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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: TEDx claims to be about "Ideas worth spreading", but Sheldrake, a token biochemist peddler of pseudoscience talks and books, has no science ideas about science worth spreading.

    Token biochemist - published a review once in biochemistry. [ Google Scholar]

    Peddler of pseudoscience - rejected parapsychology, untestable "morphic field".

    "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 ]

    Sheldrake indulges in character assassination of science, calling results painstakingly derived through hundreds of years as solid "dogma" and painting it with random philosophic ideas that science is not responsible for. And he is unashamed about doing so as transparently one of the many "Dawkins' fleas", sucking his book title from Dawkins' "The God Delusion".

    This talk is not about science and it is about selling pseudoscience, both enough reasons to withdraw the talk. Please do so!
    • thumb
      Mar 8 2013: It is doubtful that you have looked at the data.
    • Mar 8 2013: "Token biochemist - published a review once in biochemistry."
      On a point of information: he published three articles in Nature and was a fellow of biochemistry at Cambridge. It does not matter, but I don't think we should let factual errors go uncorrected.

      The Ageing, Growth and Death of Cells, Nature, Vol. 250, No. 5465, pp. 381-385, August 2nd 1974
      Sheldrake, A. R. "Polar auxin transport in leaves of monocotyledons." (1972): 352-353.
      Production of Auxin by Detached Leaves, Nature (1968), 217, 195
    • Ben Kadel

      • +11
      Mar 8 2013: It's interesting to me that Torbjorn doesn't address the actual content of the talk so much as focus on character assassinations of Sheldrake (questioning his credentials, using other people's character judgements, etc.) and yet claims that Sheldrake is engaging in character assassination of science. What makes this even more bizarre is that "science" as a process has no character to be assassinated. The only way one could assassinate the character of science is if it was thought of as an entity, as Science with a capital S, which is exactly the point that Sheldrake is making. Torbjorn's defensive reaction proves Sheldrake's point.

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