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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: TED has given one million dollars to Mr. Mitra to build a school in the clouds and yet wants to censor Mr. Sheldrake's talk for lack of scientific rigour? Where are Mr. Mitra's double blind studies in a clinic to prove his theories? His results are based on observation and evidence which many scholars would scoff at. So instead of TED supporting a movement that MIGHT transform the way millions of underprivileged children learn and succeed, should we be waiting for decades for "proof" that could always be disputed?
    Our audience are not morons and they make up their own minds about what they hear. Cull out obvious transgressors but leave a wide margin.
    • Mar 8 2013: Brian, I agree that TED should be generous when vetting, but your recommended "margin", including Sheldrake, spans the Gulf of Mexico.
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        Mar 8 2013: Rick,
        I am but a simple man but when many others far more erudite feel Mr. Shelldrake has something to say, I would err to the side of his talk being left to stand on its own merits. Perhaps Lake Erie would be a better analogy. I heard a few talks last week at TED that made me squint (the one scientifically justifying polygamy comes to mind), but I am a grown up and choose to accept or decline the reasoning and then drive on.
        • Mar 8 2013: So you have said. Tell me this: what would you do if several scholars came to you insisting on allowing a representative of the Discovery Institute to speak in favor of teaching religion (creationism) in public schools?

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