TED Conversations

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: I was on board at first, questioning a reductionist, materialist, or deterministic model of the universe is a valid line of inquiry. There are limits to science and we should be clear that there are some questions that science cannot answer, that being said many of his claims are either provably false or ask us to prove a negative.

    For instance, the idea of crystal memory or rat memory. If this was true then after millions of years of forming all over the universe it should be nearly energetically free to make ice. And rats should be amazingly smart. Also the psychic phenomena is hypothesis that cannot be falsified, as one can always say we simply aren't able to measure it. Could it be true, maybe but it's not something anyone can ever prove one way or the other.

    I know that TED is a place to challenge conventional ideas, but I think above all the talks have to be factually and logically sound. I think he has a right to talk about his theories, but as a TEDx organizer, I do not want falsehoods associated with the brand I work so hard to promote. That being said the issue of censorship is a tricky one, it would be best if he never was given the stage, but that is not the case. I think that at the very least a disclaimer saying, "These opinions reflect personal views and not those of TED or TEDx as a whole" would be a good start.
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      Mar 9 2013: In regards to psychic phenomenon, it can be tested. It has been tested. There are currently tests being done. I know people are not often aware of this, but there is a growing body of literature on psychic phenomena. It has been published in journals such as Nature, and IEEE, along with a variety of more specialised journals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Physics Essays.

      Targ, R. & Puthoff, H. Nature 252, 602–607 (1974).
      Puthoff, & Targ, R. Proc. IEEE 64, 329–354 (1976).
    • Mar 9 2013: Cory,

      Science Principle 101: You can never prove ANYTHING. You can only disprove it. And until you do, the theory gains more credence.

      Regarding psychic phenomena - if you're truly open to considering it, you should check out books like "The Field" (Lynne McTaggart) and "The Conscious Universe" (Dean Radin). Delicious stuff. Even if you find eventually that you don't want to believe any of it, you can still pretend you saw a really cool movie or something!

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      Mar 9 2013: Cory
      I want you to be a speaking at my next TEDx! Are you coming to Vancouver next spring?

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