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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: Sheldrake’s so-called dogmas are essentially well-validated assumptions or hypotheses, consistent with huge volumes of evidence. All are falsifiable, but many are so well established that the evidence that will falsify any one must be extraordinarily compelling. Yet scientists are more than willing to consider such evidence, just as they were when it appeared that we had seen neutrinos travelling faster than light.

    Morphic resonance is not a scientific hypothesis in the same way that intelligent design is not a scientific hypothesis: It lacks explanatory power (except in the sense that “Fred did it” is an explanation; there is no description of the mechanism by which it – ostensibly – works) and it makes no testable (ie, falsifiable) predictions. It is simply woo.

    • Mar 7 2013: Oh, remember, Ant Allan. evidence for morphic resonanace has "already begun to show up". How can you possibly refute that! If he calls it a duck, it must be one.
      • Mar 7 2013: So, then, which non-existent testable prediction does this evidence validate? ;-)

        • Mar 8 2013: All of the above, of course. 8-)
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      Mar 7 2013: Evolution and the Big Bang are falsifiable theories but Intelligent Design and Creationism are not? What does it mean to be non-falsifiable? Which hypothesis has the truer ring?. . . "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth." or, "In the beginning, for no reason or cause, Nothing exploded and Everything came into being." Rupert may lack accuracy and validity, I don't know, but he does have rights. Those rights are the point of this debate.
      • Mar 7 2013: Well, in the first place, MR and ID are not theories in the sense that evolution and BB are.

        The falsifiability is a property of specific testable predictions, which neither MR nor ID make.

        If you are as unfamiliar with the philosophy of science as you seem, you might like to read Kuhn, Popper or Deutsch on this.

        Sheldrake has the right to spout whatever pseudoscientific flapdoodle he likes. But he does not have the right to expect TED or TEDx to promote that or to add credibility by association with the brand.

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          Mar 7 2013: Did you read the blurb about the Abiogenesis of the Standard Model? Here it is again: "In the beginning, for no reason or cause, Nothing exploded and Everything came into being." I think you should offer some explanation as to why you whole-heartedly embrace that laughable statement (please do not call it a testable hypothesis having specific testable predictions) while summarily dismissing Genesis 1:1. Do you really see the Emperor's new clothes? Really? Do you think, for one moment, that the average TEDster says, "I know it's true I saw it on TED!"? Rediculous.
      • Mar 7 2013: I do think that the average Creationist says, “I know it’s true, I read it in the Bible.”

        I cannot do justice to the likes of Carroll, Hawking or Krauss, so I won’t try, but I know enough to see that your blurb is a woefully scientifically illiterate mischaracterisation of the BB. You do realise that abiogenesis concerns the origin of life, don’t you? Not the origin of our observable universe. Hmm… maybe you don’t.

        And you’re straying rather far from the topic in hand.

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          Mar 8 2013: You separate the theories of Evolution and the Big Bang, I don't. The only genesis hypothesis there is for either of the two is the one I characterize as "Everything Became When Nothing Exploded for no Reason or Cause". Your repeated denigration of me personally shows a lack of substance in your argument. Do you have a substantial explanation for the rationale behind censoring Mr. Sheldrake? If not you need not reply any further to me personally just to spew more insults upon me with your ad hominem fallacies. The Emperor is naked!
      • Mar 8 2013: Sheldrake's rights are not in any way the topic of this debate.

        He has every right to promote wrong ideas. That does not obligate TED to give him a forum for doing so.
        • Mar 8 2013: Just as I said earlier!

      • Mar 8 2013: Well, of course I make a distinction between evolution and the BB! And regarding origins I make a distinction between abiogenesis and the BB (since evolution NE abiogenesis!). And so does Genesis! “Fiat lux!” on Day One and the first living things on Day Three.

        I do not believe I’ve insulted you, sir! Perhaps you are unconsciously guilty of the ad hominem fallacy fallacy [http://plover.net/~bonds/adhominem.html]? I attacked only the straw man of the BB that you proffered.

        No one is censoring Sheldrake; what’s under discussion is whether or not TED/TEDx should be giving him a platform to spout his pseudoscientific flapdoodle — which is very much not an idea worth sharing!

