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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 22 2013: Actually, when Richard Wiseman repeated the experiment, he also got statistically valid results supporting Sheldrake's findings. That didn't make him very happy, so he did some post-hock changes to the analysis to obscure that particular fact.
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      • Mar 22 2013: Where would I be able to find the original research, Sandy? Thanks!
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          Mar 22 2013: Here are a few helpful links:

          Here are the relevant papers:

          Sheldrake, R. (1999a) Commentary on a paper by Wiseman, Smith and Milton on the 'psychic pet' phenomenon. JSPR 63, 306-311.
          Sheldrake, R. (1999b) Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. London: Hutchinson.
          Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (1998) Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the 'psychic pet' phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology 89, 453-462.
          Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (2000) The 'psychic pet' phenomenon: A reply to Rupert Sheldrake. JSPR 64, 46-49.

          "Although Richard Wiseman originally claimed that his experiments with Jaytee refuted the "psychic pet phenomenon", in an interview on April 17, 2007, with Alex Tsakiris, on the Skeptiko website he now admits that "I don't think there’s any debate that the patterning in my studies is the same as the patterning in Rupert's studies...it's how it's interpreted.""
        • Mar 22 2013: The paper tests the dog's "psychic" ability in four separate experiments. The dog failed in every experiment. Period.

          Sure, the dog's pattern of responses was the same in Wiseman's trials as in Sheldrake's: it was random. By conducting the trials under well-controlled conditions, Wiseman et al demonstrated that there was no relationship between the dog's behavior and when its owner started her return home.
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          Mar 22 2013: jt, if the dog failed so miserably, why did Wiseman have to be so dishonest about the actual results he got? In fact, why repeat the experiment at all? Why not just point out problems with the original work? Wiseman wanted to replicate the experiment under the expectation that he wouldn't get the same results that Sheldrake got. But that isn't what happened at all.

        • Mar 22 2013: Sandy, have you actually read Wiseman's paper? The results of the four reported experiments, individually and collectively, fail to show that the dog did what the owners claimed it would do (go to the porch, the window, or whatever) when the owner began her trip home. Dog tested; dog failed. Four tries; four failures.
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          Mar 22 2013: I have read both Wiseman's paper and the original work by Sheldrake. That is how I know Wiseman made some post-hock changes in the analytical method used to obscure the fact that his results supported Sheldrake's argument.
      • Mar 22 2013: (This is addressed to jt Fivetwelve above, but I can't 'reply' to my own commment)

        "Dog tested; dog failed."
        That depends what you mean by "failed". As Wiseman says, it's about how the results are interpreted. Wiseman's paper defines "failure" as "dog spends more than 2 min at window when owner is not coming home". By this criteria, the dog failed all four trials. There are other ways of looking at the data. For example -

        In trial 1, there were 50 minutes of data when the owner was not coming home, and 10 minutes of data from the homeward journey. Jaytee spent 6m58s of the 50 minutes by the window, and 8m55s of the 10 minutes. In other words, Jaytee was at the window 14% of the time when Pam was not on her way home, 89% of the time when she was.

        In trial 2, there were 90 minutes of data when the owner was not coming home, and 11 minutes of data from the homeward journey. Jaytee spent 11 of those 90 minutes at the window, and and 6m04s of the 11 minutes. In other words, Jaytee was at the window 11% of the time when Pam was not on her way home, 55% of the time when she was.

        In trial 3, there were 69 minutes of data when the owner was not coming home, and 3 minutes of data from the homeward journey. Jaytee spent 100% of the homeward journey by the window, and 18% of the 69-minute waiting period.

        In trial 4, there were 60 minutes of data when the owner was not coming home, and 26 minutes of data from the homeward journey. Jaytee spent 10m34s by the window during the 60 minute waiting period, and 2m53s by the window during the homeward journey. In other words, Jaytee was at the window 17% of the time when Pam was not on her way home, 11% of the time when she was.

        "Four tries; four failures."
        This is part of the controversy. Wiseman did four trials before deciding the experiment was a failure; Sheldrake did over 200.
      • Mar 22 2013: That's what's known as a bald-faced lie.
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          Mar 23 2013: Wiseman sure didn't sound very happy in the Skepiko interview when he was cornered on these issues. But I suppose none of us can ever truly know exactly what another is feeling, although some people are certainly more capable of empathy than others.

          If you look at the way the analysis is done in both papers, it is not the same. Now, if you are going to replicate a study, typically you use the same methodology, including that of how the data is handled. Wiseman didn't do that.

          If you think a study has been done in such a way that the original analysis is flawed and needs to be re-considered, instead of replicating the work (and repeating the flaws) typically you would write a paper pointing out the problems in the experiment and showing the reason a different method of analysis was required. Wiseman did not do that.

          Wiseman did a very small sample size of replications, and discovered that using Sheldrakes methodology those replications supported the findings of Sheldrake's original work. Instead of publishing that, Wiseman then altered his own methodology post-hock in regards to the analysis in order to give a different impression of the findings.
        • Mar 24 2013: I can imagine he wasn't very happy because he makes a good living off debunking this stuff.
    • Mar 22 2013: Lime Crime (if that IS your real name), you are one of the very few participants in this conversation who has taken opposition to Sheldrake's validity as a TED speaker.

      For the sake of making this conversation productive, I urge you to give us something of substance, in your own words, to elucidate exactly what your position is and why it is such.

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