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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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  • Ben Kadel

    • +13
    Mar 8 2013: I am a trained research scientist and have to say that I think he is spot on in the basic assessment. He makes a clear distinction between the scientific method (which he promotes) and a belief system that I call scientism and he calls the science delusion (which limits the effectiveness of the scientific method). He is calling out a very dangerous tendency in current discussions.

    While we may rightly question some of his hypotheses, that in no way makes his argument "unscientific." In fact, it is the very essence of science. The nature of science is to propose new theories and explanations that do a better job of explaining the gap between existing theories and data. These educated guesses then serve as the basis for experiments that can test previously accepted assumptions and/or provide a more refined context in which the theory applies. Relativity doesn't invalidate Newtonian physics, it merely contains it to the realm of relatively large scales. Punctuated equilibrium doesn't disprove evolution, it just refines our understanding on its mechanisms.

    To tell you the truth, the thing that I find most shocking is not the presentation - which would make sense in most "scientific method 101" courses - but the reaction by some that it is pseudo-science. I would say the reaction itself proves his point more convincingly than his actual presentation.

    As to the "factual error" around government funding, it is such a minor and inconsequential point that it's hardly worth mentioning. At worst, he could be criticized for poorly chosen phrasing, but not for the essential correctness of the idea.

    In short, I have seen far less scientific presentations with greater factual inaccuracy than this live long and popular lives on TED . The desire by some to censor this talk is the best argument I can think of for keeping it and actually promoting it more broadly
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      Mar 9 2013: As your field of research is Sociology, do you have an illustrative example from that field?

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