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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: On topic (1) philosophy, I submit that it is inconsequential whether science "really" operates as Sheldrake says it does. TED's job should not to evaluate the truth-content of philosophical perspectives, but to provide an open platform for their dissemination. Therefore, in their pending decision to remove one of these perspectives, I draw attention to the inherent controversy of the issue under debate. Those best qualified to speak on the the operation of science as a whole; who have gone into the history of it, and who have unearthed the evidence, are philosophers of science (e.g. Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Hacking, etc) and they do not agree amongst themselves. Instead, they rather notably disagree, exemplifying the pluralism of opinion that abounds in philosophy—but with rigor, every last one of them.

    And yes, Kuhn would tend to agree with Sheldrake, while Popper, probably not. Better to err on the side of caution and present his viewpoint with the risk that it might be wrong than exclude it with the very real possibility that it was right.

    Also, I think it is essential to note the stance of Coyne, Myers, and company in this debate: they belong to a very outspoken group of humanists thinkers, and all consider themselves members of the "skeptic movement". As such, I believe it fair to say that they are not merely concerned citizens, but highly motivated advocates of a particular point of view; one predicated upon rejecting religion, the paranormal, and—as a general rule—any topic perceived as "not mainstream". It is therefore unsurprising that they would object to Sheldrake's presentation. But, though sympathetic to many of the ideas of humanism myself, I would hate to see their objection carried to the point of exclusion, and I certainly have no interest in listening only to humanist-approved talks, policed by a vocal minority of skeptic bloggers.
    • Mar 8 2013: It doesn't matter what "mainstream" thought is. Skeptics do not compare claims to one another, they compare claims to standards of evidence and reasoning.

      I'm a humanist/skeptic. The skepticism manifests as this: Sheldrake makes claims. Fine. Are those claims supported by compelling evidence? Are his methods and is his reasoning sound? The answer to both these questions is "No." Therefore, Sheldrake's claims can be dismissed.
      • Mar 8 2013: No, you CLAIM to be a humanist "skeptic", and yet you are here dispensing authorative proclamations on the work of Sheldrake, which I daresay you know very little about. You use no qualifiers because they are unnecessary to you. You "dismiss" rather than merely disagree. You advocate the removal of a viewpoint you reject by reflex.

        I would never campaign to exclude the videos or perspectives given by members of the skeptic community, even though they can likewise be accused of, at times, terribly bad science. The misrepresentation they make of the work in academic parapsychology, for example, is deplorable, on a consistent basis; if it were removed, the public might get a more balanced view of that field. But removing it would be the morally illegitimate way for proponents of psi to argue their perspectpive; instead, they would need to post their own videos in response, and fight back through the recognized channels.
        • Mar 8 2013: Please stop assuming you know anything about me or my background or what I may know of Sheldrake's work. I will not deign your comment with further attention.
      • Mar 8 2013: Most of the talk is dedicated to attacking claims, not making them.

        Is naive realism supported by compelling evidence? Are the methods and reasoning supporting a naive realist view sound?

        I think not, Sheldrake thinks not, Anton Zeilinger, John Archibald Wheeler, Niels Bohr and David Bohm think not.

        If a view is unsupported by reason and evidence, but still widely held, the word "dogma" can be used.

        It seems to me that Sheldrake is saying something like this.
      • Mar 8 2013: An engineer speaks about life sciences with authority, questioning the credentials of former Cambridge researcher into life sciences. I wonder whose viewpoint I should trust?
        • Mar 8 2013: Don't trust either of our "viewpoints." Trust the evidence and the reasoning.

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