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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: Some people here (Jerry Coyne, Bill Hoffman, Jeffrey Johnson, Tom Spierckel) seem to be advocating that Sheldrake should not be given a platform in TED because his ideas are unscientific. I think it is vital to distinguish between two senses of the word “scientific”: referring to methods and to particular theories.

    Scientific inquiry is a method where we come up with good explanations of what we observe, then try to falsify those explanations. This kinda goes against the grain of human psychology. We like to be proven right; science would have us prove ourselves wrong. That's not so controversial; most philosophers of science agree that falsification is important and that theories must be subject to criticism. Confirmation bias is well recognized in psychology.

    BUT there is a danger here. Human psychology wants certainty and for its ideas to be verified, and scientists are as human as anyone. When a scientific theory is adopted, it often gets put on a pedastal, and criticism gets suppressed. Thomas Kuhn has shown that data that contradicts accepted theories either gets dismissed as fraud, ignored, explained away with ad hoc addenda, or violently attacked. As I said, human nature seems to resist alien ideas.

    This theory-worship is dogma and the exact opposite of scientific inquiry. BUT lay people, the media, and Joe Scientist who does not understand the philosophy of science, tend to label the current theory “science”. After all, this theory's scientific; everything that contradicts it must be unscientific, right?

    Mrs Salustri, Coyne and 'Dark Star' – please explain to me what you mean that Sheldrake's claims have "no evidence"? A literature search shows plenty of experiments on ESP etc. he's published. I'm not saying it's good evidence or bad, but he does research.

    Sheldrake's ideas are “unscientific” (they contradict scientific theories), therefore they are consummately "scientific" (they attempt to falsify what we know).
    • Mar 8 2013: It's bad evidence. That's what we mean by "no evidence" - no credible evidence.
      • Mar 8 2013: Which specific evidence are you referring to and what specifically is bad about it?
    • Mar 8 2013: There is plenty of room for unscientific information. Much can be said about psychology, economics, sociology or art and music. The problem with Sheldrake is bad information. If an alternative economist stood up and said he had the solution to everyone's economic problems, including the government, and that it would be painless and cost nothing, but he can't share the details, and that all of mainstream economics is wrong and ignores his solutions, what would you say? That is what is being done here, except with respect to science rather than economics.
      • Mar 8 2013: " There is plenty of room for unscientific information. Much can be said about psychology, economics, sociology or art and music. "

        "The problem with Sheldrake is bad information."
        I agree that some, but not all, of his information is bad. For example, I am unconvinced by the evidence that rats will learn something faster if other rats have already learned it. On the other hand, I can't find fault with his telephone telepathy experiments; maybe you can.

        "he can't share the details"
        Do you mean in the 18 minute talk, or at all? What details are you referring to? I'll see if I can dig them up for you.
    • Mar 8 2013: Fine. In place of "no evidence," please read "no reproducible/reproduced accurately verified experimental data that compellingly supports his claims."
      • Mar 8 2013: I think that his telephone telepathy experiments are in principle reproducible, as are his experiments on pets anticipating their owners' return, on the sense of being stared at, and on animals learning faster if other animals have learned the same thing. Am I wrong in thinking these are reproducible experimental data?

        If we grant these experiments are acceptable in principle, we should turn our attention to the other two adjectives you demand: "reproduced" and "accurately verified".

        Have Sheldrake's experiments been reproduced? I've done a little research; someone better-informed can probably furnish more data. I found two replications of his telephone telepathy experiments. One by Schmidt et al. found a negative result (http://www.uniklinik-freiburg.de/iuk/live/forschung/publikationen/RemoteStaring2004.pdf) and one by Lobach and Bierman shows a positive result (http://www.metapsychique.org/Who-s-calling-at-this-hour-Local.html). Richard Wiseman replicated his experiments on an allegedly psychic dog called Jaytee; I haven't had a chance to look at the results of this yet; I'll check next time I'm in the library.

