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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 8 2013: Hmmm.... This is kinda frustrating. Anti-Sheldrake zealots are basically trolling TED ;-/

    A number of different issues seem to be wrapped up here. (BTW, for those who care, I am a math PhD who has published a number of scientific papers in various disciplines, including some empirical papers in genomics.)

    For instance:

    1) Would Sheldrake's research on morphic fields and psi be acceptable in a TEDx talk? [PERSONAL OPINION: I don't see why not. TED does not exist to impose a world-view, it exists to promote exchange of cool ideas. Why TED would want to rule out the occasional psi-related talk I don't know. But this is of course, TED's own decision as a private organization.]

    2) Are Sheldrake's philosophical musings appropriate for a TEDx talk, or somehow so inappropriate they should be removed from the site after the fact? [NOTE: His TEDx talk was not really directly about his morphic field or psi research, it was about philosophy of science & metaphysics...]

    3) Does Sheldrake's research about morphic fields and psi somehow disqualify him from giving a TEDx talk about the philosophy of science & metaphysics? [PERSONAL OPINION: I really don't think it should thus disqualify him...]

    4) Is Sheldrake's work on morphic fields and psi data-driven and scientific? [CLEAR ANSWER: If you actually look at his corpus of work, it appears very data driven. He reports results from many experiments. He appears to follow scientific methodology pretty sensibly.]

    5) Are Sheldrake's hypotheses about morphic fields and psi correct? [Not really relevant]


    A couple more comments...

    I have seen plenty of TEDx talks deviating further from mainstream science than Sheldrake's. Obviously it is not the content of his talk that is getting folks hot under the collar. It's his reputation, it's who he is....

    I will be disappointed if TED removes Sheldrake's talk because of the complaining of narrow-minded anti-psi zealots. But I will not be shocked...

    - Ben Goertzel
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      Mar 8 2013: Yours is a respected voice in the field of AGI.
      TED would do well to consider you thoughts/
    • Mar 8 2013: Ben

      Much appreciated reading your comments here this morning.

      I have no idea why the TED administration would even consider coming to this/their public conversation page and asking the "why all the fuss" question. If publications such as Scientific American have featured Sheldrake I would expect TED ....an organization choosing to promote the sharing of "Ideas" ( no where do they claim to be a 'rational science only' form) ....would and should welcome Sheldrake and others with open arms!!!

      It could be that TED is testing the waters of consciousness to see what the reaction(s) and if so I DO trust that they wont be basing it on their public "conversation" forum here .....where far to many come with the attitude that because they can hold an opinion they can also own TED outright.

      I have suggested to TED that they post a sign on the door here

      "All opinion is vanity"..

      and I thank the late Dr David R. Hawkins for that line.

      Be Well Be Present
    • Mar 8 2013: Ben, given the observation you make in your 2nd point, doesn't this make irrelevant the points you make in 1, 3 and 4?

      And as far as point 2 goes, Sheldrake's presentation didn't just challenge 10 foundational propositions about science, he said they were wrong. This isn't a philosophical point it is a scientific claim. It has already been pointed out several times on this thread by people who are qualified to do so, that he is flat out wrong on the science regarding these accusations. He has failed to publish his ideas in appropriate peer reviewed journals and, to my search on pubmed, I have failed to find a single citation where his "research" has been subjected to testing and replication which is the very first step on the road to his research gathering credibility. One would have thought a little more humility from him would have been appropriate.

      Had TED decided to lodge his presentation in the "quirky but mildly interesting" (iow "crank") section then I doubt anyone would have noticed or cared. But they put it in the science section where they have published standards about what should be included and what should not. Correcting this error, it would seem, is part of TED's purpose in opening this up for debate.

      It's also disappointing to see you refer to "anti-Sheldrake zealots" when the debate is clearly about substance. Unless you were being unduly defensive at the outset of your post it is perfectly possible to have a sensible conversation and disagreement about this without resorting to derogatory labels to those who take a counter view. After all, isn't this how science advances?

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