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Emily McManus

Editor, TED.com, TED

TEDCRED 200+

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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: I have not read Sheldrake's books, but I saw the video with his 10 postulates, only some of which he had time to discuss. To many they will seem strange, but the historical record shows that sometimes what seems strange to contemporaries will be commonplace to their futurity. I am prepared to give Sheldrake the benefit of the doubt, and salute TED for inviting him to talk.

    In particular, I have some qualifications to discuss his last 4 postulates that relate to the brain. In 1980 an article by Roger Lewin in the journal Science, described the brain scan studies by John Lorber of adults who had been treated for hydrocephaly as a child. One of these had higher degrees in mathematics and was socially normal, but only had 5% of the normal volume of brain tissue. This was greeted with much scepticism, but has recently been independently confirmed in other subject by researchers in France (2007), and in Brazil (2012). One of the hypotheses to explain these strange observations, albeit seeming far-fetched, is that proposed by Sheldrake. For more on this please see the "End notes" to a paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (2009), which may be accessed by way of my webpages: http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/mind01.htm
    • Mar 7 2013: Whether or not he’s right about, say, the speed of light being variable, his method of demonstrating it- that is, by looking at the very noisy historical records of the measurement of the speed of light and spotting a trend in them despite the fact that those methods changed and increased in precision and accuracy- doesn’t demonstrate this.

      One can be completely right about something (“the earth is not at the center of the solar system”) and still not be doing science (“because a magical dragon set it spinning about the sun!”)

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