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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: Craig, I am well aware of reputable scientific journals and the workings of peer review. Unfortunately the Journal of Parapsychology is not a qualified journal to offer legitimacy, insight or adjudication for the issues Sheldrake raises.It isn't a science journal at all. However, the fact that you see it as reputable explains why you don't understand the scientific issues that are involved here. Of course a journal is only as good as the editors and scientists who contribute and no journal has a perfect record.
    • Mar 8 2013: The Journal of Parapyschology is published by The Parapsychological Association, which has been an affiliated organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since 1969. It most definitely is a rigorous science journal. The fact that you think it offers no "legitimacy, insight or abjudication for the issues Sheldrake raises" strikes me as prejudicial.
    • Mar 8 2013: Barry,
      The Journal of Parapsychology is a good example of where real science and the irrationality of skepticism meet. Besides what Troy said, which is true, the studies that are published are about 85% double blind, which is far and away more than any other branch of science. They publish more opposing views than most journals and act in every way as one of the most reputable journals in all of science.

      But you dismiss this with a wave of the hand. You are doing what so many skeptics do: walling off evidence that you find inconvenient to your world view.
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      Mar 8 2013: Parapsychology is slowly working it's way into mainstream journals. There are articles in Nature, Science and IEEE, to name a few. That being said, most of the science literature I read is in smaller more specialized journals (ie. The Journal of Paleolimnology) that concentrate on specific areas of study. The Journal of Parapsychology also concentrates on a particular area of study and it's peer-review process is no less stringent than that of other peer-reviewed publications.
      • Mar 8 2013: Troy, Craig and sandy, affiliation of the Journal of Parapsychology to AAAS confers zero status on the organization at all. Claiming it to be a rigorous Journal is pure assertion. The key question is whether, through the work of parapsychologists they have been able to define.articulate, test and repeat an overarching scientific theory of psi/esp/ghosts/ghouls and goblins? Please point me to this because this is where serious science starts.

        To the credit of the Parapsychology Association, they are now doing a much better job of policing the field and have made more effective strides at filtering the complete nonsense and fiction that caused the most egregious methodological errors or years past. But they have produced zero by way of evidence or theory that stands rigorous scientific scrutiny.

        But this is all really irrelevant. This is not the organization that gets to adjudicate and decide on Sheldrake's claims on, for example, consciousness or the speed of light. I am sure Sheldrake will find many supporters in that organization...but it isn't science when they talk about it.

        Clear?
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          Mar 8 2013: Your claims that the Journal of Parapsychology is flawed have yet to be substantiated. Do you have specific examples of articles being published without proper peer-review?

          You are entitled to your opinion, but lets not confuse that with presenting factual evidence.
      • Mar 8 2013: sandy - I'll wait for your answer on the overarching theory. Nothing else really matters.
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          Mar 8 2013: Freedom of speech matters. So does the ability to have an open debate unimpeded by special interest groups. I'm hopeful TED won't be bullied by such groups into censoring Sheldrake's talk. That's what matters to me.
    • Mar 8 2013: One of the challenges here for someone who sees himself as a scientist (in terms of thought process and evidence base) but has actually had psychic experiences (too many and too far outside conventional explanation to ignore) is that there is nowhere that I could possibly find legitimisation for my experience that would be accepted by scientific skeptics. The very nature of the phenomenon is placed outside of the domain that their views of what constitute "science" will allow. They define the rules of evidence such that even a thousand people having a thousand experiences like mine, would not be acceptable. Oh dear - I have just categorised myself as "woo". Must be time for me to leave this debate.
      • Mar 8 2013: Jon, science doesn't advance on the basis of personal anecdotes, however frequently they have occurred to you and however real you thought they were. However, if there are "a thousand" people out there claiming the exact same experiences as you this is definitely a testable phenomenon, assuming it is something that has impact on the natural world. Being skeptical about your claims isn't an extreme position that nasty scientists take because they disagree with you, it's because that every time these claims have been studied they have been found wanting. Some of the claims have been incapable of study because they are not scientifically verifiable. So your belief of those rests on faith. You might see yourself as a scientist, but you don't reason like one.
    • Mar 8 2013: Yes that is exactly my point Barry. Would you please show me how, within the ways that science is currently set up and funded, it would be possible for me to take my repeated "anecdotal" experiences, and those of the many others I know who are much more skilled in these areas than I am, and turn them into something that you would accept as proof. Better still, how would it be if you and those like you were to review material like that from the Princeton PEAR unit which provides substantial hard evidence of such phenomena? The problem that I have is not that there is a demand for ecidence, it is that when evidence exists, it is ignored, or treated as "this must be wrong because it doesn't fit our theoretical framework. When will science do the genuinely scientific thing and accpet that if the evidence contradicts the theory, there must be a flaw in the theory? My "belief" does not rest on faith. It rests on evidence. It is not belief it is knowledge. The PEAR studies are evidence. My experience may not have bveen gathered under laboratory conditions but it does meet the scientific criteria of being repeatable - not in exact terms but in generic ones. We treat meteorology as a science even though it never works with exactly the same conditions twice. We treat evolution as a science even though it is not carried out in a laboratory and relies on forming patterns from relatively limited evidence trails. All I am asking is for the same standards to be applied, but when it comes to a claim like "psychism" the bar is raised to the absolute highest. There is no justification for this and I do not accept your statement that I do not reason like a scientist. You have no right to have made it. Your choice to dismiss what I know as "acecdotal" is exactly the kind of cheap dismissal that Sheldrake complains of. It is coled-minded and based on assumptions about me, what I know, what I have studeid and how I think that are unjustified and basically insulting.
      • Mar 9 2013: Jon, there is nothing in my post that treats your views unkindly or insults you. The term "anecdote" is a legitimate descriptive term to describe a single experience. That is exactly how you described your experience - as something that happened to you. There is a broader discussion to be had about what constitutes evidence. You personal experience is exactly that - experiential. It is certainly a form of evidence that has huge significance to you, but it counts very little in science. When I observed that you "do not reason like a scientist" it was because you were using the term without making that distinction clear. It isn't "insulting" to point this out, merely factual. Had you corrected yourself in your reply i would have credited the error, but you simply proceeded to argue from authority by referencing the PEAR data. What you fail to point out with the PEAR studies is that the effect size, while statistically significant, was extremely small and almost certainly caused by publication bias (Radin, D.; Nelson, R.; Dobyns, Y.; Houtkooper, J. (2006). "Reexamining psychokinesis: comment on Bösch, Steinkamp, and Boller". Psychological Bulletin 132 (4): 529–32; discussion 533–37. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.4.529. PMID 16822164.).

        You appeal for a level playing field but what you fail to appreciate is that you are actually making special pleading for psi. The simple matter is that when all psi studies are put to the same rigorous evaluation as studies in natural sciences, they fail. That doesn't diminish what you feel about your experiences, but it does show that the psi field has a long way to go before it even gets to the starting line in scientific terms. This isn't natural science bullying psi or being unreasonable to it, but requiring standards of evidence that they have so far failed to meet. The fact that you fail to account for this is another reason my comment that "you don't reason like a scientist" is justified. I respect your view, but it's not scientific

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