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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: Sheldrake's gross distortions of those of us who value and engage in science and reason, and his own unsupported assertions, brings to mind another section which you might consider adding to TED - a fact-check page to accompany each talk. This could be open and done by interested volunteers akin to the Wikipedia process. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would go a long way towards assuring future speakers didn't wander off into the twilight zone.
    • Mar 8 2013: Your suggestion does not typically work well with insanely controversial topics and people such as psi and Rupert Sheldrake. Typically, the victory goes to the most obsessed, which are almost always the skeptics. That's not how you discover the truth.

      Your own comments about unsupported assertions are a demonstration of the problem. You are clearly making unsupported assumptions yourself. You have strong opinions, but have given nothing else.

      Sheldrake is a careful scientist who follows (and provides) the evidence. I wonder if you've read anything he's written.
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        Mar 8 2013: If you found his opening two or three sentences compeling, well, good for you. For me they marked him as biased and wrong-headed to the extreme. Those first few comments were flat assertions of a serious nature. And, yes I have read him, but so what?

        I am not in favor of making an example of him, though, or holding him as some sort of singular offender of main-stream scientific sensibilities - that would be rdiculous. TED has had many good speakers, many so-so, and many poor speakers, and will have more poor mixed in, but I am willing to hear them out for on occasion a jewel will emerge.

        Rupert fell flat for me, but maybe he stirred others. It happens
      • Mar 8 2013: Re " Typically, the victory goes to the most obsessed, which are almost always the skeptics. "

        Well said! this imediately brought up images of dear old Dawkins and co.
        • Mar 8 2013: Skeptics organizations are to a man devoted to a science base, read CSICOP and TAM et cetera constitutions. You mean "skeptics", which are all anti-skeptics (and anti-science).
      • Mar 8 2013: It is painfully obvious that Sheldrake has published no "careful" science:

        "Members of the scientific community consider Sheldrake's claims to be currently unfalsifiable and therefore outside the scope of scientific experiment. The "morphic field" concept is believed by many to fall into the realm of pseudoscience.[36][44][45]". [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake ]

        Indeed, Google Scholar shows he has published one (!) review (!!) as a biochemist. Nothing else outside of "psi research".

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