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Emily McManus

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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: RE: your statement, ". . . if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific,. . . "Who defines what is "unscientific"? As an analogy, I could never prove you are lying if you alone are allowed to define Truth. Rupert impugns the 10 Commandments of Modern (Evolutionary) Science as defined by the Standard Model. If TED gets to rule that his methods are not consistent with those 10-commandments and are therefor to be kept from the people lest they be duped, then TED does two things: 1) They make the 10 dogmas unassailable, sacred even. And 2) Ted positions themselves as final judges of what the common readership is allowed to read. Both of those are contrary to intelligence and freedom. Let me hear the man. Trust me to separate the chaff from the wheat.
    • Mar 7 2013: It's not the fact that Sheldrake goes against the 10 Dogmas that raises eyebrows, its the fact that the idea that they are Dogmas misrepresents science. They are not "Dogmas" they are "working hypotheses" supported by copious amounts of evidence, and subject to change >given evidence.<

      I'm more than willing to entertain the idea that the speed of light is variable, that there is more to inheritance than genetics or epigenetics, or that we are able by virtue of some hitherto unexplained quantum mechanical method communicate via a kind of ESP, and so on. However it is vital that those propositions, being rather extraordinary, must run the gauntlet of publication, evaluation, peer-review, and further experimentation to be accepted just like all other science. PSI, Variable Light Speed etc,. simply hasn't done that yet. In the case of positive data, there are always serious systematic errors, it seems.

      Moreover, pointing to the ever increasing accuracy and precision in data collection, and drawing an inference like "the speed of light is decreasing" is jumping the gun. Giving the impression that scientists are engaged in a "conspiracy of dogma" is irresponsible.
      • Mar 7 2013: Just FYI, Jerry Coyne has published with permission an explanation by Sean Carroll about the speed of light thing. See http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/tedx-talks-completely-discredited-rupert-sheldrake-speaks-argues-that-speed-of-light-is-dropping/
        Punch line: There are only 2 ways Sheldrake could get it so wrong: woeful ignorance, or intentional malice. Either way, he's utterly wrong.
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          Mar 7 2013: I think there is at least a third explanation for clinging to pseudoscientific beliefs, not necessarily in his case but in some cases. There may be a great psychological need in some people for a coherent belief system while at the same time they are uncomfortable with faith-based belief systems. So science is distorted into service as supposed evidence.
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          Mar 7 2013: RE: "No other explanation. . . "
          Let's cut to the chase.
          Your accepted explanation for the existence and functioning of the Universe is that, "In the beginning of Time, for no reason, purpose, or cause, Nothing exploded and Everything in the Cosmos came into existence. The spectacular and unfathomable complexity of the Universe functions spontaneously with no reason, purpose, cause, or control." (That is the "one free miracle" Rupert mentions). And you say no other explanation has been offered that will compare to the scientific integrity of that? Look closer sir, the Emperor is naked. You are wrong to say there is no other explanation. "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth."
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        Mar 7 2013: You are suggesting the problem is purely semantics? If we substitute " working hypohtheses" for "dogmas" the dilema goes away? I doubt it. The issue here is that one, out of several, possible explanations of how our universe functions is considered to be the only one worth allowing. That is very wrong and very unscientific. Surely you are not proposing that every word in this Talk is "factual error"? Sure, there seems to be some Philosophy in the talk, but why is that a bad thing, Isn't Philosophy a Science? Defend your choice, but do not disallow others the right to consider a different choice.
        • Mar 7 2013: Not at all. "Working hypothesis" implies the ability to change given new facts and testing. "Dogma" does not. And the idea that there is just one idea worth allowing is just plain wrong in most cases. If this were the case, science in general would never get anywhere. Stuff like Relativity, QM, Plate Tectonics etc., were all "out there" at one point, but proved themselves via testing and data collection. In other words, "they worked".

          The "other ideas" Sheldrake mentions may well have merit, but, they simply haven't proved themselves yet. I wouldn't begrudge someone testing the "changing light speed" hypothesis- more power to 'em- just as I wouldn't begrudge some other scientist for pointing out where the first one went awry. Sheldrake has gone awry in this talk.
        • Mar 7 2013: No other explanation of the universe that has been studied has been *demonstrably* validated by evidence that the "current" one. If that changes, it will be because the evidence will support another explanation.

          When QM (or whatever other theory you care to name) was "out there," it was still supported by evidence. The only reason QM/etc is still around is that the evidence has never indicated otherwise. Yet.

          The changing speed of light thing is quackery. Please see other comments in this thread for lots more info on that one.

          Sheldrake offers no evidence, grounds his suppositions in no evidence, and exhibits faulty reasoning. There's no reason whatsoever to take him seriously at all.
        • Mar 7 2013: Edward, I'm replying here to your "Let's cut to the chase." comment because I can't in-line.

          Would it surprise you to know that that is not at all what I think? Please stop making bald assertions about me or how I think.

          You wrote: ""In the beginning of Time, for no reason, purpose, or cause, Nothing exploded and Everything in the Cosmos came into existence."

          Do you think so? I don't. I don't know how it happened. No one does. All that exist about the "big bang" are, at the moment, hypotheses. But we will figure it out, someday.

