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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: Please consider the current state of the physical sciences.

    The Theory of Relativity is the best we have for explaining large scale physics, and it is flawed. The "laws of nature" break down when applied to black holes and the theory is inadequate to explain some other phenomena.

    Quantum Mechanics has no adequate explanation for the particle/wave duality. Noted physicists admit that the results of double-slit experiments remain a mystery. The math is amazingly accurately in its predictions, but the true nature of the subatomic world is still waiting to be discovered.

    These and other areas of science that remain stubbornly resistant to the traditional approach to theory and research indicate that the traditional approach may be inadequate. In order to develop the Theory of Relativity, Einstein had to discard a lot of old thinking. The next advance in the physical sciences just might REQUIRE discarding ideas that are now considered as part of the foundation of physics. Sheldrake is trying to open minds to new approaches. His specifics are just examples that might or might not be correct, but his effort to break down the boundaries of the box imposed by the "scientific worldview" (not science) is admirable and perhaps necessary.
    • Mar 8 2013: Very true.

      One could also add consciousness, which is probably the most baffling puzzle in all of science.

      Still, I anticipate some commenters would say that just because these mysteries exist does not necessarily mean that psi does, for example. I would have to agree. The existence of psi or other anomalies must rely on its own evidence. It just so happens that that evidence is stronger than most would suspect or admit.
    • Mar 8 2013: This is the shell game of pseudoscientists, Gish gallop a lot of misunderstandings or errors about science, which will take pages to correct with references and all.

      In short this time: Relativity applies to black holes, there is no "duality" in QM but you can observe quantum relativistic fields which is _the whole point_ physically speaking, Einstein didn't discard but introduced new physics (special relativistic mechanic out of classical relativistic mechanic), et cetera.

      Sheldrake is trying a) to scam people out of money for his talks and books without having to do any work in science and b) to close minds against the amazing progress of science. We _know_ there are no more mystical forces ("morphic fields") as the Standard Model (SM) of particles can predict values with 11 decimals. This is because the vacuum has the amazing property that everything that is not forbidden by physic law is happening - so since SM is correct up to 100's of GeV, way beyond chemical phenomena of ~eV, there are no more fields, no more forces to account for in daily life. (Of course the details remains to fill in in many cases. But the fundamentals are _understood_ now, with SM and standard cosmology (SC).)

      This is something every literate person should try to grasp, even though the results are 40 (SM) and 10 (SC) years old. Indeed the last SM field, the Higgs field, was just observed last year.
      • Mar 8 2013: And of course you have the complete explanation for dark matter as well.

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