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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 25 2013: For those who maintain biases are not at play, a brief object lesson from history:

    "The Sorcerer of Menlo Park appears not to be acquainted with the subtleties of the electrical sciences. Mr. Edison takes us backwards. One must have lost all recollection of American hoaxes to accept such claims." -Professor Du Moncel

    "Edison's claims are 'so manifestly absurd as to indicate a positive want of knowledge of the electric circuit and the principles governing the construction and operation of electrical machines.'"-Edwin Weston, specialist in arc lighting

    "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology France, 1872

    "Fooling around with alternating current in just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever." -Thomas Edison, 1889

    "If the whole of the English language could be condensed into one word, it would not suffice to express the utter contempt those invite who are so deluded as to be disciples of such an imposture as Darwinism." -Francis Orpen Morris, British ornithologist 1877

    "The whole procedure of shooting rockets into space. . . presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished." -Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer

    "The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine." Ernst Rutherford, 1933

    "Space travel is bunk" - Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

    "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp. 1977

    Source: http://amasci.com/supress1.html
    • Mar 25 2013: And these are only the ones who finally made it through. I'd imagine there are hundreds of others whose work is now forgotten, and hundreds of breakthroughs made later, if at all, because of exactly the attitude displayed above. I think a library of rejected science papers would offer a fascinating insight into the real world workings of the scientific community.
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      • Mar 25 2013: I do not, but I'd be happy to read them if you can supply them.
    • Mar 25 2013: just because breakthroughs that have turned out to be milestones in scientific history were met with resistance and even scorn initially does not mean that every claim met with scorn and derision will be a breakthrough that will change the paradigm.

      there is no reason to think sheldrake is the new edison, or haramein the new hawking, persinger the new newton based on their claims being rejected.

      as always their claims would first have to be demonstrated to be true - and THEN the rejecters will be seen to have been wrong. the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those making the claims.
      • Mar 25 2013: You're absolutely right, Julian. Which is why investigation is called for (not a priori dismissal). The evidence is there. You can either explain it away, or attempt to verify it's veracity yourself. What you can't do as a scientist is drone on about how consistently reproduced results are "impossible". Scientists cannot make ontological assumptions without compromising their integrity as scientists. That is the entire point of Sheldrake's talk, and it's well received by me.
        • Mar 25 2013: yup - and i 100% support investigation.

          we should be careful though not to conflate either a) supporting research with acting as if all opinions and beliefs are equally valid regardless of evidence, or b) acting as if dismissing unlikely claims about reality until sufficient evidence is provided, with having some ideological bias.

          the examples i have given a few times here about climate change and creationism stil stand - there is a problem when one acedes to claims that all points of view should be given equal air time or else be accused of censorship or bias.
        • Mar 25 2013: Jimmy Randy wrote: "The rest of us just can't get on board because the evidence we have today doesn't support his ideas".

          In which case (a) you present the evidence that you have, and explain how it contradicts Sheldrake's (b) You ask Sheldrake for more evidence to support his claims.

          What you don't do is (a) decide that you don't need to adhere to the scientific standards you claim to uphold, (b) Prevent others from seeing the impartial, logical clarity of the scientific process.
        • Mar 26 2013: @Jimmy Randy: And I may not agree with you, but I think you would be the first to complain if I had your views suppressed.
      • Mar 25 2013: I think Noah posted those quotes not to claim that Sheldrake is the next Einstein, but to refute the claims that there is no dogma in science, that scientists are always angelically evenhanded and rational. People in this thread have been saying things like, " "dogmas of science" - [is] a complete oxymoron that misunderstands science completely." and I think Noah was just giving some exaples of the shocking fact that scientists are human, and humans get mad when you step on their Belief System.
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      Mar 25 2013: you forgot the biggest debacle of all time: the geocentric worldview that lasted for many millennia, and finally kepler had to debunk it, facing great opposition.

      guess who opposed it, among others: all the priests. guess who finally created the correct model. that's right, scientists, like galilei and newton.

      science never claimed to have all the answers. science claims to discover the answers one after the other. delivering since the dawn of time. surrounded by hatred, suspicion, denial and misunderstanding.
      • Mar 25 2013: "science never claimed to have all the answers. science claims to discover the answers one after the other. delivering since the dawn of time. surrounded by hatred, suspicion, denial and misunderstanding."

        We all know and appreciate this - it's just that that hatred, suspicion, denial and misunderstanding has now been incorporated into scientismic culture.
      • Mar 25 2013: Newton and Kepler believed in God. Kepler wrote a book about the "Harmony of the Spheres", where he derived the structure of the solar system from the Platonic bodies. Newton wrote more in volume about the occult than about science. He also studied alchemy and was convinced about the possible transmutation of all elements into each other.

        Galileo believed in the truth of the Bible, though not in a literal sense.

        "It seems to me that it was well said by Madama Serenissima, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scripture cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways; and one error in particular would be most grave and most frequent, if we always stopped short at the literal signification of the words."

        I think the whole conflict of "science versus religion" was driven historically more by the people concerned about their worldly powers and influences, the mediocre minds, but not by the great truth seekers. There is no conflict between spiritual teachings and mathematics or physics in the works of Plato or Aristotle, for a start.

      • Mar 26 2013: So your argument here is really against the catholic church and you will substitute anyone for them that allows you to vent spleen. Thus your trump card is hundreds of years old, frayed at the edges, and completely irrelevant to anything discussed here.
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          Mar 26 2013: no my argument is about scientific thinking vs mythological thinking. scientific thinking is based on observations and logic. mythological thinking is based on assumptions and metaphors.
      • Mar 26 2013: “[Sheldrake’s theory] can be condemned in exactly the language that the Popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.” ~ John Maddox, Editor of Nature

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          Mar 26 2013: can be. it also can be condemned based on lack of scientific rigor, and also based on its obvious and blatant lies about what science actually claims.
      • Mar 26 2013: What does science actually claim and who is this Science guy?
      • Mar 26 2013: @ Krisztián Pintér

        It "can be?" So, you're saying, that it's perfectly appropriate to condemn a book for "heresy" and to condemn a book of science because it violates orthodoxy? Seriously? You agree with Maddox's statement? After all your criticism of priests for doing exactly that? Well, I guess, like John Maddox, you lack an irony meter.
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          Mar 26 2013: no, it is not appropriate. you said it can be condemned, and i agreed. it is a possibility to condemn on that basis, but it is not a good thing to do. everything can be condemned using bad arguments, it does not mean anything.

          what does mean something is whether an argument can be dismissed using right arguments. like lack of scientific rigor and blatant lies. like sheldrake's talk.
      • Mar 26 2013: @ Krisztián Pintér

        No. I didn't say it could or should be condemned at all. John Maddox did as a means of justifying his book review in Nature -- the one wherein he joked about burning Sheldrake's book. I find it alarming that the editor of a prominent science journal would joke about burning books and accuse a scientist of heresy. You don't?
      • Mar 26 2013: I conclude from this science and the occult can go together well, in some (like Newton) at least.
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          Mar 26 2013: and sheldrake for example. yep, it is possible to understand an area of science, and still believe in the tooth fairy. we humans are not consistent. but newton had an excuse: he was raised religious in a religious world. sheldrake should know better.

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