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The debate about Rupert Sheldrake's talk

Please use this space to comment on the debate around Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk, as described here:



Closing Statement from TED

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED's decision to move Rupert Sheldrake's talk from YouTube to TED.com. It was scheduled as a 2-week conversation, and has now closed. But the archive will remain visible here.

We'd like to respond here to some of the questions raised in the course of the discussion.

Some asked whether this was "censorship." Now, it's pretty clear that it isn't censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google. But it raises an interesting question about curation. Should TED play *any* curatorial role in the content it allows its TEDx organizers to promote? We believe we should. And once you accept a role for curatorial limits, you have to accept there will be times when disputes arise.

A number of questions were raised about TED's science board: How it works and why the member list isn't public. Our science board has 5 members -- all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.

Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we're also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That's why we invited this debate. The process hasn't been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.

The talk, and this conversation, will remain here, and all are invited to make their own reasoned judgement.

Thanks for listening.

Chris Anderson, TED Curator

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  • Mar 20 2013: I think it's strange that so many people have had this knee-jerk reaction to this "issue" if it can even be called that. To be honest, I don't understand why the words "censorship" and "propaganda" are being thrown around here. If TED didn't distribute these videos, would you be watching them? Perhaps we've become so spoiled by the instant access to information the internet provides that we've forgotten that funding, distributing, and opening conversation about a speaker does not equate to silencing them. The only thing TED has done here is make a disclaimer that the views expressed aren't (necessarily) their own, which I believe is the only responsible thing to do considering that so many people depend on TED as a reliable source.
    As to the content of these videos, I'll admit I couldn't finish the Graham Hancock one because the topic was too frustratingly familiar. My boyfriend is a big fan of his and I've spent enough time arguing with him about Ayuhuasca/consciousness/etc.
    The Rupert Sheldrake video and ideas are a bit more coherent. The general sentiment, that we should question research, etc., is one I can agree with, and a few specific arguments I can get behind, but in quite a few places I had to wonder what his motive is for denying science.
    My biggest complaint about this talk was his lack of examples to back up his claim that "science" won't consider any of his ideas. In some cases I can think of specific examples of research being conducted about the very topics he claims are being ignored.
    For instance, when he is talking about how "scientists" won't look into the idea that gravity, etc. may fluctuate, he directly talks about them measuring these constants and keeping tabs on them. If no one is putting any research into continuing to measure these fluctuations, what data is he even referring to when he talks about "scientists" averaging them? It would be easier to discuss if he would be a bit more specific.
    • Mar 20 2013: I think the "issue" isn't simply that of propaganda and censorship but even more than that, the way that it was handled by TED. A lot of the outcry concerned the way that TED addressed Sheldrake and Hancock that many of the people commenting would classify as "defamatory" and TED as "clumsy". More accurately, the situation was described as;

      "Graham Hancock put out an immediate alert that he was about to be “censored”, his army of passionate supporters deluged us with outraged messages, and we then felt compelled to accelerate our blog post and used language that in retrospect was clumsy."

      Another "clumsy" move by TED, in my opinion. By many here this is read as shrugging off the responsibility for the situation. Additionally it poses the assumption that all the following outrage was caused solely by supporters, and I'm under the impression that this is a self-defensive generalization.

      People want to know who evaluates the talks and on what grounds, because the information that was given in the initial blog post didn't shed much light on that. On the contrary, it seemed to dismiss the talks with more misleading information.
      • Mar 20 2013: Then maybe my confusion is partly due to the fact that I missed the original message.
        What did they say originally that was "clumsy/defamatory?"
      • Mar 20 2013: Thank you for the links, Julia.
        I still don't understand what all the hoopla is about, though Rupert Sheldrake's reply to the criticism I thought was better explained than his actual lecture.
        • Mar 20 2013: Pretty sure he expected to give a brief (18 minute), informal presentation that would not bore the audience with endless citations with the intent that people could look up his substantial body of work were they interested. I certainly don't think he expected to have his talk flagged for making a few hyperbolic statements, especially considering that the format does not lend itself well to painstaking scrupulousness.

          Were the same criteria applied to other talks I am certain many such others would have to be culled if any degree of consistency is to be maintained.
        • Mar 20 2013: Haley,

          >>I still don't understand what all the hoopla is about...

          Let me answer this as someone who is NOT a particular fan of either Hancock or Sheldrake. What got my attention were two things. First of course, the removal of the videos from the TED Youtube channel. By itself, eyebrow raising, but OK....

          But what turned raised eyebrows into action (or words) was the explanations that were given. The explanations were full of mistruths that were easily shown as such by watching the videos.

          I won't descend to calling them lies, because I can't prove intent. But since the points raised were false in the context of the presentations as given, the most generous assumption would be that previously held beliefs drove the removal of the presentations and the reasons behind that removal.And that's not how TED is supposed to work. At least as it represents itself.

          There are a lot of very good, sound, contrary perspectives on what Hancock and Sheldrake have to say. Personally, I believe what Hancock sees as "entities" are nothing more than subconscious manifestations triggered by the ingested pscyhotropics. But I wouldn't use my BELIEF as the basis for misrepresenting what Mr. Hancock ACTUALLY said nor justification for removing the video so others can't/won't see what Mr. Hancock has to say.

