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Emily McManus

Editor, TED.com, TED

TEDCRED 200+

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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: "A TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific." If that's truly the TED standard, then Sheldrake's talk should go.

    Sheldrake's talk is clearly pseudoscience. It meets the definition of pseudoscience because 1) he uses the rhetoric of science and presents himself as a scientist, but 2) the entire goal of his talk is discredit science as it is currently practiced. It's not a focused surgical strike on particular types of "bad" science, but a massive philosophical broadside that, if accepted at face value, would force all scientists to recant most of what they think they know. Sheldrake's central message is that science is largely wrong and that mainstream scientists should be distrusted. Intentionally or not, it plays into and reinforces unfortunate lines of thinking that can have dangerous consequences, from poor environmental regulation to the fatal mistreatment of disease.

    It's not a question of censorship. Sheldrake and his fantasies about telepathic rats will live forever on YouTube and elsewhere. (Long live the telepathic rats!) The question is whether his ideas deserve the TED seal of approval -- whether they rise to TED's initial standard.

    It comes down to what TED is all about. Are these talks supposed to be the best distillations of the best learning achievements of the best modern thinkers? Or is TED a place for society-wide brainstorming, in which everybody tosses out their ideas (good, bad, or crazy) to see which ones have the staying power to survive as memes?

    If TED's purpose is the former, some serious housecleaning is in order (and not just with Sheldrake). If it's the latter, Sheldrake and his ilk can stay on the stage, but many of us will continue to downwardly revise our expectations of your institution.
    • Mar 8 2013: "Sheldrake's central message is that science is largely wrong and that mainstream scientists should be distrusted."

      Not at all. He claims that the materialistic philosophical position is mainly taken for granted and that influences the way science is done in a way we might not suspect. Science as it is done now works very well in a vast majority of domains and I don't hear that Rupert Sheldrake has problems with that.

      But on some specific issues, like consciousness for example, he explains why the materialistic philosophical position may prevent us to do science as it should be done.

      But be sure that if is talk is removed, it will illustrate perfectly what he just said!
    • Mar 8 2013: Based on your description, you did not watch the same video that I watched.
      • Mar 9 2013: I guess it depends on our bias...

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