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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:

http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-rupert-sheldrakes-talk/

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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: There are many things that Rupert Sheldrake's talk brings to mind. But his comment that one dogma of the scientific method is "that the constants of nature are fixed" is false. Yes, in the current best-fitting cosmological model the constants of nature are constant in time. However, I (and other) scientists constantly test this belief (you can see our test of a variable fine structure constant in a recent paper here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.0824).

    What we have found is that given the current data, it does not support a varying fine structure constant. It isn't a 'fudging' of the data, if the data supported this model, I would be the first person to advocate this. In fact, many cosmologists in my field take data and fit a wide variety of models to try and understand the universe, even if this means challenging ideas previously held fixed. It is my explicit job to test theories until they fail and when they fail, to refine them. Until they fail, they remain the best-fitting theory - and that is the key point: any theory has to be tested with data.

    I agree with Sheldrake that dogma needs to be challenged and confronted with evidence. Unfortunately that also means dogma about the scientific method itself.
    • Mar 20 2013: TED’s Scientific Board refers to a Scientific American article that makes my point very clearly: “Physicists routinely assume that quantities such as the speed of light are constant.”
      http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/14/open-for-discussion-graham-hancock-and-rupert-sheldrake/
    • Mar 20 2013: That's not one of his dogmas. It's a secondary point. The underlying dogma is that the ultimate laws of physics are, well, ultimate, and fixed. Perhaps getting a reasonable handle on the issues Sheldrake is discussing would help you appraise his talk more accurately.
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      Mar 21 2013: I applaud your work Renee, though your abstract is well beyond my ability to comprehend, and I'm glad you've joined us here. Do you mind responding to a couple thoughts of mine?

      It's clear there is scientific interest in examining the constants as you have done, and Sheldrake's statements elsewhere make it clear that he's aware of this: "The variation of fundamental constants is now a matter of serious debate among physicists" [Science Set Free, 92]. However, for decades he has been the subject of scorn and ridicule for believing that the laws of nature are more like habits and, to some degree, may be subject to evolutionary change or fluctuation. Earlier I referenced an interesting roundtable discussion between Sheldrake and others, including Freeman Dyson, on this topic. http://goo.gl/AQnaT

      Considering this, and your own experience of course, would you agree or disagree that, historically, many scientists and educated people have been taught, and have frequently espoused as incontrovertibly true, that the laws of nature are fixed? I myself was taught this in college physics and astrophysics classes, and accepted it as undeniable.

      If not, could you at least acknowledge that there's SOME basis for such a belief being considered common? Or are the laws more commonly held to be working assumptions, as they are for you, and not incontrovertibly fixed?

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