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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: Continued #3

    My biggest problem with this talk occurs when he speaks of the “dogmas” or “default worldview among most educated people. I would like to know what he means by the word “most”. Is it 99%? 88%? 56%? Is he talking about biologists who give speeches that refer to quantum mechanics? Is he speaking of educated people who are not keeping up with all of the astounding discoveries that are changing our understanding of how reality works and who and WHAT a human is within our realities. Then he should say so.

    So my take on this is that it is inept in form but not in substance (except for the “nature is purposeless” dogma). Rather than attack, he could easily have explained some of the amazing things that are happening that have changed the world in the minds of those who follow them.
    • Mar 8 2013: You are right TL. He speculated widely but explained nothing. I think, though, that this approach was deliberate. He raised, in a skeptical tone, 10 issues, any one of which he could have addressed more specifically, but instead, he skimmed through his analysis. He's casting about for an audience to buy his book, methinks.

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