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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: Rupert Sheldrake questions the fundamentals of what is considered to be a scientific fact, which can be an assumption, based on previously achieved assumptions. What's wrong with this ? Science is the only explanatory system that has a mechanism inbuilt in it to prove that it was wrong . Otherwise science is a record of dead religions.
    Rupert Sheldrake's vision of nature as alive, and a new understanding of the soul of the world fits ( in my understanding ) to the quantum description of the world, holographic principle, fractal geometry, the theory of chaos...and maybe many other things. His "Things are as they are because they were as they were " is a breakthrough, despite all his critics' claims to the contrary ! His theory of morphogenetic fields is scientific but belongs to the science that will and should be.
    Maybe he will live as many of the greats do, spending their lives trying to explain the implications of their experiments and theories yet ridiculed by their colleagues in the field, but when science finally catches up he will be acknowledged as a great.
    • Mar 7 2013: And yet there is (a) no evidence for his position, (b) very substantial evidence against his position, and (c) he presents no cogent argument as to *why* his ideas are better than the current body of knowledge. This makes his positions untenable.
      His critics do not merely "claim to the contrary" - they argue rationally and present valid, reproducible evidence to the contrary. Indeed, it is Sheldrake himself who *only* claims to the contrary.
      • Mar 7 2013: Who is right/wrong is not the point. The different opinion should be heard. Ideas should compete fairly.
        Maybe you know that the theory of evolution for the first 2/3 decades was called the Darwin/ Wallace theory of evolution. But soon the name of Russel Wallace was forgotten. What he pointed to and what was largely overlooked was the idea of ' field '
        Here is the passage of Wallace's famous 1858 paper:

        "The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow."

        Here is the the connection between natural selection and R Sh's morphogenetic field. "Things are as they are because they were as they were " Now some scientists explore the connection between natural selection in Wallace's interpretation and systems theory.
        Re : *why* his ideas are better than the current body of knowledge.
        Because, having Rupert Sheldrake's ideas in mind it's possible to make sense of the Universe we inhabit.
        Thanks for responding !
        • Mar 7 2013: Who is right or wrong IS the point. This is about facts, not opinions. Sheldrake makes errors of fact.
        • Mar 7 2013: This is not a question of "opinion" - it is a matter of evidence and critical thinking. Sheldrake fails on all counts.

          Evolution has grown tremendously since Darwin and Wallace first worked on it. Talking about evolution in terms of Darwin & Wallace's version is rather like talking about medicine as if we'd not discovered germs.

          Sheldrake's ideas "make sense"? No, that's the point. They don't make sense, of the universe or anything else.
      • Mar 7 2013: Nathan, there is no such thing as uninterpreted fact.
        • Mar 7 2013: Seems to me that this is an oxymoron. A fact is a fact. There's no interpretation in water being H2O, the speed of light being 300,000 Km/s (approx.) or evolution happening.
        • Mar 7 2013: There are lots of uninterpreted facts.
      • Mar 7 2013: Maybe you've missed my point, the theory that was developed
        was Darwin T of E.
        Wallace's idea has reemerged recently and it's a perfect realignment.

        Re :Sheldrake's ideas "make sense"? No, that's the point.

        How far we can go with this attitude ? :)
        • Mar 7 2013: Much farther than if we have to stop and waste time and effort to respond to every quack that comes along.
      • Mar 7 2013: Sorry for wasting your time ! :)
        • Mar 7 2013: Hi nn!!!!

          this is almost as much fun as Harleys's "TED is Evil" thread awhile back :-)
      • Mar 7 2013: Re : There are lots of uninterpreted facts.
        Maybe, but you can't prove it. Any fact that you can use as a proof is interpreted by the very fact that you use as a proof.
        It's the example of self-referential conundrum , that shows the limitation of logic : )
        • Mar 7 2013: That's nonsense. You can prove that water (at sea level) boils at 100 degrees Celsius. You can prove that the earth revolves around the sun. You can prove that humans and chimpanzees have a common ancestor.
      • Mar 7 2013: Nathan,
        accepting a radical new belief system almost always requires the release or loosening of a previous belief system.
        What you think you know is your coherent belief system, that doesn't allow you to believe in anything else.
        I have no chance to succeed :)

        Best to you !

        Filippo Salustri , sorry for using your reply button.
        • Mar 7 2013: I cannot tell what belief system you're talking about.
          Is it the belief system the contents of which is "scientific knowledge"?
          Or is it the belief system that "science, as a method, works"?
        • Mar 7 2013: Reality isn't a belief system.
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          Mar 7 2013: Where do facts come from? Science? Religion? Science is theory, which can never be indisputably. Oh wait no thats wrong science purest belief is that is can be disputable. Other wise we wouldn't be having this debate. Why is there more then one definition of what a fact is if it is indisputable?
      • Mar 7 2013: Filippo and Nathan ,
        I would recommend you to listen to this talk
        Enjoy !
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        Mar 7 2013: Facts boys are conventions, not truth.

        @Nathan You do not believe in reality then?
        • Mar 7 2013: A fact is "A thing that is indisputably the case."
          Alternatively, for a longer definition, see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fact or any other dictionary.
        • Mar 7 2013: Where do facts come from? Science? Religion?

          From left cerebral hemisphere :) Which is mainly responsible for creating belief system, be it religious or scientific.
          The right brain hemisphere is always challenging the status quo, but if beliefs are too strong , it may not succeed.
          That is the core of the problem. A scientific fact/theory can be disputable and should, but it's not easy to part with the comfort of the illusion of understanding ! :)

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