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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 us be clear what Sheldrake's talk was and was not about. It was not about morphic resonance or psychic functioning; it was not about dogs who know their owners were coming home; it was not about the sense of being stared at; it was not about whether the speed of light has actually changed; nor was it even a collection of amusing anecdotes about Terence McKenna (although such things did come up and Sheldrake could, no doubt, have talked at length about any or all of them). What his talk was actually about was certain philosophical views which many hold, and which many think are connected with science in a way that Sheldrake, and many academic philosophers of the top rank, do not. That is, his talk was about certain metaphysical views which have become associated with science and which, according to Sheldrake, and many others in academia, are actually metaphysical views which are not only unconnected with science but are actively constraining science (the drive to deny/do away with, rather than explain, consciousness, for example). That the philosophical views Sheldrake was criticizing are loudly espoused by many (with little or no formal academic training in philosophy), and that such criticism gets those people hot under the collar, is no reason to censor such critical views. Indeed, the shrill tone of the uninformed and often off-topic criticisms by those in favour of censorship shows exactly why Sheldrake's ideas are very much ideas worth spreading.
    • Mar 8 2013: This is a good comment ^^^ I was going to say something along the same lines but you summed it up nicely.
    • Mar 8 2013: That is a fantastic comment indeed. This is the heart of the matter.
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      Mar 8 2013: Amazing, you were able to walk through the mine fields and get to the other side with great insight. I am curious Steve, did you read over any of the previous comments?
    • Mar 8 2013: I wish it was the Closing Statement from TED !
      Thanks !
    • Mar 8 2013: Steve, even if we grant your interpretation, there is the problem that
      a. any other metaphysical view must accommodate the evidence of the physical universe; and
      b. there is no obligation by scientists to consider metaphysics in their work till it has been demonstrated by philosophers that there are benefits to some alternative view.

      As far as I can tell, then, Sheldrake still fails to make anything useful of his claims.
      • Mar 8 2013: "b. there is no obligation by scientists to consider metaphysics in their work"
        Filippo, I absolutely agree that empirical scientists should not allow metaphysics to interfere with their work. That's the crux of this issue, really: many (not all) scientists seem to be working from metaphysical assumptions of nomology, Platonism, materialism and naive realism, assumptions that contradict experimental evidence and valid mathematical reasoning and affect their work (for example in standardizing constants).
        • Mar 8 2013: And yet this doesn't preclude their involvement, per part (a) of the problem I highlighted. In particular, since any valid metaphysical view must accommodate the evidence we have about the physical universe, and scientists are expert in accumulating evidence of phenomena in the physical universe, then they need to be participants in the enterprise of metaphysics.
    • Mar 8 2013: Thanks Steve

      As far as I am concerned TED can do what TED wants ,.and their actio(s) will define who they are

      ..but your summary was spot on ..cut quoting......

      " That is, his talk was about certain metaphysical views which have become associated with science and which, according to Sheldrake, and many others in academia, are actually metaphysical views which are not only unconnected with science but are actively constraining science ............That the philosophical views Sheldrake was criticizing are loudly espoused by many (with little or no formal academic training in philosophy), .................. is no reason to censor such critical views. Indeed, the shrill tone of the uninformed
      and often off-topic criticisms by those in favour of censorship shows exactly why Sheldrake's ideas are very much ideas worth spreading. "

      And I will add Plontinus' conclusion "Like can only apprehend Like"

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