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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: There are two issues here in my view. The first is whether Sheldrake is right or wrong, or more specifically whether his views are scientific. Given his credentials he has a right to be treated as a scientist. Since his argument is that the current view of what "science" consists of (so therefore partly science and partly philosophy of science) it is to be expected that those whose views he questions will regard his stance as unscientific. That they fervently believe this to be so does not make it so. It is their opinion. Opinion, not fact.
    There is then the question of whether TedX standards are being met. I can't speak to that. What I can say is that if TEDx standards do not permit of contrarian views, minority perspectives or (just possibly) leading-edge views that are being attacked by an authoritarian dogma from the past (not saying that this is what is happening, but that it could be) then there is something wrong with TED standards. If Sheldrake's video is banned then I for one will cease to trust that TED is what it has so far seemed to be - a platform for interesting and radical views, presented without censorship.
    Let's be under no illusions. What Coyne is calling for is a form of censorship. Galileo might have been wrong too, but that would not have excused the Church's behaviour towards him. Time and evidence proved him right, and time and evidence will prove Sheldrake right or wrong. That is what science is about.
    • Mar 8 2013: If Sheldrake is to be treated as a scientist, then he has a congruent responsibility to act like one. No self-respecting scientist would question a controversial hypothesis _phrased as such._ Sheldrake, however, does not do this. He makes bald assertions conflating "scientists" with "science" and with "scientific knowledge." He does so only to undermine the scientific establishment that has provided humanity with the foundation to become what it is today.

      As for "censorship," I refer you to the link posted above by "Enopoletus Harding" just to point out how vague the term is in common usage.
      • Mar 8 2013: It doesn't matter how vague the term censorship is. The attempt by those who believe themselves to be authorities to remove a person's point of view from a public forum meets any definition that would possibly matter.
        And yes, the scientific establishment has contributeed to who we are today - man on the moon, internet etc. etc. It has also contributed to changes whose consequences are not fully understood, tehcnologies whose side-effects we are now struggling to cope with, to unintended consequences and to the rejection of other equally valid points of view (including, for example the effectiveness of complementary medical techniques). There is an either-or world in which we are being pushed to choose between technical medicine and non-technological medicine. What will it take for the scientific establishment to allow that a both-and world might be possible. And what would it take for the same level of funding and a truly scientific approach to be applied to both?
        • Mar 8 2013: I guess you didn't bother reading that link I referred to.
      • Mar 8 2013: I guess that means you think that what is happening here comes under the definition of "moderating". It is very clear that we won't agree about very much. I don't believe that you are adressing the issue of whether some of the people involved in ths debate see themselves as authorities - the ones who are entitled to decide what is relevant or not relevant. Your view is that Sheldrake is trying to undermine the scientific establishment. I would say that he is trying for an upgrade. And the fact that you see this as a conflict with "establishment" kind of proves my point.
        • Mar 8 2013: I am only supporting the views of respected experts, which my own studies have led me take as the best situation we currently have. I may not have advanced degrees in the subjects covering Sheldrake's ideas, but I have worked vigorously with scientists for decades besides the scientific influence that pervades my own work.

          I remain open to being "proved" wrong. But it will have to be on grounds of solid evidence and solid reasoning, neither of which is reflected by Sheldrake.

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