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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.


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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    Gail . 50+

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    Mar 7 2013: Continued #4"

    By the way, those who study the matter do not think that gravity is constant. Gravity decreases with altitude and changes with density. Measure the gravity in the same location on each floor of a 100 story building, and you will get 100 different measurements. Gravity on a mountain top is different from at sea level, and at the equator is different from at the poles. The earth’s ever shifting molten core may have further effect, and I agree with his desire to measure it constantly in many places. Why does he laugh at using a constant?

    Granting gravity a constant in spite of known variances allows for conversation. If the gravity for a specific location were an essential part of a scientific experiment, then it would be accounted for in order to honor scientific method. His jeers were unnecessary.

    I found the temporary drop in speed of light fascinating. But scientists have discovered that the speed of light is faster at the outer reaches of the known universe and slower when telescopes are pointed in the opposite direction. On one hand, the “fix” that he laughs at makes great sense because quantum mechanics is showing that “time” is not what we have thought it was. It even allows for instantaneous transference of information (Bell’s Inequality) that bypasses time altogether.

    I would really like TED to have a quantum physicist (who is following research into science of mind) speak about the amazing things we have learned about ourselves and our world.

    This talk was factually incorrect to the point of distorting and destroying the factually correct parts - in the minds of this listener.
    • Mar 7 2013: I think you are confused.

      The big G constant is NOT a measure of gravitational force at a specific point in spacetime, that absolutely varies, tremendously. G is the gravitational constant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_constant it is NOT known to vary, it is known to be very difficult to measure precisely - because of measurement error it can only be verified to a certain precision. But here is absolutely ZERO credible evidence that G is variable. If it is variable it is beyond our limit to measure it currently.

      It's fine to TEST such hypotheses (and people have) but it is utterly dishonest and irresponsible to make claims that cannot be supported.

      >> But scientists have discovered that the speed of light is faster at the outer reaches of the known universe and slower when telescopes are pointed in the opposite direction

      The vacuum speed of light? Citation please
    • Mar 7 2013: As far as we know, Bell's inequality does not really allow for the transfer of data instantaneously. Two particles can be linked via non-locality, and measurement in one does affect the other instantaneously. However, the theory goes: since the two particles that are linked are, until they are measured, in a superposition of states and can unpredictably wind up in one or the other state by the act of measurement, one does not transfer any data in the act of measuring one particle. All one sees is: "Yep, this photon ended up right-hand polarized here in our lab when we measured it, so that other one at Alpha Centauri must be left hand polarized." Since one cannot >force< a photon to assume one state or the other, all one gets is a random stream of particles of one flavor or another. No information is passed from one spot to the other.

      Granted, this is all provisional (like all science), but superluminal communication has not yet been demonstrated via quantum entanglement. And, confirmation of quantum entanglement after the fact is always limited by the speed of light.

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