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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 24 2013: I agree with the removal of his video.

    To start with, as far as I see it TEDx is already synonymous with pseudoscientific junk. The misuse of "quantum", assertions about reality without evidence, non-peer reviewed "studies", and atrociously bad experimental controls.. TEDx puts all of those things on show and gains legitimacy from TEDs good brand.

    I have no problem with questioning long held beliefs, exploration of the abstract, and challenging the mainstream. These are all wonderfully valuable pursuits. But making pseudoscientific claims with no evidence isn't any of those things, it's just "make something up and claim it's real".

    The claims Mr Sheldrake was making about science as a belief system were completely unfounded and a complete misrepresentation of what science is. His 10 "dogmas" he says science is restricted by are the result of hundreds of years of experimentation and observation. There is no reason logically, empirically, or theoretically that any of the alternatives he offered are valid. His claims were just a jumble of poetic wishful thinking and were utterly opposed to any search for ACTUAL truth.

    His talk was just a re-packaging of so many logical fallacies and unfounded anti-science claims that are so popular with the "alternative" science crowd. I.e. "heeeyyy man.. what if evidence isn't everything.. then.. like.. this other thing that I just thought up and doesn't have any evidence could be true.. whoooa"
    • Mar 24 2013: Hi Matt, have you taken the time to read Sheldrake's response to the charges leveled against him by TED's Scientific Board? It looked to me as if Sheldrake did a good job of dismantlinag all of their accusations but I'd be interested in what you think. Sheldrake's response can be found here:
    • Mar 24 2013: 1. Could you point out an actual logical fallacy in the talk. This claim has been made a number of times, but nobody has actually been able to produce one.

      2. Could you point out one of the pseudoscientific claims he makes without evidence. This claim has been made a number of times but nobody has actually been able to produce one. The TED science board's suggestions all had to be retracted when Sheldrake produced peer-reviewed literature in support of the claims challenged.

      3. Could you list some of the long-held beliefs you/science holds that you think are worth challenging. I ask because it seems from what you have written that this may be a "wonderfully valuable pursuit" as long as it is other people's beliefs/belief-systems that are challenged.
    • Mar 24 2013: Matt Postle wrote: "The claims Mr Sheldrake was making about science as a belief system were completely unfounded"

      TED's suppression of Sheldrake's talk is consistent with his view that science is dogmatic. Science is about dialogue and reason. Suppression is none of these.
    • Mar 24 2013: I would argue that the claims in your post are unsubstantiated. Sheldrake did not make anything up that he claims to be real - it's called a hypothesis. He presents the idea of the 10 scientific dogmas for you to make your own judgement. Making a sweeping generalisation about the 'alternative science crowd' and categorising Sheldrake in this way as an attempt to discredit his assertions also reveals your black and white/'us and them' perception of the situation and does no favours for your argument. Finally, I'm not sure how you can argue that he is 'utterly opposed to any search for actual truth' when his talk is designed to broaden the scope of people's scientific thinking - you should realise that doing this does not mean that you need to abandon your respect for scientific method and empirical evidence. You can have both.
    • Mar 24 2013: "His 10 "dogmas" he says science is restricted by are the result of hundreds of years of experimentation and observation."

      Then you can imagine Kepler's shock and disappointment when he realized a 1500 year old assumption that planets moved in circles was the last stumbling block in establishing the the primacy of the Copernican model over the Ptolmeic. Not even Copernicus was willing to let that one go, and he still clinged to the Ptolmeic mathematical model, as did Galileo. Not until Kepler broke down the final assumption and showed that the planets tended to move in ellipses did we have the right mathematics to support the heliocentric view.

      Sheldrake is now challenging some basic assumptions. Whether he is right or not should be open to discussion, and that's what many of us have a problem with. If he's so far off base, then the mainstream of science should have no problem demonstrating how wrong he is.
      • Mar 25 2013: I imagine the competing theories against Kepler's long held assumption had evidence to support them.

        Evidence pls.

        Until evidence is submitted and verified, there is no reason to give any of these alternative theories any time. Otherwise the pursuit of knowledge would devolved into a never ending game of whack-a-mole as scientists are forced to constantly disprove the infinite number of alternate theories anyone can think up.

        In the mean time.. please familiarize yourself with this.

        • Mar 25 2013: Well it was a long held assumption for 1500 years that the planets moved in circles, and it was Kepler that showed it was wrong after 20 years of trying to solve a discrepancy with the observed position of Mars, and the predicted position according to the mathematics of the Copernican theory , which still assumed the planets moved in circles and not ellipses. There was no evidence that the planets moved in circles. It was an assumption that was considered true because that's the way it always was, and the circle was perfect. It was, as Sheldrake would say, a habit.

          This assumption, though wrong, held for as long as it did because it was good enough for most purposes. So long as an ephemeris was made annually, the errors were of no consequence. They were only noticed by Kepler because he had access to the best historical data (Brahe's) on the positions of the known planets, and while he believed that the sun was at the center of the solar system, he also knew there was a problem with Copernicus' modifications of the Ptolmeic mathematics used to describe the heliocentric theory. And so Kepler's laws were born, all because he challenged a fundamental assumption.
    • Mar 24 2013: Absolutely nailed it, John.

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