        I would like to see much more replication, but there is some.
        • Mar 8 2013: Replication is a key.
          But another aspect of the whole notion of experimentation is whether meaningful predictions can be made that themselves can be falsified by experiment.
          One of the admitted problems with, for instance, string theory, is the lack of falsifiable predictions (as far as I know).
          One of the reasons why evolution is so well accepted is that its predictions *are* verifiable via experiments that could falsify it - and yet do not falsify it when studied experimentally.
          I'm unaware of any falsifiable predictions that are made by any of Sheldrake's "work."
      • Mar 8 2013: "I'm unaware of any falsifiable predictions that are made by any of Sheldrake's "work." "
        Well, isn't the claim that psi phenomena are possible (one of the 10 points he mentions) a fasifiable prediction?
        • Mar 8 2013: No it isn't. What *exactly* does he mean by psi? The term is too vague to be useful. Others have posted links to articles published in reputable journals on phenomena that fall under the rubric of "psi research." Some of it has supported the hypothesis of some atypical phenomenon; others have falsified it - making the matter a relatively open question. But their specificity and detail distinguish them from the clap-trap that is typically found in Sheldrake's work.
      • Mar 8 2013: Sure, "psi" is a broad term, as is "chemistry". If the word is problematic, discard it; the observations are still there.

        I rather prefer Sir Richard Francis Burton's term: "extra-sensory perception". That gets the point across very clearly: organisms acquire information (perception) with a faculty other than sight, hearing etc.

        If people guess way above probability who is on the other end of a ringing phone, with no conventional sensory or inferential means of knowing, if a dog consistently acts in a certain way when the owner is doing something kilometers away, and never acts that way when the owner is not, these observations are interesting, and they seem to me to be anomolous to certain materialistic theories of perception.

        What makes you think that Sheldrake's telephone telepathy experiments lack "specificity and detail"? A lack of specificity definitely diminishes some other research in the field. With remote viewing experiments, for instance - you can say what the 'receiver' described looks a bit like what the 'sender' saw, but that's not rigorously quantifiable. On the other hand, guessing which of 4 people is on the other end of the phone is completely quantifiable and specific, allowing statistical analysis. What exactly do you mean by "specificity and detail"?
        • Mar 8 2013: Those phenomena you mention are at most just that. Phenomena. They must be measured and studied, and I have no problem with that. If they are found to actually exist and resist falsification by reproducible experiment, then then next step is to find a theory that explains them without violating anything else.

          What I was trying to say was that the bald assertions made by Sheldrake in the TED video subject of this discussion lack specificity and detail. He provides no evidence for his claims, and his reasoning is faulty.

          Look at TED presentations by honest scientists. You should be able to see the differences.
      • Mar 8 2013: Well, as Steve Stark, Ben Goertzel and several others point out above, there are seperate issues: denying materialistic-realist-Platonist-nomological philosophy of science is what the TED talk is about. That is mostly a philosophical issue, so the arguments won't be as testable. If you are saying that his philosophy of science points aren't testable, then we agree.

        "What I was trying to say was that the bald assertions made by Sheldrake in the TED video subject of this discussion lack specificity and detail"
        Then I misunderstood. When you said "any of Sheldrake's " work" " and "the clap-trap that is typically found in Sheldrake's work", I got the impression that you were talking about his work as a whole, not the talk. I agree that the talk is generally not in the realm of empirical testing, (with some exceptions, like the brief references to psi etc.)

        I'm getting a bit confused here, maybe.
        At first I thought you believed that Sheldrake does not offer anywhere in his body of work reproducible experimental data to support his claims. This is not supported by my reading of him.
        Then I thought you were saying that he does not offer any falsifiable claims in his works. This too seems to me contrary to the content of his writings.
        Now I understand your argument to be that his points in the talk against the metaphysics of materialism are not empirical. This seems to me a reasonable conclusion, and one that I discuss in comments above.
        • Mar 8 2013: Sorry, I guess I wasn't clear. I'm concerned only with the video. In the video, Sheldrake makes statements about science and scientific knowledge that are just plain wrong, as has been highlighted by many others besides me.

          If he's on about metaphysics (which I'm not sure about), then he still has to ground his metaphysics in the real. If a metaphysicist says that scientific knowledge is wrong just because it disagrees with his own metaphysical stance, then that's just bollocks.

          If the metaphysicist goes further and makes errors of fact (like the claims about 'c' or 'G' that Sheldrake makes), then he's just being irresponsible.

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