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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: Thankyou...it's nearly evening here now!
    Perhaps I should phrase a TED question about this, it seems a large topic. But I'll try and give a few salient points, especially about the difference Ive most observed between the English and Americans :

    When my sister attended a short dance course in New York, she couldn't believe the culture difference. She observed that everyone took every little thing so seriously, didn't smile, failure was to be avoided always, intensely.

    It's not that the English aren't just as serious, - we' re very serious and deep, and independent! But we don't wear it on our sleeve, so to speak. We are more reserved (I know we're speaking generalisations), more likely to keep our own counsel, especially about important things, and are quite able to have a veneer of toleration for something we inwardly take with a pinch of salt. It's not a bad trait...it allows things to mellow out and find their rightful level, often.
    In conversation we are often brief and full of irony and other quirky or subtle humour. We are used to eccentricity, everywhere. It's allowed. There are more eccentric polymaths around here than anywhere else I know.

    From what I have read of RS's book (and I take it as seriously or not as I wish), it is written in the style of a friendly English conversation....more like talking to people who are already his friends in a ancient village hall - sharing his enthusiasm for all he is involved with, without actually presenting much of the nuts and bolts of a scientific paper in the usual academic sense.
    We're great natural philosophers and speculators, it's a national hobby we all share, wondering about everything. We have a hard won right to think for ourselves, and we do. I feel the book was written in this spirit, ....I can't quite put my finger at the moment on why, more than this, but I definitely feel we are not reacting to it, by and large, in the same way as many of our American cousins.

    Hope that gives a bit of a window
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      Mar 8 2013: That's an interesting view of Americans. I would add that there is a great deal of variation going from state to state. New York isn't exactly typical of what you would find in Texas, for instance. As a Canadian who has lived in the states, I would have to say that open conversations about controversial subjects are much more difficult there than in Canada or the UK. When my husband was posted to the US, we were warned about certain aspects of US culture. It is much more violent than Canada or the UK. Political and religious POVs tend to be much more polarized. I enjoyed my time there, and still enjoy visiting the US from time to time. But I have to say that living in the US gave me a much greater appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities I enjoy as a citizen of Canada.
      • Mar 8 2013: Thankyou sandy.
        I have run out of recommends!
        That is interesting. All friends who have visited the States have mentioned the violence, (but then I'm sure there are more violent pockets in the UK too.)
        I will try and formulate an interesting question along these lines, as perhaps what we learn from it may help to 'oil the wheels' of our TED conversations.
        Even the way we use words, and what we mean by them varies, often subtlety but importantly.
        I think it is one of the exciting potentials of TED, that minds from all over the world can meet. I would be sad to see that clipped.
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          Mar 8 2013: I've been to London, and I have to say I felt quite safe wandering around as a newcomer to that city. I can't say the same of American cities, where I've personally witnessed violent acts take place. I've never seen that kind of violence in Canada, where I've lived most of my life. I've lived in isolated rural areas as well as in major cities here, so I have a pretty good cross-section of experience to draw upon.
    • Mar 8 2013: (Pssst ...you forgot to mention the "Pint or two" ...in the part about "ancient village hall")

      And By the Bye ...you've outlined beautifully why Eckhart Tolle loves O'England.
      • Mar 8 2013: why I love it!
        I am English, but was brought up abroad. I developed a greater appreciation of it I think.
    • Mar 9 2013: Brilliant post Reine!! and I absolutely resonate with your post both about British and Americans. I was having exactly this discussion with someone no more than a month ago.

      I am Australian myself and we are very similar to the English. We have a very similar sense of humour as well to the British and I work in an industry where I spend a lot of time with British, American and Canadians.

      The American sense of humour is most definitely different to ours, but their culture on everything from guns to political correctness is so far apart what I am used to that they may as well be on another planet!

      What we find funny they find offensive... and it is almost in a way like political correctness or lifestyle in the US has taken all the fun out of the people living there. It is most definitely a different "vibe" in the US that I have to admit I don't particularly enjoy.

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