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Harvard's Annual TEDx Event Challenges Attendees to Think Critically

By Jane Z. Li and Katherine S. Li, Contributing Writers

A crowd of a few hundred gathered in Sanders Theatre Sunday afternoon to attend this year's iteration of Harvard’s annual TEDx event, “What if I’m Wrong?”

Seven speakers — hailing from a variety of professions — spent around four hours urging audience members to question their assumptions about the world around them.

Presenters included forensic sketch artist Gil Zamora, ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, and University of Texas undergraduate Sofia Babool. The remainder — largely Boston-area academics — came from a wide range of fields including psychology, engineering, anthropology, and sociology.

The Harvard Breakers, a campus breakdancing group, headlined a brief intermission that kept most audience members glued to their seats.

During her presentation, Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard professor of psychology, discussed the concept of mind-body unity, telling audience members that their mindset can induce tangible changes in their physiology.

“Wherever we put the body, we necessarily put the mind,” Langer said. “We need to stop confusing the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomenon and recognize that we don’t know for sure.”

Paralleling Langer’s challenge to common beliefs about human psychology, Pawan Dhingra, professor of American Studies at Amherst College, offered an unusual way to think about social phenomena. He encouraged the audience to use what he called the “sociological imagination,” a framework for understanding the relationship between cultural behavior and society.

“We should see our behaviors formed less by individual agency and more by economic and political forces that have historical groundings and great magnitude,” Dhingra said.“We need to move past moral and essential judgements of what we see.”

“So much of the behavior is a product of social institutions ...If we want kids to not engage in violence as a means for self-protection, then we have to ask why do we have a criminal justice system that might not be treating everybody equitably. We’re not trying to excuse any behaviors; we’re trying to explain them,” Dhingra added.

In his talk, Iverson, who served as the final ringmaster of the now-defunct Ringling Bros Circus, discussed the false certainty some people feel about their future.

“We have it fixed in our minds that we have to finish what we started,” Iverson said. “We insist on the familiar because it promises us security. Let me break your heart: no matter what any insurance salesman ever tells you, there is no security. There’s always a risk.”

“Give yourself permission to not be so certain,” he added. “We’re literally ordained by nature to shift, change, recreate our entire reality if need be, or as we see fit.”

In an interview with the Harvard-based TEDx organizing team, Co-Vice President Lion Lee ’21 said the desire to hear from a broad range of speakers motivated their decision to choose this year’s theme.

“We wanted to choose something that wasn't speaker-restricted, so that you could have a broad variety of people to come talk at the event,” Lee said.

Kim Hoang, a graduate student at Northeastern who attended the TEDx event, said her curiosity was piqued by the title.

“Well I first saw it on Facebook … the title was really interesting to me, like “What if I’m Wrong?” because I’m sure that we discover the possibility and uncertainty and things like that,” Hoang said. “I’m also learning about this in my university, so this was a really good chance for me to come here to listen to the professors and experts.”

Sofia de la Morena ’22 agreed with Hoang.

“I just like how they're forcing you to rethink everything you take for granted and take assumptions a lot of people think are true and make a twist on it,” de la Morena said. “I think it's interesting how they play with the way we think.”

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