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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: The one thing that I find galling is that the sceptics are already whining (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/tedx-has-second-thoughts-about-rupert-sheldrakes-talk-asks-viewers-to-weigh-in/) that those of us who are against censorship of Sheldrake have not provided evidence to support his claims. Oh, the hypocrisy. They are the ones who want to shut him up, so surely the onus is on them to support this with evidence. They have not debunked his claims – all they have done is prove that there might be a great deal to them.
    • Mar 9 2013: Think about that for a moment. Scientists around the world, working on things which have a reasonable expectation of success and progress, who disagree with this particular claim, are supposed to drop what they're doing so they can disprove it? Why should they bother?

      Surely it's on the person making the claim to either refine it to a degree where it becomes of interest to more scientists, or to collect the evidence themselves.
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      Mar 9 2013: Someone here asked me if I support teaching creationism in schools instead of evolution just because I don't support censorship of Sheldrake. That kind of attack is unwarranted. My background is in science. I've taught classes in paleontology back when I was in grad school. I live in a country (not the US) where religion isn't substituted for science in schools. I would hazard a guess that the person asking that question never even watched Sheldrake's talk (which wasn't about creationism). He probably responded to an outcry in the JREF forum that suggested it was time to go on the attack because someone had threatened their dogma.

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