At TEDMED, Human Drama Comes First. And That’s a Good Thing

UCSF microbiologist Charles Chiu discusses how new diagnostic tools could save young lives.

UCSF microbiologist Charles Chiu discusses how new diagnostic tools could save young lives. (TEDMED)

Is it any surprise that Oxford Dictionaries has named post-truth the 2016 word of the year?

Oxford says the word gained momentum after the Brexit vote and the American presidential election. It defines the adjective as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

A widely cited post-election Buzzfeed analysis would seem to buttress the validity of that idea, by showing the wild social media success of fake news stories as compared to real ones.

So how does a science reporter like myself successfully relay information if so many people don’t care, necessarily, about its accuracy? (Or even if it’s made up out of whole cloth.) How do we get readers to pay attention to news that confronts erroneous but entrenched beliefs, when the people filling the country’s highest offices ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

As you may imagine, these questions have fueled many conversations, not to mention entire meetings, in our newsroom of late.

Stirring Hearts

And that’s where TEDMED comes in. TEDMED’s approach to its annual conference reminded me that part of the answer is to continue to tell true stories based on good science, but with a focus on people. (See here for a good example from KQED’s State of Health.)

A three-day event, TEDMED attracts a who’s who in medical innovation. When  videos of the presentations go online, they typically receive between 500,000 to 1 million views. Last year’s talk by psychiatrist Judson Brewer about a simple way to break a bad habit has drawn 5.6 million views and counting.

This year, when I wandered into a massive, dimly lit Palm Springs ballroom, decked out in plush couches and brightly colored velvet arm chairs, I thought I was cozying in for three days of speeches about gadgets and medical breakthroughs.

But that wasn’t the case. The speakers rarely discussed data, instead focusing on what was inspiring, memorable, and most importantly, personal. All of which is key if what  you’re communicating confronts entrenched beliefs that are unlikely to shift without engaging the heart as well as the brain.

Memorable Talks

Spoken word poet Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud on stage at TEDMED at the La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs.
Spoken word poet Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud on stage at TEDMED at the La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs. (TEDMED)

The theme of the opening session was Invisible Threats. I assumed that meant speeches about airborne viruses like Ebola or Zika. But instead, Emitithal “Emi” Mahmoud, a spoken word poet from Sudan, took the stage. She performed an intimate piece about the emotional toll of violence in her country. Yes there were plenty of audience tears.

“The invisible threats that we grapple with on a personal level, such as the biases that we hold or the traumas that we have gone through, but have not processed completely, affect how we influence and interact with other human beings,” Mahmoud told me after her performance. “Because in the long run, if you’re standing across from someone who needs help, and invisible barriers make you see them through a lens that makes you think they are not like you or they are an ‘other,’ chances are you are not going to help them. That’s incredibly dangerous.”

Over the course of the next few days, the speakers continued to share human stories that took the audience on surprising journeys all over the world.

Documentary filmmaker Carolyn Jones shared the story of Sister Stephens, a Wisconsin nurse who helps dying patients in their final days.
Documentary filmmaker Carolyn Jones shared the story of Sister Stephens, a Wisconsin nurse who helps dying patients in their final days. (TEDMED)

Documentary filmmaker Carolyn Jones highlighted the undervalued role nurses play in the health care industry. She shared the story of Sister Stephens, a Wisconsin nurse who runs an unusual nursing home. “She uses ducks, goats and lambs for animal therapy with the residents who might not be able to remember their own name, but can rejoice in holding a baby lamb,” Jones reported.

Prison psychologist Cheryl Steed shares inmate Mr. Burdick's story to illustrate how helping others can rehabilitate hardened criminals.
Prison psychologist Cheryl Steed shares inmate Mr. Burdick’s story to illustrate how helping others can rehabilitate hardened criminals. (TEDMED)

Prison psychologist Cheryl Steed revealed a unique rehabilitation program called the Gold Coats. Physically able inmates, wearing gold jackets, take care of older convicts who are struggling with dementia. She told the story of Mr. Burdick, incarcerated for 40 years, who helps elderly inmates shower, dress and eat daily. “Society at large tends to reduce people to labels – criminal, thief, killer…” Steed said. “How do you explain the fact that a man who once took a life is now a caregiver? Which version of that person is the truth? The beautiful complexity of human nature is that both are true. And by shouldering responsibility for someone who needs them, these men have begun to discover another way of life and a healthier, happier version of themselves.”

New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar explores the lives of extreme altruists.
New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar explores the lives of extreme altruists. (TEDMED)

New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar shared her research on the motivations behind altruism. She told the heroic tale of the Badeau family, a couple who kept adopting foster care children until they were housing 20 special needs kids. “The thing about people like Sue and Hector is that they have a deep and happy sense of purpose,” said MacFarquhar. “Yes, they sacrifice a lot of comforts. But in exchange they know that they’ve changed many lives for the better, and they believe that they are living their own lives as they ought to. And how many of us can say that?”

Even more traditional talks like psychiatrist Kafui Dzirasa’s use of neuroelectrical stimulation to treat mental illness, or Israeli internist Nir Barzilai’s research on extending life revolved around personal narratives that tugged at the audience’s emotions.

Data and good research is a prerequisite for any science reporting. But TEDMED’s speakers reminded me that communicating science, in an era where accurate information must compete with agenda- or profit-driven “news,” is not necessarily about driving home the numbers that scientists prize. Translating those numbers into stories of people who are actually affected by what they represent is what ultimately will move people to take science seriously.

Author

Lesley McClurg

Lesley is a radio reporter covering medicine, space and environment for KQED Science. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Latino USA, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Previously, she covered food and sustainability for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. She began her media career at KCTS Television in Seattle. You can find her on Twitter at @lesleywmcclurg.

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