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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 19 2013: sigh. this talk was so bad i'm out of words. this kind of stuff should be debated ... in the ufo magazine or something. such a total wreck of a talk clearly has no place anywhere near ted, neither as a featured talk, nor as a debate. shame that such a crap can mobilize huge ork armies.
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      Mar 19 2013: Sagacious, heartfelt opinion duly noted. Thanks so much for your contribution.

      It's spelled orc, btw. If you're going to insult people, might as well do it right.
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        Mar 19 2013: visit wikipedia. learn.
      • Mar 20 2013: @Sebastian Penraeth

        Downthread, in a response to me that there's no way to reply to, you write:

        "If you want to encourage more discussion on this topic, from him and others at TED, this is going about it the wrong way. How about a little less stick and a little more carrot?"

        I think it's absolutely adorable that you think there's a way to persuade TED by being nicer. But it's naive. There's no persuading them of anything. They made a decision they don't even understand based on the say-so of some very aggressive atheists -- people far nastier and more insulting than I. This decision has been made. All that's left for people who actually care about the advancement of the sciences over scientism is to complain -- not because we expect them to reverse their decision, because they won't.

        They haven't responded to reason yet. They haven't responded to being proved completely and embarrassingly WRONG in their assessment of the videos -- the stated basis for their removal.

        The die is cast. All that's left is for people to let them know that they've blown their credibility. I, for one, will never be bothered with TED again after this, because they've shown their true colors. They're both ignorant of the relevant issues and censorious. That's an extremely toxic combination. And if you think playing patty cake with them will "encourage" them and cause them to rethink, you're wasting your time. You can't rethink a decision you never really thought about in the first place.
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          Gail . 50+

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          Mar 20 2013: Don't know who you are Time Walker, but I do agree with this: "They made a decision they don't even understand based on the say-so of some very aggressive atheists -- people far nastier and more insulting than I"

          They have effectively turned TED into a religion that doesn't call itself a religion by dismissing any scientific evidence that doesn't meet its agenda.
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          Mar 21 2013: "I think it's absolutely adorable that you think there's a way to persuade TED by being nicer. But it's naive."

          I see, so you're just here to throw a tantrum, not to have a conversation. That's fine... I'd personally like TED et al to explain their thinking more clearly. I'd like the members of their science board to come on (perhaps one or two have) and say something, anything. When Chris reigned in Krisztian and offered very positive statements regarding Sheldrake, he got pelted with more rocks. That looks sadistic to me.
      • Mar 20 2013: Hold everything!
        Are we talking Tolkien's orcs, or the orks of the Warhammer 40,000 universe?
      • Mar 21 2013: @ Sebastian Penraeth

        "A tantrum?!" Oh, come now.

        And for the record, many people here, including myself, have asked Chris Anderson to explain his reasoning, as his only attempt to do so he crossed out when it was proved utterly wrong. People have asked nicely. People, like a myself, have had a little edge in their tone. Is he a child? He can't deal with people when they're understandably annoyed? When I waited tables, when I worked retail jobs, any time I have worked in the real world at all, I have had to deal with people far, far more unpleasant than ANYONE has been on this thread. I did so because I knew full well that it came with the territory when working with the public. So, I think the least Anderson can do is nut up and explain himself. But, let's face it. Anderson only thinks he has to answer to his big money donors and $8000 a head subscribers... and for some reason a very nasty, vitriolic, name-calling New Atheist contingent that is apparently calling the shots now.
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          Mar 27 2013: I'm on your side, Time Walker. I just don't think vitriolic rhetoric will get us very far. When you had to deal with unpleasant customers, were you encouraged by their behavior?

          I am very disappointed that we still have no satisfactory critique of these two talks from TED or others that would justify their restriction. It's totally lame.

