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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.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIyEjh6ef_8&playnext=1&list=PLF2801046CBEDC8E1&feature=results_video

    "Dr. Hameroff's research for 35 years has involved consciousness - how the pinkish gray meat between our ears produces the richness of experiential awareness. A clinical anesthesiologist, Hameroff has studied how anesthetic gas molecules selectively erase consciousness via delicate quantum effects on protein dynamics. Following a longstanding interest in the computational capacity of microtubules inside neurons, Hameroff teamed with the eminent British physicist Sir Roger Penrose to develop a controversial quantum theory of consciousness called orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR) which connects brain processes to fundamental spacetime geometry. Recently Hameroff has explored the theoretical implications of Orch OR for consciousness to exist independent of the body, distributed in deeper, lower, faster scales in non-local, holographic spacetime, raising possible scientific approaches to the soul and spirituality."
    • Mar 8 2013: Theodore, I have to wonder what you are trying to do with these links.

      Hameroff is one of the principal organizers of the world-renowned consciousness collective in Tuson, Arizona, and his theory has been developed jointly with Roger Penrose (mentor of Stephen Hawking!), a mathematical physicist of impeccable reputation. He only had 10 minutes to present his ideas; in my opinion, several hours would scarcely suffice!
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        Mar 8 2013: Could the same be said of Sheldrake? He had 18 minutes.
        This work is all theoretical also, with very little evidence, like Sheldrakes, correct?
        • Mar 8 2013: Yes, you are correct. I know both Hameroff and Sheldrake personally, and they are both serious scientists and deep thinkers with out of the mainstream views.

          However, Hameroff has not personally gathered empirical data in favor of his unorthodox perspective, though he has studied and marshalled evidence gathered by others.

          Sheldrake has actually done a lot of empirical science on his own, both conventional stuff, and more recently stuff related to his controversial ideas.

          If you dig deeper you will find loads of speculative ideas in TEDx and even TED talks.

          Why is Sheldrake being singled out? Just because there is an anti-psi mafia, which is more active and rabid than any, say, anti-consciousness-as-quantum-gravity mafia that exists...

          This is stupid .. and worse than that...
        • Mar 8 2013: No, unfortunately incorrect. Sheldrake has done his very best to amass experimental evidence for his ideas; dozens of his scientific papers are listed here: http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/

          As for Hameroff, he has papers too, though of a more theoretical nature. Like any scientist, he tries to make testable predictions, and gathers all the observational data he can. But in an area where absolutely no one at all can observe the subject of study (consciousness) directly, lack of experimental evidence should not be too surprising. Like in foundational physics, distinguishing between competing theories becomes more a matter of considering the theory's respective contributions to science; their relative elegance in explaining the same experimental facts; and other subtle factors, not direct falsification.

          Notably, however, a team of scientists in Japan has gathered evidence suportive of one of his theory's most essential components: quantum behavior in the microtubles of cells. This is an exciting development, demonstrating that further pursuit of ORCH-OR is important.

          EDIT: oops, looks like Ben and I just posted at the same time. See the amusing contrast. But I agree with everything he said; my only qualm was the wording that the work of these two scientists was "all theoretical" and had no experimental evidence.
        • Mar 8 2013: Have you read Sheldrake's work? It is filled with evidence.
    • Mar 8 2013: It is one thing to propose a speculative idea as such; to point out interesting bits of evidence and how one theory or another can account for that evidence. It is quite another to take highly speculative material, like Sheldrake's woo, and peddle it as if it were outright truth.
      • Mar 8 2013: The fact that you repeatedly describe Sheldrake's woo indicates that you have probably not actually read it and that you are making assumptions about it. It certainly indicates that you have made your mind up to dismiss anything that he says. In spite of that I am taking the trouble to respond. For the benefit of othres who may still have a chink of openness in their minds.

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