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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: It's sad how easy it is to for people to drag Rupert Sheldrake's name through the mud just because people are made uncomfortable by his words. Of course, it is always going to be easier for sceptics to go after his character rather than his claims. The problem is that most of us have gotten into the habit of just reading sound bites. This means that all a sceptic has to is do is a bit of handwaving, and call their enemy a scam artist, and there will be many other people who will just accept this as fact - they are not going to check the facts themselves.

    The thing that has surprised me much about the so called skeptics of Rupert Sheldrake is that their arguments have been so weak - even the celebrity skeptics like Coyne and Myers. It is like they have been caught with their trousers down, and they are just fumbling around in damage control mode. They want Rupert Sheldrake silenced because his arguments question their dogmatic beliefs, and they are incapable of dealing with these arguments. Easier to say that he is a "woo meister" than to actually tackle his claims about scientific dogmatism.

    My guess is that the TED people have already made their mind up about Sheldrake. I hope not. My post will likely be taken as a rant, but I'm just so annoyed by this attempt by a very vocal group to silence a legitimate argument. It is up to the people at TED to decide on what videos they wish to put their name to, but it seems to me that if they do decide to censor Sheldrake they will be damaging their own credibility. The arguments raised by Rupert are not going away.
    • Mar 9 2013: I would express the opposite view using similar words. TED tarnishes its credibility by associating with such people. Who is next? Perhaps they'll invite Mark Regnerus to speak about gay parents. After all, he has an opinion.

      There is not an equivalence between unsupported opinion, and evidence-based theories.

      If this speaker had better ideas than current science possesses, and could back it up with evidence, he would be rich, honoured with awards, and the leader of a horde of scientists all seeking similar riches and honours.

      The fact that so many TED viewers cannot even tell the difference between good science and woo shows what may be the most serious flaw in the 20-minute-or-less pizza-delivery sound-byte format promoted by TED. It's great for opinion, but not so great for getting at the truth.

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