and other than a couple of facts pulled so far out of context they are no longer in the same time zone, everything that follows is either lies or distortions. It's possible that what came before in the talk was more accurate (outside of my area of expertise), but I wouldn't count on it.

 Putting aside the silly claim that the big secret behind the Wright brother's  success was their inspirational leadership, let's focus on the ridiculous description of the work of Samuel Langley (yes, that Langley).

Langley was already a world famous astronomer and physicist when he started seriously pursuing a life-long interest in heavier-then-air flight in the 1880s. Among other things he had already invented the bolometer and helped lay the groundwork for the modern study of climate change. 

He had some high profile failures with his early aircraft experiments which, due to his celebrity status, were mercilessly mocked by the press, but he did important theoretical work and showed some impressive results.

On 6 May 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful sustained flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 metres (3,297 ft) and a second of 700 metres (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour (40 km/h). On both occasions, the Aerodrome No. 5 landed in the water as planned, because, in order to save weight, it was not equipped with landing gear. On 28 November 1896, another successful flight was made with the Aerodrome No. 6. This flight, of 1,460 metres (4,790 ft), was witnessed and photographed by Alexander Graham Bell.

Langley then received the grant to develop a piloted airplane. The project did not go well, the failures were dramatic and the remarkable breakthroughs of the Wright Brothers cast a shadow over that part of Langley's legacy, but his reputation was still secure.

Here's how Scientific American put it in March of 1904.

In 1896, for the first  time in  history, a mechanical  structure, free of any attachment to the  ground and wholly without any supporting power but its own engines. made several flights of  over one-half mile each. Mr. Langley had at this point reached the original aim of his researches in  this direction---that of demonstrating, as a  question of mechanical engineering, first. the conditions for, and second, the possibility of accomplishing, mechanical flight. 


[On his decision to pursue his research after that success.]

[I]t  requires moral courage of a high  order for a man already secure in  popular estimation  as a savant to  attempt to build a  flying machine,  since the effort is  sure of ridicule by a large  section of  the unthinking public, which sees  no  merit save in absolute success.

Not to put too fine a point on it but beyond the fundamental dishonesty, there's a certain sleaziness about the way Sinek casually defames a true pioneer in order to pitch his books and up his speaking fees but sleaziness goes with the territory.

While there are a few worthwhile TED Talks out there, the defining videos, the ones that get tens of millions of hits, are almost invariably concatenations of bad history and bad science used to pitch various brands of snake oil, and every respectable news outlet that plays along is just another shill.


  1. Replies
    1. We get caught up in this distinction a lot but Sinek has claimed miraculous cures for organizations and he has made a great deal of money doing so. Even if he doesn't know for a fact that his stories are false, he hasn't spent 20 minutes on line checking them out. That's as good as a lie as far as I'm concerned.

  2. Andrew Gelman wrote about research, riffing on Asimov, that sufficiently sloppy work was indistinguishable from fraud.