          You wrote: "The spectacular and unfathomable complexity of the Universe functions spontaneously with no reason, purpose, cause, or control."

          "Spectacular" and "unfathomable" are subjective, human terms. Just because we don't understand something now doesn't mean there isn't a simple explanation.

          You wrote: "And you say no other explanation has been offered that will compare to the scientific integrity of that? Look closer sir, the Emperor is naked. You are wrong to say there is no other explanation. "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.""

          That, sir, is bollocks. God is a fairy tale. Get used to it.
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        Mar 7 2013: RE: "Not at all."
        We agree then, do not censor the Sheldrake talk!
      • Mar 8 2013: "It's not the fact that Sheldrake goes against the 10 Dogmas that raises eyebrows, its the fact that the idea that they are Dogmas misrepresents science. They are not "Dogmas" they are "working hypotheses" supported by copious amounts of evidence, and subject to change >given evidence.

        Brad, I admire your commitment to rationality and critiquing ideas. I am sure you would agree that such open inquiry is only an ideal and real-world science often falls short of it, right? Things done as "science" by people whose job title is "scientist" can sometimes be as irrational and human as any other activity. It would be nice if scientists were totally open to criticism, totally undogmatic, always followed evidence and had complete flexibility of thinking, but it simply ain't so. Scientists are human and humans like to defend their beliefs. The scientific establishment has safeguards against human irrationality, but they're imperfect.

        Sometimes scientists behave rationally; sometimes they behave dogmatically. Which are they doing when they believe that all events are causally determined, or that Platonic laws govern the universe, of that the brain creates consciousness?

        Five of the doctrines* (#1, #2, #3, #5, #7 and #8) seem to me to be the philosophical assumptions that many scientists hold (just the materialists, not the instrumentalists, nor quantum theorists who follow Bohm, Bohr, von Neumann or Wheeler). Philosophical assumptions are not scientific theories; they are the epistemological-ontological framework within which the theories are framed.

        [ * I am lying here to keep you on your toes; only 4 of these 5 are philosophical assumptions. Which ones?]

        1. The universe is machine-like
        2. Matter is unconscious
        3. The universe is governed by Platonic laws
        4. Total amount of matter-energy is the same
        5. The universe is atelic
        6. Heredity is material
        7. All memories are material
        8. Mind is inside head
        9. No psi
        10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works
      • Mar 8 2013: "It's not the fact that Sheldrake goes against the 10 Dogmas that raises eyebrows, its the fact that the idea that they are Dogmas misrepresents science. "

        You are misrepresenting Sheldrake.

        At the beginning of the talk, Sheldrake makes a clear distinction between the dogmas that are part of the "scientific worldview" and the actual practice of science, and clearly states that the "scientific worldview" is in conflict with the practice of science. You seem to have missed the whole point of his talk.
    • Mar 7 2013: There is a difference between saying "who decides what is a good movie", and "who decides what is unscientific". Films, books, and art are cultural objects and people are welcome to their personal opinions. But you should feel a bit nervous if your dentist tells you "who defines what is good dentistry" as he fires up a chainsaw. If you were as qualified to validate scientific claims as you are to judge your dentist's work, Sheldrake's claim to present valid alternatives to science should make you equally uncomfortable.
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        Mar 7 2013: This is not about degrees of discomfort sir. This is about declaring a person's ideas unworthy of expression in an open forum. Supporters of the Standard Model are dictating what is scientific and what is not. If Rupert flies in the face of some or all of the Evolution/Big Bang working hypotheses is he to be censored? He says the Emperor is naked. . . hmmm.
        • Mar 7 2013: I don't say he should be censored. He has books, he can put videos on You Tube, and he can make his own web sites. My point is that he lacks the quality of information that should be accorded the respect of being aired in the TED forum, unless TED is to become a laughingstock that can't be taken seriously.

          This is not science dictating. How silly it would sound to you if I said "who has the right to dictate to my dentist that he can't use a chain saw as his primary tool". Sheldrake is using tools that are outside the scope of scientific validity, and providing nothing in exchange beyond science fiction. If people take him seriously because he is given a TED platform, they may as well allow that dentist with the chainsaw to double as their brain surgeon as well.
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        Mar 7 2013: Sorry, I don't get your dental analogy. What I do get is your opinion that ony supporters of Evolution and the Big Bang should be allowed to participate in TED activity. You are wrong about that sir. May I suggest you revisit your understanding that only correct, truthful information is contained in TED activities. I mean no disrespect to TED, but bad info. can slip through anytime. You and I should be able to separate the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don't need my food predigested, thank you.
        • Mar 7 2013: I like to digest my own food as well. But when I go to a nice restaurant, I hope the chefs have prepared something good, not swill and slop fit for pigs.

          You seem to be saying you are willing to accept swill because you don't trust the chef's recommendations. If you were scientifically literate or a culinary expert, you could be right.

          Being independent minded is fine, but you have to be willing to consume a lot of very bad meals. I suppose if one likes to eat pig slop, who's to say it's a bad meal? Rupert Sheldrake's uninformed fairy tales are not valid critiques of science. They are a very bad meal that no self-respecting person should swallow, except as entertaining science fiction. Sadly Sheldrake pretends his ideas are not science fiction.

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