          I do think this is all a little overblown. But some of that comes out of a sense of betrayal - TED was TRUSTED in a way that few modern institutions are today. When TED seemed to go the way of other large establishment institutions, that sense of betrayal drove an over the top emotional reaction. IMO.
    • Mar 20 2013: A possible reason people may have an issue by what is done may be due to respect of the speakers. They have done extensive work to present a talk for free and the thanks they get is a public rejection with harsh comments about their work. If their talk has not been published online, and neither any public rejection had been made I do not believe it would have been a big case.

      When it comes to the questions of scientifical dogmas Sheldrake ask, they seems fairly familiar to me. Questions about being versus becoming; about statical constants versus dynamic constants, reminds me on the pre-socratic metaphysical discussions which still has not come to a conclusion, but expanded itself into a really complex and fascinating discussion.
    • Mar 20 2013: Haley, please let me explain why I consider this an important issue. It would appear TED grossly misrepresented Sheldrake's talk in an effort to discredit him and his ideas. Don't believe me? Please read Sheldrake's response here- I really urge you and everyone else to do so. It will give you an idea as to why so many people are upset:
      Simply put, Sheldrake and Hancock have been insulted and treated horribly by TED. TED removed the videos from YouTube, the most popular video sharing site in the world, where they are much more likely to be seen and shared- when you deliberately try to limit the number of people who can view something that's a form of censorship in my book. Yes, their plan backfired and more people than ever are probably currently seeing the videos because of the controversy. But it will soon die down and then what? Most people aren't going to seek them out on here. Also, at the time they were removed Chris Anderson told Graham Hancock, "The talk will live here as long it takes for this conversation to work itself out, and perhaps indefinitely." That's a vague assurance and makes me think there was a good chance the vids were going to be removed permanently. In addition there is the issue of character assassination. It makes me unhappy that TED attempted to marginalize him by referring to him as a pseudoscientist. That's an extremely offensive term for someone who is a Cambridge and Harvard educated scientist. So, to me at least, it's clear TED badly misrepresented his talk, they tried to lessen the impact of it, and they insulted the speakers who had donated their time. And beyond all that, I simply don't want to TED trying to prejudice their adult viewers against ideas that challenge the accepted dogma. Let people make up their own minds- don't try to tell them what to think by imposing a "health warning" on these vids.
      • Mar 20 2013: Thank you for your response, Joe.
        I think it would be irresponsible for TED to show these videos without a disclaimer, particularly the one by Graham Hancock. Graham himself seems to acknowledge the risks involved with hallucinogens. If TED is going to promote his ideas and give them a platform it's only responsible that they also represent that his claims are not exactly in line with science. He may be an intelligent and educated author, but I would need more evidence to accept his claim that consciousness and culture have originated almost exclusively from hallucinogenic drug use. Since I've known individuals who have stabbed themselves, attacked other people, etc., while tripping, I don't mind them advising caution, especially since TED is used as an educational tool and my 10 year old brother follows the site.
        • Mar 20 2013: Haley, since this page is meant to discuss Sheldrake, on what basis should the Sheldrake video have a disclaimer? Simply because he's not considered mainstream? You realize a disclaimer will likely have the effect of prejudicing the viewer against the speaker- it immediately puts up a red flag regarding the speaker's credibility. And you think that's fair to Sheldrake? Again, based on what? Do you think anything that's not considered mainstream should come with a warning? Finally, did you read Sheldrake's responses to the charges TED made against him?
    • Mar 20 2013: @Haley: I would like to respond to this quote.

      "My biggest complaint about this talk was his lack of examples to back up his claim that "science" won't consider any of his ideas. In some cases I can think of specific examples of research being conducted about the very topics he claims are being ignored."

      Firstly it was an 18 minute talk not a presentation. There is no way in 18 minutes he would be able to show examples of anything. He has written an entire book on the subjected titled "Science Set Free" or "The Science Delusion" depending on where you live and how offended you get by the title. In these books he goes into great detail about the dogmas and has been received very well within the Science community (again depending on whether you are an extremist materialist science or an open minded one who can see the woods from the trees).

      Also if you need further evidence of these dogmas within Science then I highly suggest you view this Googletalk by Professor Dean Radin title "Science and the Taboo of PSI". He goes into detail and gives real world examples (even statistics) that show there is a taboo within science to firstly discuss the topic with their peers, never mind research it.

      He also shows examples where those hardened skeptics have been able to replicate his work on PSI and even have these skeptics admit that it comes "precariously close to showing PSI is real" only for them to discredit it another way... so they can avoid the subject and the ridicule that will come their way.


      This is what frustrates us most as people interested in the work of the likes of Sheldrake and Radin. There is this general belief in Science (which you have yourself shown) that because you are not aware of it then it likely doesn't exist when that is just not the case. It is because of these very DOGMAS and the actions of groups like TED keeping it out of mainstream thinking that it is not given a wider audience as it deserves.
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        Gail . 50+

        • +2
        Mar 20 2013: Well put when you said "because you are not aware of it, then it likely doesn't exist". This is what is so upsetting about TEDs decision.

        It needs an entirely new board that likes science.

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