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          Mar 8 2013: Thank you for admitting to attacking a straw man. How is the following quotation of your remark to me not an ad hominem fallacy: "your blurb is a woefully scientifically illiterate mischaracterisation of the BB. You do realise that abiogenesis concerns the origin of life, don’t you? Not the origin of our observable universe. Hmm… maybe you don’t." Isn't the gist of your quoted sentence to insinuate my lack of knowledge? That's ad hominem.
          You say no one is censoring but you are juding the ideas of another and deeming them unfit for broadcast. How is that not censoring? There is no distinction between the theories of Evolution and the Big Bang when it comes to explaining how the Universe began. Two theories, one (shared) genesis account. The Emperor is naked!
      • Mar 8 2013: Your straw man!

        When you continue to parade your lack of knowledge, about logical fallacies as well as science, remarking on your ignorance is a matter of fact, and one very pertinent to the argument.

        No-one is saying Sheldrake can’t make his absurd claims at all. What we’re debating is not censorship, just editorial policy.

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          Mar 8 2013: How is the Big Bang theory a straw man in a conversation about science? The entire Standard Model is built upon it! Also, how is my ignorance and lack of knowledge pertinent to the argument? If I am proven to be the most ignorant of all men (and I might be) how would that have any bearing whatsoever on whether the Sheldrake talk should be published? Again, you need not reply any further to me personally if your purpose is to cast aspersions. Your ad hominem argument adds nothing to the purpose of conversation, collaboration, or debate here on TED. The Emperor is naked!
      • Mar 8 2013: The BB is not a straw man; it‘s your characterisation of it that is.

        The SM is not built upon the BB. It was developed independently of cosmological considerations. See, for ex., Quarks and Leptons by Halzen and Martin.

        This argument was about your “Abiogenesis of the Standard Model”, not Sheldrake.

        And again, claiming that your argument is invalid because your premises are wrong (since you plainly do not understand the science you are critical of) is not an ad hominem attack. Claiming that your arguments are wrong because you are (hypothetically) a person of moral turpitude would be. Do you see?

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          Mar 8 2013: What you seem to be missing is the fact that my personal qualities, or lack thereof, is not the subject of this debate. Let's see if I can correctly define your position on the Sheldrake talk: "The talk should not be broadcast, posted, or otherwise made available on TED resources because it is "pseudoscientific flapdoodle" and sound editorial policy should prevent its dissemination and the appearance of validation to the TED audience. Such action is in no way censorship." Is that a fair assessment of your position?
      • Mar 8 2013: Well, that’s all right then, since I haven’t been discussing your personal qualities. (I notice you’re a vet; kudos to you for that.)

        Yes, pretty much. If you really want to argue that prudent exercise of editorial control to meet published quality guidelines [http://blog.tedx.com/post/37405280671/a-letter-to-the-tedx-community-on-tedx-and-bad-science] is actually *suppressing* Sheldrake, go right ahead, but don’t expect agreement from me.

        Withdrawing the video from TED/TEDx would in no way inhibit Sheldrake from reaching as wide an audience via other channels.

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          Mar 8 2013: Thank you sir, I was glad to serve. Freedom requires constant care.
          We disagree on whether or not Rupert is undeniably guilty of spreading a malignant, intentionally fraudulent message. I believe it is NOT a less-than-zero possibility that science might some day show that consciousness can act through a distance, or that the speed of light in a vacuum does have a tolerance value of plus or minus so many Km/Sec.
          Of course TED editors should not allow precious global exposure to an idea that is essentially without merit or value. Peace to you fellow TEDster.
    • Mar 7 2013: "Sheldrake’s so-called dogmas are essentially well-validated assumptions or hypotheses, consistent with huge volumes of evidence. All are falsifiable,"
      Are you sure they are all falsifiable?
      Doctrines 1, 2, 3 and 5 seem unfalsifiable to me.

      #1) I can't think of any experiment that would show that the universe is not machine-like, because no matter what seemingly acausal phenomenon you observe, a causal determinist can always say, "Oh that has a material cause; we just haven't found it yet". What am I missing, Ant Allan? How is it falsifiable?

      The same logic applies to #5. You can always say, "There's an atelic explanation; we just haven't found it".

      #2 is plainly unfalsifiable until we have a consciousness-o-meter.

      9 and 10 have already been falsified. I think Sheldrake exaggerates how widely they're dismissed. (#10 is worded quite vaguely; I don't know if mind-body effects meet his definition of "mechanistic medicine".)

      (Here they are for reference:)
      1. The universe is machine-like
      2. Matter is unconscious
      3. The universe is governed by Platonic laws
      4. Total amount of matter-energy is the same
      5. The universe is atelic
      6. Heredity is material
      7. All memories are material
      8. Mind is inside head
      9. No psi
      10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works

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