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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: Let me try to present some simple, sceptical and scientific comments as to why this talk ought not to have taken place under the TED banner. Given all the woo-ey comments already put up here, this will be an uphill battle, and this makes me fear for the future of TED, but I am obliged to try.

    Factual fallacies:
    Science as a philosophical worldview - in my opinion an invention by Sheldrake. Science is a (highly successful) way of finding out the 'truth' or, how things work.

    In his 'refutation' of scientific dogma he utterly fails - I don't have nearly enough space to refute his Gish Gallop of wrongs. And if the TED editors themselves don't see this, than woe be them and I weep for TED.

    One obvious one is his 'second dogma' that 'consciousness does not exist'. That is emphatically not what science says and I have no idea where he pulled that from.

    The collective memory theory is 'not even wrong', simply put. There is literally zero evidence for it.
    Some dogmas - 'materialism' - are easily refuted: show memories, and inheritence, without matter, and we can talk.

    His misunderstanding of how physical constants work is just funny. In short, we are constantly observing vast amounts of space around us. If laws of physics changed locally, we would have noticed - like when you're on a ship bobbing on the waves looking at other ships and faraway shorelines. This is easy to understand but RS fails to do this.

    There is NO, ZERO, credible evidence for 'influencing on a distance'. ZIP. Science would actually welcome such findings as this is exciting stuff, like Higgs Bosons or 3 trillion dwarf galaxies. Alas, without evidence we must conclude it does not exist.

    I hope the editors will look at the quality of the arguments presented here in the comments - all the positive ones seem to say "well I like what he said" or "yeah scientific dogma, bad, waffle" or "we must be open to like, stuff", which is thin in actual arguments.
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      Mar 8 2013: Insulting other posters with words like "woo-ey" is inappropriate.

      Are you seriously saying that science shouldn't be open to questioning? That's the gist of Sheldrake's talk, and it isn't such a controversial idea.
      • Mar 8 2013: "Woo-ey" is not inappropriate but appropriate if it can be substantiated. Volker did that.

        Are you seriously saying that science should consider unsubstantiated woo? That scientists shall publish is the gist of science, and it isn't such a controversial idea.
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          Mar 8 2013: Insults are not appropriate in a civil scientific forum. It's appropriate to state something is factually incorrect so long as you can provide evidence, but that is not the same as saying something is "bad" or "woo" or "stupid". It is appropriate for me to disagree with you. It is fine for me to suggest you are making factual errors. It is not OK for me to say you are stupid, whatever my opinion on that particular matter might be.

          I understand that the term woo has been popularized in the forums of certain fringe organizations as a way to classify anyone who disagrees with the dogma promoted by those groups. That doesn't make it appropriate to use at TED.
    • Mar 8 2013: A few responses to this...

      "One obvious one is his 'second dogma' that 'consciousness does not exist'. That is emphatically not what science says and I have no idea where he pulled that from."

      I have no idea, either; probably because he never said that. In any case, some mainstream philosophers argue that consciousness does not exist. Their position is called 'eliminative materialism.' Most scientists and philosophers, however, believe it exists, but assume that it can be reduced in some way to brain function. Sheldrake - and a growing number of others (such as philosopher Thomas Nagel, though to be fair, I doubt Nagel is interested in psi phenomena) - takes issue with that assumption.

      "There is NO, ZERO, credible evidence for 'influencing on a distance'. ZIP. Science would actually welcome such findings as this is exciting stuff, like Higgs Bosons or 3 trillion dwarf galaxies. Alas, without evidence we must conclude it does not exist."

      A lot of skeptical commenters in this discussion have made this claim. It's not true. There's a vast experimental literature. In an earlier post I suggested the recent book "Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion," which has essays by proponents and skeptics, as an entry point into this literature. Of course, this would require reading journals like the AAAS accredited "Journal of Parapsychology," which some here have claimed – prejudicially, in my opinion – is not a science journal. This bias reinforces a circular loop that keeps such people from even the most superficial examination: Parapsychology journals are not reputable nor are they scientific; ergo, anything published in them is not scientific and no evidence exists.
      • Mar 8 2013: Sheldrake said that "matter is unconscius" et cetera. You and Sheldrake's obsession with philosophers instead of science here is odd, but still anti-science woo.

        As for 'influencing on a distance', there is a lot of physics evidence against. And there are exactly zip evidence for "anomalous cognition". That parapsychology journals can't do the heavy lifting and establish a testable science is not the fault of science. Do the homework.
    • Mar 8 2013: “I hope the editors will look at the quality of the arguments presented here in the comments - all the positive ones seem to say "well I like what he said" or "yeah scientific dogma, bad, waffle" or "we must be open to like, stuff", which is thin in actual arguments.”

      I hope so, too. Especially because a lot of the negative ones are negative without giving any indication of a thoughtful engagement with the evidence for anomalous cognition.

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