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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: I think it ridiculous. Are you going to remove Rick Warren's talk because his world view revolves around the belief that God wrote the Bible and that we should do what it says? No. Because we are not trying to test the accuracy of the world view, we are here to learn from that world view. We can learn from Rupert Seldrake's world view, especially if it contains factual errors.
    If there are detractors in opposition to the message, let them do a TedX talk that addresses the issue with creativity and responsibility rather than division. Dan Dennett's response to Rick Warren is an example.
    If it is bogus, don't share it.
    If you are offended, create a well-spoken response.
    However, I find nothing to be offensive, derogatory, or harmful to another.
    If the content is inaccurate, it is only Sheldrake that suffers in the end.
    I can see no compelling reason to remove this.
    If Sheldrake's work ignites controversy. Good. Let the dialogue continue.
    That there is conflict about the quality and accuracy of the content. Good. Facilitate that discussion.
    Remove the talk. Bad precedent.
    There are thousands of TedX talks that contain controversial science, bad references or uninformed opinion, yet add to the dialogue and create conversation.
    Keep up the good work on promoting civil discourse that does not shy away from controversy. Thanks for changing the landscape of independent learning.
    • Mar 8 2013: You can't equate religion and science. In facty, that Sheldrake's talk inspire you to do so shows why it is harmful and should be retracted.
      • Mar 9 2013: I agree one shouldn't be able to equate religion with science, and Sheldrake would definitely agree with that too. However, it's a question of who the religionists are. Your attitude in the posts you have been making seems indistinguishable to me from that held by members of a number of fundamentalist groups I could mention: creationists, for example. Sheldrake offends you because he dares question your deepest metaphysical beliefs, and you are are coming across as if being engaged on a holy crusade, or a jihad, against him.

        TED has done a number of talks far more off-the-wall than Sheldrake's, but Sheldrake is one of the most articulate and popular critics of scientism, which is why pseudo-sceptics are out in force, making all sorts of unsubstantiated assertions. They feel particularly threatened by him.

        And they so they should, because he has marked their card. The truth really hurts.

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