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Emily McManus

Editor, TED.com, TED

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Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk: Detailing the issues

There's been a lot of heat today about Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx Talk. And in the spirit of radical openness, I'd like to bring the community into our process.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO4-9l8IWFQ

While TED does not vet speakers at independent TEDx events, a TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific, and that includes misrepresenting the scientific process itself.

Sheldrake is on that line, to some commenters around Twitter and the web. His talk describes a vision of science made up of hard, unexamined constants. It's a philosophical talk that raises general questions about how we view science, and what role we expect it to play.

When my team and I debate whether to take action on a TEDx talk, we think deeply about the implications of our decision -- and aim to provide the TEDx host with as clear-cut and unbiased a view as possible.

You are invited, if you like, to weigh in today and tomorrow with your thoughts on this talk. We'll be gathering the commentary into a couple of categories for discussion:

1. Philosophy. Is the basis of his argument sound -- does science really operate the way Sheldrake suggests it does? Are his conclusions drawn from factual premises?

2. Factual error. (As an example, Sheldrake says that governments do not fund research into complementary medicine. Here are the US figures on NIH investment in complementary and alternative medicine 2009-2010: http://nccam.nih.gov/about/budget/institute-center.htm )

As a note: Please know that whether or not you have time or energy to contribute here, the talk is also under review by the TED team. We're not requiring your volunteer labor -- but we truly welcome your input. And we're grateful to those who've written about this talk in other forums, including but not limited to Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Kylie Sturgess and some thoughtful Redditors.

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  • Mar 7 2013: Sheldrake, in his strong implication that the speed of light is changing and that it is only "scientific dogma" that is keeping the broader physics community from recognizing this, has shown us only that he has discovered the concept of noise in data and doesn't understand statistics. In his gently mocking suggestion that we publish the changes in physical constants as we do values in the stock market, he is clearly confusing the well observed phenomenon that all measurement is inherently imprecise and inaccurate at some level, and suggesting that the fluctuations seen are indicative of some actual, physical phenomenon. In other words he completely ignores the fact that at some number of significant digits deep in any method of observation there is always "noise." To strongly suggest a "conspiracy of dogma" because scientists seemingly refuse to entertain the idea that this noise represents a real phenomenon is misleading and irresponsible.

    As an analogy: I can measure the distance between my home and a building downtown by, say, pacing it out. If I do this a hundred times, I'll find that each measurement comes up somewhat different (within a range of, perhaps, plus or minus a dozen paces different each time.) If it were the case that my only method of determining distance were pacing out the distance between that building and my home, and I were completely ignorant of other methods, if I were doing as Sheldrake does with light, I would entertain the idea that I am actually seeing the building moving back and forth. What to do? Determine the imprecision of my measurement by statistical methods, and not consider the measurement any more precise than that.

    That said, should this talk be "banished?" No. Was it unfortunate that Sheldrake was selected for TEDx? Yes. TED should, instead, offer up a rebuttal by an expert on statistics to clarify where Sheldrake has made a misleading logical inference. It would be a great science lesson.

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