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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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    Mar 7 2013: I just watched the talk and thought it was very good TEDx material. I am a practicing research scientist and I know first hand science is not all it is craked up to be. Any of us that use statistics in the course of our research must confess that there are ways we can massage our equations to get them to tell the stories we want to advance and mask the stories we don't. What we take as scientific truth is that which ends up published in our best research journals, but those journals are controlled by powerful gatekeepers that are not always entirely objective. The gatekeepers have paradigms that influence what does and does not get published, and this is often times confounded with economic self interest. For example, if you have done research on employee engagement, and that research has lead to consulting and speaking gigs on engagement, can you really be objective about data that might disprove your theory, fame, and business interests? Disproving established theory is by the way the real pursuit of science.

    Sheldrake suggests that we should continually challenge our dogma and paradigms. I find that utterly consistent with the message of TED. The only way you might be offended by that is if one of your favorite world views was mentioned in his talk. We have a bad habit of wanting to kill those that threaten our golden calves.

    I don't buy everything he had to say, but I find it intellectually stimulating. No less or no more offensive than the place in Dan Pallotta's talk at TED last week where he blamed the problems we have with charities today (a very valid observation) on the Puritans.

    I hope Sheldrake's talk remains online. It would be a great shame to have it removed.

    Just my humble thoughts.

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      Mar 7 2013: Are you talking about social science research here, Bret? You used the example of research into employee engagement in conjunction with management consulting. I can see that you are an Associate Professor of Management.
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        Mar 7 2013: Hi Fritzie: Yes, I am. You might be aware that many consider social science research merely pseudo science; nevertheless, we do try to follow rigid research principles while acknowledging the limitations of what we can really "know" and especially prove. Bret
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          Mar 7 2013: I understand, Bret. I too have a doctorate in social science. I just think when you write you are a "research scientist" and that you think the talk was very good, a reader might believe you are a specialist in the natural sciences.
    • Mar 7 2013: I was stimulated by the talk too. Stimulated toward depression. There must be gatekeepers with ethical standards of some kind, otherwise complete folly would follow. Charlatans without scruples would arrive on our doorstep merely to hawk their latest book.
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        Mar 7 2013: Hi Rick. Our gatekeepers are very well qualified, and of course believe their own ethics are above reproach - as most of us do. The peer-review system is very good, but it has limitations what we would be wise to be aware of.
        • Mar 7 2013: Peer review is just one aspect of scientific confirmation, but it seems foolish to me to try to defend Sheldrake because of the supposed weaknesses of scientific method. Sheldrake is appealing to total ignorance of the method not some subtle weakness. Besides, it is easy to criticize peer-review or consensus without offering an alternative. Sheldrakes alternative is hand waving - "data is already becoming available". If we subject Sheldrake to any sort of serious peer review, he'd drown in red ink. All he's done is publish a book. That's not peer review.
        • Mar 8 2013: " All he's done is publish a book. That's not peer review. "
          On a point of information: he has published 10 books and 80 peer-reviewed articles.
        • Mar 8 2013: If you're gate-keepers were well qualified, they would have known who Rupert Sheldrake is and never dreamed of letting him do a TED talk.
    • Mar 7 2013: It is interesting that TED would even post this question if they truly mean what they say "good ideas worth spreading"

      Key word that I read into this is "Ideas" the opposition here on this thread seems to think TED is somehow sharing "indisputable 'scientific' facts !!! I see nowhere in the TED intro where it says TED attempts to do this.

      I appreciate your stepping in here ....I from my perspective cannot understand why ...if Scientific American magazine can have an article on Sheldrake ...http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ruperts-resonance........that a very very general information organization such as TED would not jump at the opportunity as well.

      Unless they are just testing the waters.
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        Mar 7 2013: Good points, Ed. I must admit after watching the video I too was a little confused about the objection. Not all TEDx talks are good, and some are crap. But some of what I think is crap others think is brilliant. That is the beauty of this forum - talks that push the boundaries and lead some of us to have to agree to disagree.
        • Mar 7 2013: Bret, you're being too generous. What you are saying is that in a forum that is supposed to be about ideas, anything goes.
        • Mar 7 2013: Bret and to that I agree!! ..
          .I don't come here expecting to "like" every talk what it does serve (and now this is bringing in Sheldrake’s subject "Morphic fields”) to observe the every day happenings Collective Consciousness because, very often, what shows up at TED as a topic has also arrived in such fields a Scientific American, Science, etc . No surprise to this and will be occurring more and more.

          A secondary aspect to these occurrences is that open opportunities such as ...working example...last ev I sat down to a restaurant meal with the current issue of American Scientist with it cover page "Math in Stitches" (Adventures in Mathematical Knitting)The server, a lady in her mid 50ies i would guess, immediately picked up the article and said ..."I saw this on TED-Talk and really liked it!!!" It opened to door to discussion and I think you can see that point.

          I close with this because ....well......i couldn't resist a good back door comment to all the naysayer’s on this thread


          Be Well Be Present
      • Mar 8 2013: At one time, TED had some credibility, which is more than you can say for Scientific American. If we're going to use Scientific American as our benchmark we might as well book Deepak Chopra and Jenny McCarthy.l
    • Mar 8 2013: There are different standards used in different disciplines for determining "truth." The standard for determining that the Higgs Boson was really found is *far* greater than the standards typically used in the social sciences. This is because no method has been discovered for performing the necessary experiments ethically. No problem there.

      I know about the power of journals. However, good ideas, presented well and consistently, and supported by good evidence, will in the long run get a fair hearing in the scientific community.

      On the matter of dogma: dogma is something people have. Science is not dogmatic; some scientists may be dogmatic. When Sheldrake talks of dogma, he is not challenging "science;" he is trying to undermine the confidence that the public at large should have in scientists. That is the ultimate ad hominem attack.

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