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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: Let us agree to remove Sheldrake's talk from the Tedx archive. He is an embarrassment to it.
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      Mar 8 2013: Another advocate of censorship? That's sad.
      • Mar 8 2013: sandy stone - I am sorry to keep reading that you believe removing Sheldrake's talk equates to censorship. If an organization like TED publishes standards against which talks/videos are adjudicated and described, then it isn't an act of censorship to admit that error and remove the offending video because it later realizes that it failed to meet those standards. It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with those standards, or whether you think that Sheldrake is a brilliant person or a crackpot.

        Do you understand?
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          Mar 8 2013: What I understand is that PZ Meyers is a member of a small but vocal fringe group who don't represent the majority of scientists, but who do what they can to try to influence what the public is allowed to see. There is already so much censorship in science these days. I'm not eager to allow any such organization dictate what I can see.

          Give the viewers some credit. Let them make up their own minds.
        • Mar 8 2013: Nice strawman, Barry Conchie, but it is not the reality of the situation. Emily McManus has stated:

          "Sheldrake is on that line, to some commenters around Twitter and the web."

          TED is under pressure from a group of dogmatic fundamentalists to remove this talk, and they are now looking for opinions from viewers/readers. It is not a clear cut case of 'mistakes were made' because that has not yet been determined.
      • Mar 8 2013: Censorship is the suppression of information. An organization like TED that has rules and guidelines that qualify certain talks as meeting certain standards has a responsibility to uphold those standards or tell us why it is prepared to allow them to be broken. It really doesn't matter whether you agree with the standards or not. It is not an act of censorship to remove talks that violate those standards. TED isn't a "free speech" venue or organization where anything goes. I have seen no comment from anyone criticizing Sheldrake that his views should be subject to censorship? He has every right to publish books and videos.

        Neither sandy stone not Toby Randel appear to understand that fact. The decision to allow or deny a video isn't taken because of a baying pack of detractors or advocates, but on the basis of adjudicating against the standards of TED. A "strawman" argument is one that involves twisting a position to something that does not resemble the original argument in order to knock it down. Toby Randel believes i am guilty of such an argument. However, as Emily McManus states, "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." Don't you think it is very clear the basis on which this talk might be removed?
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          Mar 8 2013: Actually, no. His ideas are not "wrong to the point of being unscientific." He doesn't misrepresent the scientific process either. The only reason I can see that this talk is being singled out is the fact that PZ Meyers is involved with a fringe organization that makes a point to attack, and in this case censor, POVs that don't agree with that organization's fundamentalist beliefs. TED shouldn't allow itself be used to promote any particular dogma or takes sides in scientific disputes.

          Quite honestly, the fair thing to do would be propose a debate between Sheldrake and one of his detractors, and air the results on TED!
        • Mar 8 2013: The claim that Sheldrake is being unscientific has not been supported – if you believe I’m wrong please supply evidence for this assertion. The nearest that anyone has got to actually challenging what he says is to claim that he is a "woomiester", and that he 'has an agenda' by pointing out that the measurements of light speed have changed over time – Sheldrake’s claim was not been debunked and just making this claim that it has is an act of willful ignorance.

          I don’t know about you, but I want to see some evidence that his ideas are bunk. Simply insulting the man does not go anywhere to disproving his arguments. Most of the arguments on here seem to boil down to the fact that people do not like what he is saying, so they want him shut up – that is not science.
        • Mar 8 2013: However, as Emily McManus states "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." -----------------------------------------------------------------

          I don't see anywhere that Rupert Sheldrake has "misrepresented the science process" at all. All he is stating is that there is a minority within science that hold science back from what it should be about. Nobody can deny that.I mean you want evidence watch the google talk that Professor Dean Radin gave on "Science and Taboo of PSI". He shows that there is actual evidence that there is a taboo within science and a misrepresention in reporting when it comes to PSI.

          This is precisely the sort of point Rupert Sheldrake also makes about science.As Rupert Sheldrake said himself... there is a problem within science when 2 people from the same university are interested in PSI and had nobody they could talk to about it... and had to go to Ireland to a scientific conference on PSI... only to meet a colleague who worked down the corridor from them that they had no idea was also interested in PSI.

