A Speech of Mine That Bombed

A few months after Freakonomics was first released I was honored to be invited to speak at my first European TED conference, held in the United Kingdom. I wasn’t sure what to talk about.

At my first TED appearance a couple years earlier I had given a rather edgy talk about gangs that had been pretty well received. What to do for an encore? We had just described all my most interesting research in Freakonomics. I didn’t just want to rehash that stuff. So I decided to take a risk and talk about my research on child car seats, even though I had never presented it anywhere before. (Here’s the Times article we wrote on the subject.)

I struggled with a way to make it interesting. I couldn’t just get up there and give a standard academic talk. This audience demands a lot more. I thought of a more creative way to tell the story, and I felt optimistic. For a while.

First, I caught a cold. By the time I landed at Heathrow, my ears were so plugged I couldn’t hear a thing. Between that and jet lag, I was walking around in a mental fog. Then I saw the schedule. I was to take the stage right after Sir Richard Dawkins. One lesson I have learned is you do not want to follow a great speaker. Dawkins did not disappoint the crowd, giving a fascinating talk about the fundamental issues of mankind and the universe.

I could not believe I was going to follow him by talking about how car seats don’t work.

My recollection is that I stood on the stage mumbling for 15 minutes with everyone in the entire audience staring at me with a perplexed look. There was a smattering of polite applause when, to their relief, I finally stopped talking. I exited the stage and made a run for the airport. I never gave this talk to another audience.

It was with dread that I discovered that the folks at TED had recently posted the video of my talk online. I watched a bit of the video, hoping that I would discover my recollections were far more negative than reality.

Unfortunately, my memory was accurate. Watch at your own risk.

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  1. Jesse says:

    Actually, the “Game Theorist” blog linked to it recently and I watched it, and I thought it was interesting. A thoughtful way to present it with the analogy of a disease, which would have been more fun if the blog didn’t mention the subject. It occurred to me when I fought with my first carseat installation that if nothing else, each car manufacturer should brand a carseat that is specific to their models and take a cut of the sales. Parents, especially new parents, will spend money on anything that is specifically for them and related to safety. The potential replacement you showed would be great, but I think you’re right that industry’s not budging. You should give it more to parents’ groups and watch the uproar caused by the resulting cognitive dissonance.

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  2. Scott Stratten says:

    i just finished watching the speech. I think you’re talking about a different one in some bizarro world… that was fantastic. The story angle was great, the facts of the data were awesome (as usual). Well done man.

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  3. rvturnage says:

    Amazing…I was just looking for more info on your work with studying booster seats. Mississippi just passed a new law requiring 4-7 year olds to use them. Thankfully, my oldest daughter is 8, so she won’t have to go BACK into a booster seat (which she quit using when she was 6).

    Here’s a great line from the local paper, justifying the law: “The change came because 350 4- to 7-year-olds die in crashes each year and 50,000 are injured. Half of those who die are not in any kind of restraint.”

    Which is quite funny statistic to use to justify a booster seat, since it states you have just as good a chance of dying with a booster seat as without.

    Have you done any more research into the effectiveness of booster seats, or are you aware of any additional studies to supplement your work?

    Looking forward to watching the speach!

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  4. Jim says:

    Without disrupting the comments thread (hopefully), why did it take three *years* for TED to post this talk?

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  5. BukaHobbit says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. I found the video link through Boing Boing and found it very interesting. I even shared it with my wife. I think that if you have a child in the age range described, the subject is automatically of interest.

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  6. AaronS says:

    Actually, Steven, I doubt your speech would have went over even if you had not followed a great speaker. Not because it is not interesting, but because it sends a message that is likely contrary to the mindset of your audience.

    Your message is, whether you see it that way or not, is “The government needs to quit meddling,” or some such.

    But with an audience that is likely weighted toward the view that government is good and benevolent (unless George Bush is the President, and then government is evil), you were basically telling them that such feel-good things as child seats (as good intentioned as they are/were) are really just government run amuck.

    And I imagine that any audience that lined up to see Sir Richard Dawkins is inclined against the more “Republican” view that government needs to let us deciide. It the individualized version of State’s Rights.

    But I want you to know that I, fundamentalist Christian and conservative (is that redundant?), enjoyed the article, and would have enjoyed hearing you give a speech on just about any subject, since I know you will challenge my way of thinking.

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  7. David says:

    You’re selling yourself short, the presentation was very interesting. The fact that you had a hard time getting the tests done just confirms that we have to be careful of any “independent” testing (or credit rating…) group. It makes me wonder how little faith they had in the performance of current car seats though.

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  8. buster says:

    it wasn’t THAT bad steven.

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