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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 9 2013: Barry,

    I will stand by my characterization of PZ Myers as a zealot. He is part of a group of narrowly "humanist" pundits who make a habit of aggressively attacking anything not allowed by their rather constricted and unimaginative world-view.

    As to whether Sheldrake's largely philosophical talk belongs in the Science section on TED's website, that's a question regarding TED's internal cataloguing criteria. But moving the video to a different section would be different than removing it...

    Questioning the conceptual and methodological foundations of science is not unscientific, it's just "philosophy of science" rather than science per se. Think about a classic like PaulFeyerabend's "Against Method." Feyerabend was edgy, and he radically questioned many assumptions that scientists typically make, just like Sheldrake does. He was way more confrontational than Sheldrake. If Feyerabend were alive today, would he be banned from Ted, due to deviating from some sort of Popperian/naive-reductionist consensus?? I hope not !!

    Regarding replication of Sheldrake's work there has been some, see e.g. (just one example)

    http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/pdf/Lobach.pdf

    which is a replication of his work on telephone telepathy. Replication of psi results is a subtle matter, and I'm not going to give a dissertation on it in this comment.

    The fact that his work has not been widely replicated, nor published in the top science journals, is not evidence of its invalidity. Nature and Science, for instance, have current policies against publishing psi research, regardless of the apparent quality of the work or results. TED should not, IMO, be afraid of posting unpopular, radical ideas that buck current trends. Unpopularity does not imply incorrectness ;p
    • Mar 9 2013: Ben, when Sheldrake said that the standard measurement of light was wrong, was he making a philosophical point or a scientific one? When he said that consciousness definitely existed outside the body was he making a physical or metaphysical claim? There will always be huge value in individuals who come along and challenge an existing paradigm. It's just helpful that they have the evidence before they make their assertions.

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