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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: Not all ideas -- including not all scientific ideas -- are equally meritorious. And not all ideas are scientific (empirically testable/falsifiable) ideas. Physical propositions (propositions which CAN be tested empirically) and metaphysical propositions (propositions which canNOT be tested empirically) are NOT the same and cannot be made to be the same, yet Sheldrake (who certainly SHOULD know enough to know better) conflates the two, and a stunning number of others who've commented here (and who ALSO should know enough to know better) cannot seem to recognize that. Sheldrake's "analysis" of the results of historical efforts to measure the "speed" of light from which he concludes that c must be changing over time is precisely equivalent to studying photographic archives in a museum and concluding that The World must have been black-and-white prior to the 20th Century! I read this thread of discussion and am APPALLED by the revealing of a great failure of public science education. Bottom line: ideas that are RIGHTLY freely expressible in open public arenas are NOT ALL rightly entitled to EQUAL time (nor ALL even to ANY time) in SCIENTIFIC forums. IF TEDx is not intended to be a forum exclusively for presenting ideas having scientific merit, THEN fine -- my mistake -- Sheldrake's TEDx waxing is appropriate and I simply need to move TEDx from my list of scientific venues to my list of non-scientific venues.
    • Mar 8 2013: Some of the difficulty in this area is that there are different interpretations of what is "empirical" and what is "testable". I wonder whether questions about the philosophy of science are legitimate inside a scientific forum or whether they have to take place outside of it, and who is entitled to make that decision. Since Mr Lovell is holding up a Karl Popper book, I feel that my point is made.
      Buckminster Fuller - a better scientist than probably any who are posting here argued very elegantly for the ercognition of metaphysics over physics. There are assumptions being made in these arguments about the nature of "reality" itself that are at the root of alternative views of science.
      Sheldrake may be wrong in some of what he says but that would not make him wrong in ALL that he says. Nor would he be the first scientist to get something wrong. The attempt to remove him from the "science" category is driven from a desire to marginalise his views and not from a truly scientific mindset. It is, as Chris Parish is saying, ideological.
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        Mar 8 2013: Jon...if I bet a hundred dollars that as of today you have not yet cover-to-cover thoughtfully read Popper's OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE or his CONJECTURES AND REFUTATIONS, would I lose that bet?
        • Mar 9 2013: Frank, if I bet you that you have not read a list of the books that I have read, or reviewed the evidence that I have reviewed, would I lose that bet? I did study philosophy at Oxford before I moved into the sciences and I have probably read at least as much philosophy as you have. I suspect I have read a broader range of science too.
          The significant question is not whether I have read that specific book, but whether I have read and thought about what consitutes evidence, what defines reality, what is provable and not provable, and what is evidence in various different arenas of study. Judging by photos we are of a similar age. This is not a competition about who has read what. It is a discussion about who is open-minded and who believes that some discussions are closed. The evidence for my viewpoint is overwhelming and the philosophical underpinnings are as strong as Popper's. My book is almost 400 pages long and will be published in a few months. You won't like it. But the evidence and reasoning will be there - enough for people who have open minds and a willingness to think scientifically. And in ten or twenty years my views will be mainstream science. Yours on the other hand, will have gone the way of Phlogiston and a geocentric universe. You can apologise then for your high-handed and dismissive response. Please allow your hundred dollars to accrue compound interest.
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        Mar 9 2013: Wow.

        Lessee, Jon...in my photo avatar I'm holding a copy of a Popper book. In a reply to my initial comment, you make a point that different folks having different interpretations of what is "empirical" and what is "testable" introduces "difficulty" (well, duh!!). Then you write, "Since Mr Lovell is holding up a Karl Popper book, I feel that my point is made."

        I read that, and unable to imagine anyone possibly disagreeing that "difficulty" is introduced into a discussion when two correspondents have different interpretations of terms they use, I could not think WHY you would make an oblique reference to my holding a Popper book as making your point (a point that I couldn't see even needed to BE made). And I wondered why you think my holding a Popper book makes your point or says anything that in any way relates to or invalidates my original comment -- and so, not knowing you really or much about you (my crystal ball is "in the shop" for calibration) I asked a question to see if you had even read Popper yourself (legion are those who have not).

        Instead of replying that yes, I would have lost that bet, you launch into a strange-ranging rant which includes oblique pejorative innuendos aimed at me personally and predictively assert a to-be-ultimately-demonstrated superiority of your "viewpoint" (whatever the heck your viewpoint might be, I don't know -- my crystal ball has never worked worth a darn) over my phlogiston- and geocentric-like perspectives (??? -- here's the best advice you'll get this whole month: take YOUR crystal ball in for calibration, STAT!).

        THEN you tell me what I can apologize for!

        Wow. Such rare, charitable graciousness!

        What I WILL apologize for is my missing the sign that says "Caution, insecure, supersensitive KNOWITALL inside - DO NOT RATTLE CAGE." Sorry 'bout that.

        Good luck with your upcoming book; I'll watch for it, for I look forward to learning what a bright, knowledgeable fellow you are and how irredeemably stupid I am.
    • Mar 8 2013: Hi Frank,

      I saw the TED talk too. I think what I heard Sheldrake say was that the experiments that were carried out came up with different values for "c". I think I heard him suggest that the data be made available, so people who are interested can analyze the data further. That doesn't seem too drastic, does it?

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        Mar 8 2013: But Mandeep -- ALL the results of efforts to measure the "speed" of light in a vacuum published in the scientific literature ARE available [...where? Why, in the published SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE!...] for folks to analyze!

        Did you not know and understand that? Can it really be that Sheldrake did not know and understand that???

        As measuring techniques and technology improve over time, the surprise would be if the different techniques did NOT give different measured values for the "speed" of light in a vacuum!

        I repeat from my initial comment: I read this thread of discussion and am APPALLED by the revealing of a great failure of public science education.

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