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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: Whether or not Sheldrake is the embodiment of new scientific thought or a scientific blunder, his questioning has inspired a lot of thought and interest upon the subjects he points out in his TedTalk, and I think the purpose of Ted is to share ideas. These ideas might be hard to believe or completely crazy, but we can learn more on our own part. Ted has offered a lot of new knowledge to me through video and conversations, but some seemed ridiculous, though it was a platform to jump to the next appropriate set of ideas. To understand the many different ideas that can inspire thought and act as a platform for growth, Ted should leave Sheldrake's talk on their youtube archives, which is precisely doing just that from this whole conversation evolving right before us. For further inspections into Sheldrake's ideas, then we should invite Sheldrake to participate in a conversation on Ted, then all the slander can turn into growth on each end of the stick, whether it be Sheldrake or his audience.
    • Mar 8 2013: It is easy to see that Sheldrake's idea's have inspired exact zero science. They are worthless by observation, and apparently thoroughly uninteresting for scientists. If he can't do experiments with his ideas, what science value are they?

      Meanwhile, science has has inspired a lot of thought and interest about the real world. It is amazing what we can tell about it, and that Sheldrake is utterly wrong is but the most uninteresting part. 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.

      That the vacuum is like that is amazing, that SM is so precise is wondrous and that we still haven't seen dark matter that constitutes the bulk part of the matter is exciting! Sheldrake's woo - yawn. There are 100's like him out there, utter bores all of them, no one with any new ideas but recycled crap from the 18th and 19th century or even further back.

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