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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: We must allow for questioning also the most established truths, but that does not mean that everybody doing so, should be given free space and full attention. There must be some kind of sense and quality in the arguments and not just a claim that some existing theories or models are wrong. Rupert Sheldrake claims there is evidence.without giving any refrences, Natural science is far from the set of beliefs he initially accuses it to be. The success of science comes from the requrement on reproducability and verifiability. He may believe in "collective memory" of species and x-tals, in "mind outside brain" etc., but as long as there is no empirical evidence, it is just his un-informed belief. He is making a big issue of different measured values of the speed of light (variation of less than 0,01% before lasers and atomic clocks) and of G (gravity). It is difficult to believe that he is really doing his very best to understand the reasons for the different measured values. And why spend efforts on this materialistic aspect, when claiming science is just about beliefs?
    I think his talk should be removed. Not because of his points, but because of the total lack of arguments and evidence. If you challenge the established accumulated scientific knowledge, you must have something supporting your challenge.
    • Mar 8 2013: My personal thanks for what role you've played as TEDx Organizer in having the courage to invite Dr. Sheldrake to appear on TEDx Talks. Likewise, your decision to allow listeners to comment on your desire to remove his talk is much appreciated.

      Concerning lack of evidence for his claims, though, it's difficult, I'm sure, to make a full case for ANY claim in eighteen minutes. However, virtually everything covered in the talk is also extensively covered in his book, "The Science Delusion", called "Science Set Free" in the US. He is a well-published scientist and academic. His views seem particularly well researched. He is graciously open to critique and, frankly, I've yet to see him leave any critique left unanswered. He has always responded to criticism articulately, effectively and scientifically.

      I guess I've become a consumate fan of the man over the years and believe what separates him from other scientists is his refusal to let fear of controversy impede his expression and enjoyment of the pursuit of truth that is science.
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        Mar 8 2013: Joe Martin and others,
        My initial comment was based only on my viewing Rupert Sheldrake's TEDxTalk, not on any knowledge or information about his background or about the controverses he has been involved in. Your comment made me look at his track record. Of course, it is impossible to get a complete and fair picture of his abilities just by means of 15 minutes Internet research. However, this quick research convinced me that the presentation in his TEDx Talk about the different measured and published values of the speed of light, was consciously misleading rather than fair. With his background in science, e.g. biochemistry, he must (or should) have known better.
        Neither your comments nor his list of publications makes me change my opinion, that his TEDx Talk shold be removed, not because he accuses science to be bassed on a set of false, or at least questionable, dogmas, but because his bias and his use of misleading or false arguments.
        You may look upon "his refusal to let fear of controversy impede his expression and enjoyment of the pursuit of truth that is science" as entertaining, but viewers expecting "ideas worth spreading" will be misled.
        • Mar 8 2013: Bengt, I don't see Sheldrake's importance as being in his entertainment value. His importance is in his intelligence and his willingness to challenge scientific thinking in unique and innovative ways that precious few even attempt.

          Yes, Sheldrake lets it rip. He doesn't mince words. Could he present himself in a fashion that would not raise the hackles of many of his fellow scientists as he seems to do now? I don't know. I don't know how one can candy coat his basic message, that something is fundamentally wrong with the way modern science is played out day to day, and expect the pill to go down any easier.

          But a science that loses its ability to entertain deep self-critique, that stops enjoying ripping itself to shreds intellectually, has already lost something important.

          I guess what I'm saying is, the proper scientific response to Sheldrake is to dialog, not reject. He's not anti-science. He cares deeply about science. He cares enough to challenge his fellow scientists at a fundamental level. How else can science ever hope to know itself at any fundamental level unless it opens itself to deep critique?

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