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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: Sheldrake might well take comfort for already having crossed the threshold of "credibility" by no longer being laughed at. Indeed he has moved on into the stage where the reaction turns furious, seeing a real threat to the prevailing dogma. If history holds true (of course, it's only a "habit" of history) the next phase of acceptance will see people clamoring for recognition for their contributions to Sheldrake's proposals. In any event, regardless of TED's decision, the talk will live on in You Tube and elsewhere. Not to worry, Rupert!
    • Mar 8 2013: yes, I think the contentiousness will increase or has increased the interest in Sheldrake's ideas.

      Sheldrake is not American, and I do think this matters. Not everyone outside USA sees the Americans in the same way they appear to see themselves. I expect that's true of any nationality, but is something that can be overlooked.
      I live in the same area Sheldrake is from. His ideas, mostly, are not new - they have been around for ages. As you say, they will be spreading now!

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