          I mean if that isn't showing you right there that there is a problem within the science community to "come clean" about what they believe and practice free thinking when it comes to non-materialistic science then I don't know what does.
        • Mar 8 2013: I agree with Barry.
          And if the rest of you still think there is no evidence for Shldrake's misrepresentation of science and facts, just read previous comments. For example, the list Dark Star provided.
      • Mar 8 2013: Sandy, do you believe that a judge in a court of law has the right to rule that certain evidence is inadmissible and should be discounted or debarred, or do you see this as an unacceptable form of censorship?
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          Mar 8 2013: Science doesn't work like a court of law. You don't get to pick and choose your data to suit your POV. You don't even get to pick and choose your data to be politically correct or to be fair. You are stuck with the data as it is and you have to deal with it. If you can't follow the data, you aren't much of a scientist.
        • Mar 8 2013: Judges in a court of law deal in witness testimony as well... last time I looked science didn't. You are comparing apples with oranges.
        • Mar 8 2013: Sandy Stone wrote: "Science doesn't work like a court of law. You don't get to pick and choose your data to suit your POV."

          Do you really think that courts & judges work by "picking and choosing" data?
        • Mar 8 2013: To Frank Matera: witness testimony is used as a secondary source, because, sometimes, there just isn't a way to get real "data." This is a known shortcoming of every judicial system, but it is designed to work more often than not. The justice system simply cannot not work to the same level of accuracy and precision as science. Therefore, it uses different methods. For instance, the notion of "reasonable doubt" is just a more qualitative form of the statistical significance measures used by scientists.
      • Mar 8 2013: Sandy, as you clearly understand the difference between science and law, and as you correctly argue that science follows data, you and I are in full agreement. Now, the concern that scientists are expressing about Sheldrake is that he is making claims about science that are based on no data. Indeed, they are saying that some of his claims are unscientific. Not a single scientist has been able to cite any of his work in replicated experiments. None has been published in a reputable journal. Reaching definitive judgments, as Sheldrake does, without the evidence to support them is putting the cart before the horse. We call this pseudo-science. It is on this basis that TED will determine whether his video is removed and that's why it isn't censorship.
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          Mar 8 2013: Who is this "we" you claim to be? JREF? CSI?

          Sadly, there are fringe groups out there that are doing their best to censor opposing POV. What would be so terrible about having Sheldrake openly debate Meyers on TED, rather than allowing these fringe organizations to dictate what we are allowed to see?

          Did you even listen to this talk? He questioned accepted beliefs held by many scientists... but it's good for science to be questioned. As soon as we sit back and say everything is figured out, you just know some bright kid is going to show you that you're wrong.

          He is arguing against complacency. Science is becoming dogmatic and that's a bad thing. How many scientists have ever taken a history of science or philosophy of science course as part of their undergraduate degree. Very few. It isn't usually required. That's unfortunate because we are facing a generation of scientists who don't know that they are basing their work on assumptions that may or may not be correct. They take things on faith, and they shouldn't. Sheldrake is arguing for more accountability, more questioning and more understanding of what science is all about. We need to hear these things.
      • Mar 8 2013: Another example of Sandy Stone refusing to understand the difference between censorship and an organization's obligation to provide a forum to anyone - none. That's sad.
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          Mar 8 2013: TED shouldn't take direction from organizations such as JREF or CSI, unless it identifies itself as having that connection so that people will be aware of the bias in what it presents to the public. If TED wants to clearly identify itself with the political atheist movement, then it should do so. I can understand why JREF and CSI don't want to post Sheldrake's work on their webpages, because it goes against what they stand for. What does TED now stand for? Openness in dialogue, or censorship of ideas?
      • Mar 8 2013: Sandy, "we" are a group of hedonistic co-conspirators who are trying to suppress free speech and free expression in order to control the internet and take over the world. But we are trying to keep it quiet so people don't figure this out until it's too late.
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          Mar 8 2013: Nice of you to come clean, Barry. :)
        • Mar 8 2013: Wait... I thought we were going for the whole galaxy.
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      Mar 8 2013: Wasn't this the sentiment and the same narrow minded views the cause Galileo his troubles: Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for "vehement suspicion of heresy"

      "Despite taking care to adhere to the Inquisition's 1616 instructions, the claims in the book favouring Copernican theory and a non Geocentric model of the solar system led to Galileo being tried and banned on publication. Despite the publication ban, Galileo published his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences (Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze) in 1638 in Holland, outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition."
      • Mar 8 2013: Aw, a Galileo gambit. How cute. "They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." Or, see my blog post http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/cranks/
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          Mar 8 2013: Are we the real "Bozos", when we permit Bozo onto the TED stage but deny Gailieo?
      • Mar 8 2013: The Catholic Church was (and still is) founded *entirely* on dogma. Galileo at least had *some* evidence (a lot by his day's standards).
        If anything you have the roles reversed: Sheldrake assumes the role of the church, trying to undermine the scientists of the day (Galileo) with tripe.

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