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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: well, this page is dominated by sheldrake supporters - and to your credit you are a smart and educated bunch. nice talking to you and thanks for being so civil.

    i find a repeating pattern though, which is frustrating:

    this is the philosophical rat's nest i have gone into again and again over the years. i think you guys mostly just really WANT to believe in psi, pantheism, gussied up creationism, magic, souls, immaterial consciousness etc...

    so you spin everything to make it seem that this is real - and sheldrake is singing your greatest hit: materialist science is a superstitious bias, a closed minded belief with no basis in evidence, certainly no more than idealism etc....

    you then pivot from the lack of evidence to the evidence being suppressed, from what is likely to what is possible, from established knowledge to a supposed history of bias in favor of materialism out of fear of the unknown etc.

    what i have learned is that it is impossible to break your circular logic and anytime i engage you have another new study you think qualifies. it is usually in the form of an hour long youtube video. if i don't watch and respond i am obviously just dogmatic and closed to the science, therefore a pseudoskeptic!

    so i always watch, and i always prepare to have my worldview upended, because surely these smart and philosophically sophisticated folks wouldn't be so confident unless there was something really amazing on this tape!

    and it is always absolute nonsense..

    just wasted my time last night watching a video about anecdotal accounts (and one highly questionable study) that dogs have a telepathic connection with their owners because they spend more time standing at the window after their owner has decided to come home!!!

    this is it - all of the sophisticated intelligent hullabaloo about "materialist bias" in science comes down to wanting to believe that Fido has a telepathic connection with Johnny.
    • Mar 25 2013: And many of us think you are deceiving yourself because of your ideological commitments. What other reason could there be for your steadfast refusal to even acknowledge the existence of evidence which has been presented to you on numerous occasions. Thus, all your hullabaloo about the collapse of civilization if a softly-spoken gentleman's 18 minute talk on philosophy of science is allowed to stand. Thus your constant reference to completely irrelevant (imaginary) side-issues which you feel must lie behind this - the secret agenda.
      • Mar 25 2013: "collapse of civilization"

        steve you make me smile. laugh out loud in fact - quite genuinely. :)

        look fair comment - differing opinions. yes i know you think this about me and anyone who is not convinced by the claims of psi.

        i guess we'll just have to wait and see, huh?

        i think we should all be open to the actual data.

        the only problem for me is that when the data turns out not to be valid, strong enough, replicable, when it falls short of peer review - it should not be a next step to claim that there is a conspiracy to suppress bad science on ideological grounds.

        of course one could imagine a case in which this was true - but if psi were actually apart of life don't you think it would just be undeniable?

        we wouldn't need radin's questionable meta analyses, or sheldrake's odd little experiment using the amount of time dogs spend at windows to try and postulate a telepathic connection with their owners, it would just be something you could show with a simple experiment that would be easy to replicate and would get the same result every time.

        random chance, confirmation bias, poor research methodologies, idiosyncratic interpretation of the data, and positive results so low as to be a total anti climax just don't add up to the kind of revolutionary upending of materialism for which you guys are longing!
        • Mar 25 2013: But the data has been peer-reviewed and published and the experiments replicated and published. The scientific method now suggests you have to try to falsify it by some means other than simply saying it is false.

          As regards psi being experientially undeniable if true, it depends entirely on the strength of the effect. And if, eg, some of the presentiment experiments are showing a real effect then it could be going on all the time without us being aware of it in the slightest. And the same goes for a whole host of other potential psi effects which we might be using constantly without knowing it.
        • Mar 25 2013: I don't think psi would upend materialism because I already view it as a meaningless philosophical hindrance to any attempt to get to grips with reality. That is, what's the point of living one's life according to a concept one can't define and which apparently remains unchanged after monumental changes in the nature of what matter is thought to be. It is, imo, simply a term people hide behind and a non-existent stick used to disingenuously drive off anyone or anything which threatens the real ideological commitments one has.
        • Mar 25 2013: Julian, do you still think that Rupert Sheldrake's ideas are so wrongheaded that they are unworthy of discussion on TED? More unworthy than, say, the aquatic ape theory, which has been discussed on TED?
      • Mar 25 2013: fair enough steve - i think i understand your position now.
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      • Mar 25 2013: That'll be the same Carl Sagan who said.

        "At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images "projected" at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any way other than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true."


        "It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas . . . If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you . . . On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones."

        In that last quote he might well have been talking about someone who can't distinguish between the possibility of psi and the possibility of Santa.
        • Mar 25 2013: yes, we have all seen these quotes from sagan.

          i agree that these and in fact many paranormal claims should be investigated. i 100% support people who are interested in vigorously pursuing psi research.

          i also think we should be really honest about what would amount to actual irrefutable evidence and what huge news it would be.... so far this has not actually happened.
      • Mar 25 2013: Hi Jimmy. Based on your comments you seem convinced Sheldrake's talk is a load of nonsense, his ideas not worthy of serious consideration.
        1. How many of Sheldrake's peer reviewed papers have you read? Have you at least read any of his books? Please be honest.
        2. What specific problems do you have with Sheldrake's TEDx talk? Please don't be vague or misrepresent what Sheldrake actually said (something that TED is unfortunately guilty of doing). Stick to what he said.
        3. Have you read Sheldrake's response to the accusations made against him by the TED Scientific Board? You can read them here: http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/14/open-for-discussion-graham-hancock-and-rupert-sheldrake/

