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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: Sheldrake made a few mistakes, but his basic message is simply true.

    Many people around the world, and apparently a few of the contributors here, have accepted the scientific worldview and have accepted some or all of the dogmas in Sheldrake's list. Sheldrake points out that this scientific worldview is in conflict with actual scientific investigation. Sheldrake is criticizing the scientific worldview, not science. That is a critical distinction.

    The notion that physical laws are fixed is indeed an assumption, and many people take this assumption as dogma. Theory tells us the speed of light is constant throughout the universe and throughout time. It has never been measured outside of the solar system, or outside of the Milky Way, or a million years ago, or a billion years ago. If you understand science and the scientific method, you understand that science is limited. Science is limited to phenomena that can be demonstrated repeatedly and consistently. Science is limited to phenomena that can be measured here and now.

    Anyone who has not fallen into the delusion that science is dogmatic should understand that Sheldrake is trying to open minds and broaden scientific investigation.

    IMO, this talk should be accepted as any other TED talk.
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      Mar 8 2013: Yes, that was the feelings I had when I watched his Tedtalk. The video was more so attempting to open up minds to new and possibly unproven ideas, but each human only lives a short amount of time compared to planets and dirt, so I say this talk was more of an examination of the way we see things as opposed to what we should learn from watching this talk, but the scientific evidence as lacking, though I think that was a lure to hook his audience to buy his book.

      Sheldrake's Tedtalk can be inspiring and should be published as a talk or at least give the guy a chance to speak for himself. Debates always turn to such hostile environments, or at least in my opinion they seem to.
    • Mar 8 2013: “It has never been measured outside of the solar system, or outside of the Milky Way, or a million years ago, or a billion years ago.”

      Um… yes it has, implicitly. All observations of stars in our own and other galaxies and of the CBR are consistent with a speed of light constant throughout the universe back through time to the BB.

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        Mar 8 2013: When did people from Earth begin sending satellites to planet towards the edges of the Milky Way and other galaxies?

        We have very accurate guesstimates with mathematical backing, but it doesn't account for every factor that could change.
        • Mar 8 2013: Well, we never have sent *satellites* towards the edges of the Milky way, only into orbit around the Earth (and a few planets in the solar system, iirc).

          We have a remarkably accurate understanding of the BB (see, for ex., http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/02/09/the-big-bang-for-beginners/). If the speed of light were not a constant over time and space, we just wouldn’t have the consilience across disparate observations that we do.


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