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Emily McManus

Editor, TED.com, TED

TEDCRED 200+

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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO4-9l8IWFQ

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: Emily --

    Regarding your two questions

    ***
    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?
    ***

    This seems an ill-founded question. To ask that *philosophy* draw conclusions from factual premises, seems to presuppose that the way to judge ANY philosophy is according to some "objective" standard regarding what is factual !!

    But the very question of what constitutes "factual" evidence, is part of the scope of philosophy...

    Is TED really committed to a narrowly-construed, "naive reductionist" philosophy of science and the universe? If so, why?

    ***
    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 )
    ***

    I didn't notice any real factual errors in his talk.... Yeah, he engaged in some minor rhetorical exaggerations, but he is not the first TEDx (or TED) speaker to do that !!!

    You are right that governments fund research into alternative medicine -- but it's pretty minimal compared to what's spent on drug therapies. His statement as you cite it, is a minor rhetorical exaggeration, it's not as though he contradicted some recognized fact of science...

    From the way you have formulated these two questions, it almost appears you are grasping at straws, in search of some reason to ban Sheldrake's video. Certainly, if you were going to hold EVERY TED or TEDx talk to strict standards of

    -- no rhetorical exaggerations

    -- no statements not clearly drawn from premises accepted as factual by 95% of scientists

    then a heck of a lot of videos would have to be taken down!!!

    So why do you want to hold Sheldrake to a standard other than the common one?

    Because PZ Myers and some other extremist zealots want you to?

    Not a good reason!!
    • Mar 8 2013: I agree with you about the formulation of the questions.

      They read as if the viewpoint is already decided.
      I am new to TED, and I am sad and disappointed.
    • Mar 8 2013: Ben, when Sheldrake said in his presentation that the standard view of measurements of the speed of light were wrong, was he engaging in philosophy or making a scientific point?

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