          But also, it's clear to me that Chris Anderson delegated this responsibility and, as he said, he expected a more substantive refutation himself. Will he now override the board and reinstate the talks? I have my doubts.
      • Mar 27 2013: Hi Sebastian,

        I appreciate the response. We just have different reads on this. I don't "have doubts." I would be amazed if TED reinstated these two talks. They've abandoned this discussion. They've ignored offers for debate. Anderson only discoursed a little with supporters of his decision, then fled. These are not the actions of someone interested in considering a wider range of views.

        When I worked in retail, I appreciated the basic dynamics. Businesses depend on their customers so it pays to treat them with them respect, even when they are being far ruder than anyone has in this forum. TED has made it quite clear by its actions that it has no respect for anyone but their big money donors and people who can afford their conferences... and for some reason the aggressive atheists who started this brouhaha.

        "I am very disappointed that we still have no satisfactory critique of these two talks from TED or others that would justify their restriction. It's totally lame."

        On this we agree. Beyond lame, I think it's completely inappropriate to remove the talks, silence all discussion after two weeks, ignore a very large number of people who are actively protesting the decision -- at least 1,128 -- as of today, (https://www.facebook.com/groups/boycott.ted/) and still not even attempt to justify the decision after their initial reasons were so thoroughly refuted they had to cross it all out. I think it's weak and cowardly. I have no respect for this organization or for Chris Anderson. I don't respect him because he basically slandered Hancock and Sheldrake, never apologized for doing so, and never made any attempt to take responsibility for his decision.

        You seem like a kind, generous person who wants to give TED benefit of the doubt. That's fine, but I've seen the writing on the wall since day one. Chris Anderson told us exactly who he is by his initial actions. I have no expectations he'll suddenly act with integrity, no matter how nice people are.
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      Mar 19 2013: Krisztian, I understand your frustration with the talk. We've read a lot of such comments. They're what initiated this whole process. But I'd prefer you to make the case in more temperate language. I personally didn't think the talk was 'crap'. I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake a few days ago and I think he genuinely respects scientific thinking. He just disagrees with a lot of it. Some of his questions in the talk I found genuinely interesting. And I do think there's a place on TED to challenge the orthodox. Maybe I'm expecting too much for this forum, but I was hoping scientists who don't buy his ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible.

      Thanks for being a TED Translator. You guys amaze me.
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        Mar 19 2013: it is below that limit. there is a level of denial of facts we can not address to being misinformed. it has to be dishonesty.

        let us take an example, and really just one, because it tortures me to even talk about it. sheldrake claims that we know the speed of light is constant because we just defined it that way. haha, says audience. except if this assumption turned out to be false, we would detect in in a great number of ways. there are actual studies in the field, because we do expect constants change with time, so we are looking for that. but so far those turned out to be constants. the definition of SI units has absolutely nothing to do with our observational capabilities. this is bonkers. this claim is braindead. nobody in the right mind can believe that redefining the meter would make you hit your head into your door frame.

        you need some really really patient scientist if you want him to rebut such a dishonest collection of mental pollution.

        about the translations: thanks for the videos :)
        • Mar 19 2013: "it is below that limit. there is a level of denial of facts we can not address to being misinformed. it has to be dishonesty."

          Krisztián, to say that this 18-minute presentation by a Harvard and Cambridge-trained scientist who is actively publishing research in peer-reviewed journals is so deeply flawed that it's beneath you to even take the time to say specifically why or provide any actual evidence in support of your claims -- as numerous individuals on the opposite side of this argument have done, including Sheldrake himself -- strikes me as somewhat of a cop out.

          You give one example, which somewhat misrepresents what Sheldrake actually said (this has already been discussed no less than a dozen times in previous comments), and wipe your hands of it.

          Since you are one of the few people in this thread attacking these presentations -- or at least arguing that they should not be restored back to their original locations on the TEDx YouTube channel -- perhaps you could take the time to thoroughly rebut Sheldrake's official response. If it's truly such a joke, this should not take long for you to do.

          You first chimed into this discussion after watching 5:09 seconds of Sheldrake's video (according to your previous comment). To make up your mind about someone's 18-minute presentation before even getting 1/3 of the way through it -- and to publicly disparage it no less -- suggests to me that you may have already made up your mind about it going in. Confirmation bias is a powerful filter.

