In 2014, Julia Rucklidge—who together with Bonnie Kaplan has blogged on Mad in America about their research on micronutrients—gave a talk at a TEDx event in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her presentation, which was titled “The Surprisingly Dramatic Role of Nutrition in Mental Health,” discussed the scientific evidence regarding micronutrients as a factor in mental health and their possible use as a treatment for ADHD and other psychiatric conditions.
As her MIA bio notes, Rucklidge is a Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Originally from Toronto, she did her training in neurobiology (McGill) and clinical psychology (University of Calgary). All told, Rucklidge and her team at Canterbury University have published over 20 papers in medical journals related to the efficacy of nutrients for mental health problems.
Her TED talk proved to be quite popular. It has been viewed over 900,000 times, received more than 14,000 likes, and over 1,100 comments.
However—and this came out of the blue—TED recently flagged Dr. Rucklidge’s talk with the following message:
“NOTE FROM TED: We’ve flagged this talk, which was filmed at a TEDx event, because it appears to fall outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines. There is limited evidence to support the claims made by this speaker. Please do not look to this talk for medical advice.”
The curatorial guideline that seems to be at issue here is Guideline 4, Only Good Science, which states:
Science is a big part of the TED universe, and it’s important that TEDx organizers sustain our reputation as a credible forum for sharing ideas that matter. It’s not always easy to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience, and purveyors of false wisdom typically share their theories with as much sincerity and earnestness as legitimate researchers. Indeed, the more willing a speaker is to abandon scientific underpinning, the easier it is for them to make attention-grabbing claims. So beware being seduced by “wow.” We want talks to be interesting. But before that, they must be credible. Here are some things to look for — and to avoid.
Claims made using scientific language should:
• Be testable experimentally.
• Have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t. For further reading, here’s an article on the topic.)
• Be based on theories that are also considered credible by experts in the field.
• Be backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.
• Have proponents who are secure enough to acknowledge areas of doubt and need for further investigation.
• Not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.
• Be presented by a speaker who works for a university and/or has a PhD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification.
• Show clear respect for the scientific method and scientific thinking generally.
During her talk, Rucklidge references many studies, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, that have led to her conclusions about the importance of nutrition in mental health. She also told of her own randomized, placebo-controlled trial on micronutrients as a treatment for ADHD in adults, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, April 2014.
So why did TED suddenly decide, four years after Rucklidge gave her talk, to flag it as falling “outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines?” And why did it do so when her talk—a review of published science, by a researcher who has conducted placebo-controlled studies on this topic—obviously met TED guidelines?
While we don’t know the answer, our guess is that there must have been a complaint made to TED by some powerful group or institution that doesn’t like the idea that micronutrients are proving, in clinical studies, to be useful as a treatment for ADHD and other psychiatric disorders. Perhaps by Pharma, but more likely, in our opinion, by psychiatric researchers who like to tout the wonders of stimulants for ADHD.
What is so shameful about this incident for TED is that their talks are supposed to be about innovation and investigating new ways to solve problems and difficulties in our lives. Rucklidge’s presentation was such a talk, and yet TED apparently caved into some sort of outside pressure to flag it. That is what hurts. TED betrayed its own values, and we write this as admirers of TED talks. We are fans of their usual presentations of ideas, politics, and scientific discoveries.
Readers of this editorial can watch Rucklidge’s talk here, and judge for themselves its merits, and whether it met TEDx’s guidelines for a scientific presentation.
As a final postscript, we would like to point to this TED talk by Nikki Webber Allen, in which she says the following about depression:
Now, my way of dealing with adversity is to face it head on, so I spent the next two years researching depression and anxiety, and what I found was mind-blowing. The World Health Organization reports that depression is the leading cause of sickness and disability in the world. While the exact cause of depression isn’t clear, research suggests that most mental disorders develop, at least in part, because of a chemical imbalance in the brain, and/or an underlying genetic predisposition. So you can’t just shake it off.
The low-serotonin theory of depression is a hypothesis that has long been put to rest in scientific circles. The hypothesis didn’t pan out. So why is TED allowing this myth to be presented here as scientific fact?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.