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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: My head is spinning seeing this debate.

    I thought he was very clear in separating the scientific method (which he wholeheartedly endorses) and the assumptions that he believes currently go unquestioned (and he laid out ten of these.), which - by definition - have to be taken as starting truths, and therefore can only be "believed in" ... until shaken to its roots, and even then, only when majority view switches to allowing them to be accepted as the "new" truths.

    It's been the history of science through and through ... starting from the flat earth, to Newtons laws, to Einstein's ... to whatever new world-view will happen to hold sway 100 years from now. I mean, surely there is not ONE person amongst us who believes that we have uncovered all of the world's mysteries? Or, that the next SURPRISE will come from a linear extension of current world-views and not from a fundamentally disruptive paradigm?

    In fact, it is PRECISELY this track record of how Scientific Discovery has historically played out that makes his ACTUAL theories so appealing. And it appears that he has designed experiments surrounding his hypotheses, and got interesting, confirming data, AND others have replicated his experiments and got confirming data, as well.

    In the face of this, I can only imagine two sets of reactions. ONE ... SUSPICION and imagining that subversive sets of people are CONSPIRING to foist all this mumbo-jumbo on the Scientifically Inclined ... which, unfortunately, appears to be more of a reaction expected from BELIEVERS rather than from Scientifically Minded people. Or TWO ... a reasonable "Okay, fair enough; we'll take on doing these experiments ourselves and evaluate the results and get back to you".

    Personally, since my curiosity has been piqued, and I'd love to find out more, I'd LOVE to hear back about the results garnered by people who have gone down route TWO. So, dear TEDsters - any links to any such information?

    • Mar 8 2013: Science is a method, a tool, so obviously you don't make "assumptions" or "starting truths". Try that when you buy a hammer - the handle will fall off if it's broken, despite you being told the "starting truth" that it is perfectly fine in the store. Observations (experiments and generically theories) have testable constraints, they are observations too!

      Yes, most theorists believes we have now understood the laws underlying everyday physics (with the standard cosmology (SC) and Standard Model of particles (SM)), and that they won't likely change. 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.

      _No one_ "started" with "flat Earth" during the time period of science or even the last couple of thousands years, google the flat Earth myth.

      No one can replicate Sheldrake since he hasn't quantified his claims. that is the problem and why it is pseudoscience. You can google that too, or read the link in my previous comment.
      • Mar 8 2013: Hmm. Typically we start with a hypothesis, no? Stated differently that would be "assuming this is true", we expect to see such-and-such by way of results, yes? We typically try to "constrain" for a bunch of variables, right - factor out any impact that heat, pressure, etc, might have, yes? Translated, that would be "assuming that we do this at a particular temperature, pressure, what-not" we expect to see the following results? We do assume that the laws of nature are constant, right? Here on Earth in 2013 AD, as well as out in deep space, 5 nano-seconds after the Big Bang?

        That's what I'm calling starting truths.


        Now, what if these assumptions are NOT true? What if there are a 1000 different factors that are particular to our environment on Earth that are invisible to us - just like water is invisible to fish - that makes all of our science really TRUE, but only within the particular circumstances that are AUTOMATICALLY getting controlled for simply because they are there, they are consistent, and they are invisible to us?

        "Flat Earth" is a good example. To anyone alive at the time, it would have been "obvious". What was wrong with these Copernicus and Galileo types? Couldn't they SEE? That the Earth was flat wasn't an ASSUMPTION ... it was very real, SELF-EVIDENT Truth. Yet, if people suspended their beliefs for a few minutes to listen, and consider what Galileo and co. were saying ... well, IF the World WAS round, planetary orbits became MUCH easier to explain. Hmm. Fast forward many years, and now you have photographs of our lovely blue globe.

        Forget that. In MY lifetime, I had a colleague come tell me that Space was curved. I looked at him as if he was Nuts. Space is "obviously" the ABSENCE of stuff. How can NOTHING be curved? Yet, once I was able to suspend disbelief, I learned something.

        These are fun times, guys. Allow yourselves a bit of wonder. You lose nothing. You could gain a lot.

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