          You have commented on others' responses urging them to learn from this conversation. So as you are one of the few opposing voices, why not share your critical perspective in more substantive detail and help us all do just that?

          P.S. - Thanks for being a TED translator. That's a valuable service, and is sincerely appreciated by the community.

          Chris - thanks for your courteous and reasonable reply above. :)
        • Mar 21 2013: Krisztián Pintér,

          As a scientist you schould be patient to explain everytime again in a very clear and respectfull way why something is not accurate. As a good scientist you have to be able to translate science to the public. If you do not feel compelled to do so,

          Then just shut up.
      • Mar 20 2013: @Chris Anderson,

        Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You were "hoping scientists who don't buy [Sheldrake's] ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible." But you pulled the video based on the say-so of your Science Board. Despite the fact that they couldn't "indicate" their disagreement??? I had assumed you never got real clarity from these "scientists" since your rendering of their critique was so utterly wrong that you had to cross it out, but it's interesting to see you state publicly that you still don't even know why you've censored Sheldrake's talk. I don't think it's "expecting too much" that TED's curator actually know why he's removing material from the TED channel.

        And, not for nothing, Sheldrake doesn't "disagree" with "scientific thinking." He IS a scientist. He disagrees with the LACK of "scientific thinking" that permeates so much of science as it is practiced.

        It's an absolute disgrace that you would make a decision like this when you so clearly have no grasp of the issues involved. What an embarrassment.
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          Mar 20 2013: This is how online conversations get fractured. You try to make a generous comment ... in this case actually defending Sheldrake... and his supporters STILL jump down your throat. So, Time/Anonymous, I'm sorry it wasn't clearer to you, but I was talking about my wish for contributions to this forum. The tone of your response is the exact reason why it would take a heroic scientist to bother to show up.

          Nonetheless, elsewhere on this board some reasonable points are being made by both sides. It's appreciated.
        • Mar 20 2013: It would be really interesting to see more scientists explaining why these ideas are implausible to them. However, does it really take a hero to respond to harsh online posts?

          For now it seems like a majority of TED users want the talks back on the main website? Would you consider doing that?
        • Mar 20 2013: Oh, the internet.
          On the job I've had to remove inappropriate content from the internet and I've felt the uproar. If someone were to graffiti rude words across the facade of a brick-and-mortar shop, no one would take offense to the owner scrubbing it off, but if someone posts the same content on the web taking it down is an outrage. We're used to the internet being a lawless wild west where anything goes.
          However, we come to TED to watch content that has been lovingly curated because well-presented, peer-reviewed lectures by qualified speakers is a lot more interesting and enlightening than any old rant you'd find on Youtube. There's a place for both, but you simply can't uphold your audience's trust while simultaneously presenting unverified information as absolute fact.
          Thanks, Chris, and others, for what is, in my opinion, one of the best sites on the net and a huge source of inspiration, wonder, and contemplation.
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          Mar 20 2013: I agree with Chris.

          If you want to encourage more discussion on this topic, from him and others at TED, this is going about it the wrong way. How about a little less stick and a little more carrot?
        • Mar 20 2013: @Chris, I understand your frustration here, and appreciate your generous and civil defense of Sheldrake. While I do not excuse uncivilized discourse, please understand that the people on this thread are frustrated too. This debate has now been fractured and increasingly diluted into three (four?) distinct threads -- by TED staff. However noble the motivations for this may have been, an extremely thorough discourse amounting to thousands of comments has been reset yet again, and those who care enough to contribute to it are in the frustrating situation of either restating their carefully thought out arguments, or pointing to previous comments spread out across multiple locations in order to lay the groundwork for this new dialogue.

          We understand that you are in a difficult position here, and are probably facing internal pressure from your various boards, and possibly pressure from corporate sponsors as well. But c'mon man. You asked for a community debate and you got it. By a ratio of at least 10:1 (conservatively), the response has been overwhelming supportive of restoring the videos to their original locations on the TEDx YouTube channel.

