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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 24 2013: How's this for a definition of pseudoscience:

    Pseudoscience is any belief that is presented with the trappings of science (scientific jargon, titles etc.) which is either [A] contradicted by empirical evidence, [B] not testable empirically, [C] speculative, but presented as factual.


    Some examples:
    "Green vegetables, in particular, contain chlorophyll which has a cleansing and healing effect on the digestive tract and liver." (From http://www.gillianmckeith.info/maintaining-a-healthy-body/food/juicing/detoxification/) Language like "chlorophyll" and "digestive tract" has a science-y tone, but there is no evidence that chlorophyll has any effect on these organs.

    "The latest scientific discoveries in the fields of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory reveal the fundamental principles of invincibility that are practically applied through Maharishi’s Unified Field-Based Approach to the Creation of World Peace and that can practically achieve unprecedented levels of national security, strength, and invincibility." (From http://www.yogicflyingclubs.org/fundamentals.html). This is a lovely one: we open up with the same language a scientific paper would open with ("The latest scientific discoveries in the fields of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory reveal..."), and run straight into the empirically unsubstantiated claim that Mahesh Yogi's method "can practically achieve unprecedented levels of national security, strength, and invincibility"
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      Mar 24 2013: None of that applies to the talks TED has censored.
    • Mar 24 2013: By this definition, any talk assuming materialism could be considered pseudo-scientific on all three counts.
    • Mar 24 2013: Conor O'Higgins wrote: How's this for a definition of pseudoscience: Pseudoscience is any belief that is presented with the trappings of science (scientific jargon, titles etc.) which is either [A] contradicted by empirical evidence, [B] not testable empirically, [C] speculative, but presented as factual.

      1. Do you mean like Dark Matter? (a) There is no empirical evidence that supports it (b) It is a speculative notion that explains certain observations (c) It is regularly presented as fact?

      2. Or the describing of ideas as pseudoscience, a pejorative label which has no scientifically agreed definition, that is often used as if labelling something as "pseudoscience" was a scientific fact?
    • Mar 25 2013: whenever i see people calling Sheldrake's work as "pseudoscience" it makes me wonder whether those people really understand the technical definition of "pseudoscience". Sheldrake's morphogenetic field theory is *not* pseudoscience. he has proposals on how to test it. he has invited scientists to test it. and there are circumstantial evidences which lend credence to his theory, as well as mathematical basis. for those who are calling Sheldrake "pseudoscientist", go ahead and watch this lecture and point to the actual pseudoscience.

      Rupert Sheldrake - The Morphogenetic Universe ~ http://youtu.be/2Dm8-OpO9oQ

      it's one way to disagree with Sheldrake's interpretation of data to support his theory. it's another to call him a pseudoscientist. the former is a valid disagreement in scientific circles. the latter is just name-calling.
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      Mar 25 2013: Conor, what a pivotal question. Pseudoscience strikes me as a nontechnical term. Its widely used, generally accepted, mostly without pause over its boundaries. How to even approach defining it, with whatever degree of precision? And what test for it might apply to any product in science's market, from theory like Intel Design, to scientific-philosophical perspective (as in present case).

      As pseudoscience has become more pervasive and varied, recent decades - there's been discussion about how to define it - from popular discourse to academic studies, educated publications. Wish I could quote what answers no doubt already suggested in serious, intellectually engaged, socially aware study - inquiring minds with everything to learn nothing to prove (as opposed to ideological partisan voices).

      Important study, the very terms of discussion. There can only be some 'softness' in its meaning for me, pending. At least we have clear, agreed-upon 'real life examples' to study, meanwhile - 'Scientific Creationism' etc. - nice lesson in pseudoscience (might as well find some use for it).

      One other reply reflection I ponder, as a defining element is a fundamentally exploitive intent. It can be mere crass commercialism, as reflects in 'scientific jargon' advertising method ("contains alpha-hydroxies"), or Von Daniken ancient astronaut books. From product sales to entertainment - just 'giving the public what it wants' (PT Barnum).

      Beyond that lies ideologically charged pseudoscience, serving inspirational interests. Maybe more subversive in scope, murkier objectives quirky to particular movements, wanting whatever - like its 'proper' place in public school science curricula (for example).

      Some concept of 'criminal intent' is implicit to defining crime (if I understand right). Maybe a similar element of fundamentally exploitative intent - from commercial sales to inspirationally-charged ideological, partly defines what might rightly be called pseudoscience.

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