          None of the objections raised to these videos justifies pulling them from the YouTube channel, especially not in the manner in which it was initially handled. The tradeoff inherent in an 18-minute presentation is that it is virtually impossible to make a bullet proof argument. If the same standards being applied here were applied to all TED talks, a huge number of them would have to be taken down.
        • Mar 20 2013: Update to my previous comment: It's nice to see some TED staff finally getting involved in this conversation. Thanks @Chris Anderson, who I suspect had something to do with that. :)
      • Mar 20 2013: @ Chris Anderson,

        I just think it would be nice if you could articulate your reasons for taking this drastic action, considering that Sheldrake shredded your stated reasons and Hancock stumped you by asking you to point to a single place where he said anything resembling your criticisms. That you have zero grasp of the issues is abundantly clear.... and sad.

        I wonder how "heroic" scientists and other speakers will have to be in future to show up at a TED conference, considering the obvious caprice with which TED now yanks lectures. And how lovely that you don't even think you need to justify these decisions. You can just point to the "science board" behind the curtain, and say pseudoscience, pseudoscience, pseudoscience, as you click your heels together.

        Do you even know what philosophy of science is? Because that's what Sheldrake's talk was about. But let's all just scream "pseudoscience" really loud until everyone thinks that's what it is.
      • Mar 20 2013: Chris, you wrote "I do think there's a place on TED to challenge the orthodox". Could you explain further please? Maybe some ideas challenging the orthodox are the one most 'worth spreading'? Maybe some of these are exactly what the world needs right now the most?

        Where to draw the line, i.e. curating, indeed must be a very difficult job. However, I am convinced about the self-responsibility of people, they can decide themselves what is 'true' or not.

        Have you seen the numerous calls of the TED community to have Sheldrake's and Hancock's talks fully restored on the channel they were removed from? The ration of comments in support of both presenters seem to be 10:1.
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        Gail . 50+

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        Mar 20 2013: Chris, the problem with your "hope" (but I was hoping scientists who don't buy his ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible) is that leading edge quantum physicists and those in the field they created that are studying "consciousness" or "mind" are the only ones qualified (by TED standards) on Sheldrake's views, and among them, you will find none that are willing to refute the "evidence" (as opposed to proof - just as gravity is a theory, so is Sheldrake's theory a legitimate theory)

        Through this controversy, TED has presented itself as a religion, and it is the first time that I have seen evidence that atheism could be formally called a religion - because both deny the beauty of science that they don't like. What a shame for atheists such as myself. TED has done great harm to the atheist community by putting ammunition in the hands of the Christian community.
    • Mar 19 2013: I've followed the discussions on this subject since yesterday and I have found it very interesting so far. They are controversial talks, and this is a tricky issue. A lot of insightful comments have been made from both sides. But your comments, Krisztián, are nothing short of disrespectful and insulting and I think they add nothing to this matter.

      I'm not particularly in favour of the talks in question, but I wouldn't dismiss them either. I haven't commented so far because I'm not highly knowledgable in these scientific and philosophical fields. Perhaps having a separate section on TED for the more esoteric subjects that may be seen as controversial would be an idea; though I understand that classifying these talks poses a whole new challenge. I would hate to see these talks disappear though, and I think that TED needs to contemplate the options of offering these talks to people as well. This is what you want after all, people thinking about and discussing these ideas. It's not about taking the information that is given as granted and set in stone, but most of all to learn something new and consider the possibilities.
    • Mar 19 2013: When you refer to people as "orks", you are stepping over the line. I understand there is a delete function for one's own comments - perhaps you should do the right thing and use it.
    • Mar 20 2013: Krisztián, I thought this forum was set up to discuss in a non-inflammatory way? Has Sheldrake 'pushed your buttons'? I found Sheldrake's and Hancock's talks very thought provoking. Raising more questions thatn giving answers... inspiring!

      We don't need to agree on the substance, so why so judgmental? You, me, people might well be able to learn a lot from challenging our own beliefs.

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