        I think anyone who wishes to engage in this discussion should want to see Sheldrake's response to the charges made against him. So I look forward to hearing what you think of his response. Thanks.
        • Mar 25 2013: " And lets just skip to the good stuff Joe, are you a believer is psychics, water having memory, homeopathy, reiki etc? "
          I think of all the rhetorical tricks used by the fundamentalist materialists, this is the one I dislike the most. Anybody who listens to the evidence of well-controlled, peer-reviewed ganzfeld experiments gets tarred with the same brush as horoscopes in tabloids and the tooth fairy.

          It makes about as much sense as saying that anyone who believes in science believes in racial Darwinism.
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          Mar 26 2013: I see that Jimmy has dodged the hard questions here by resorting to guilt-by-association. Then, when called on it, he dissembles. Total cop-out!
      • Mar 25 2013: Not at all Randy. I have stated below that I don't think psi has been established beyond a doubt. I think the evidence is intriguing and currently inexplicable. I take a slightly more positive view that Sagan - having no ideological commitments against psi - inasmuch as I n ow think that it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that it does exist even I am not there yet. Thus I have struck a balance albeit slightly more on the positive side than Sagan might approve of. But then, he hadn't seen some of the more recent peer-reviewed studies or the meta-analyses. You, by contrast, think psi is in the same boat as Santa and are clearly not in any sort of equilibrium.
        • Mar 25 2013: to be clear, i think psi is in the same boat as santa, but if there were ever strong evidence for either i would change my mind.

          ideology has nothing to do with it and is a smokescreen to cover over the weakness of the science.
      • Mar 25 2013: Hi Jimmy. I think Sheldrake did an effective job of dismantling their accusations. Now you.
      • Mar 25 2013: Hi Jimmy Randy. Sheldrake says, "But materialist philosophers and scientists are still in the majority, and they argue that consciousness does nothing – it is either an illusion or an ”epiphenomenon” of brain activity." You take issue with this and ask who believes this. I would suggest most of the scientists you look up to believe this, including Richard Dawkins. Susan Blackmore wrote an article titled "The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness exists only when you look for it". I can understand why if you've never really put any serious thought into these issues that you are unaware of just how prevalent this viewpoint is. Anyway, please continue with your thoughts on Sheldrake's rebuttal. Thanks.
    • Mar 25 2013: "i think you guys mostly just really WANT to believe in psi, pantheism, gussied up creationism, magic, souls, immaterial consciousness etc..."

      I don't particularly care about any of that stuff.

      I want an intellectual environment that is inclusive and open. That is all.
    • Mar 25 2013: Julian, just a general word of respect for taking the minority opinion here - I know that can't be easy.

      I agree with your point that those on Sheldrake's side of the debate suffer from confirmation bias, and spin the facts to their own Belief System. Would you accept that your side does the same? Or are you 100% rational? Have you considered that this might be bias blind spot? (i.e. The irrational belief "Everybody's irrational except for me")

      Frankly, talking to materialists, I find a repeating pattern which is frustrating:

      this is the philosophical rat's nest i have gone into again and again over the years. i think you guys mostly just really WANT to believe in a cozy, deterministic, billiard-ball universe, governed by eternal laws, and a soothing, secure body of Real Official Knowledge etc.

      so you spin everything to make it seem that this is real - and Coyne is singing your greatest hit: everything except materialism is a superstitious bias, a closed minded belief with no basis in evidence etc....

      you then pivot from claiming lack of evidence to claiming evidence is not in sufficently respected journals. you move from saying physics supports local realism to saying quantum physics is irrelevant, and that we consider quantum physics due to a wishful New Age agenda

      what i have learned is that it is impossible to break your circular logic and anytime i ask you to produce "all the evidence", and "all the data" you claim supports materialism, you just arm-wave and appeal to authority.

      if I'm not convinced that Boyle's law disproves consciousness, i am deluded and closed to the science, therefore i believe in santa!

      so i read dawkins, hitchens, dennett etc., prepared for them to address the problems of consciousness, nomology, and creation...

      and they always begin by assuming materialism...

      this is it - all of the sophisticated intelligent hullabaloo about "New Age delusions" comes down to wanting to believe in a clockwork universe
    • Mar 25 2013: Julian Walker wrote: "this page is dominated by sheldrake supporters - "

      No, it is dominated by people who support the scientific method, and can see that suppression and labelling ideas as pseudoscience, is not science.

      I am more than happy for science to show that any of Sheldrake's ideas are wrong. And if they are, then it shows the strength of the scientific process, and that science was the correct way to approach Sheldrake's or anybody's else's ideas.
    • Mar 26 2013: Julian said - "i think you guys mostly just really WANT to believe in psi, pantheism, gussied up creationism, magic, souls, immaterial consciousness etc..."

      And I suggest it is the opposite is true, that Julian just really DOESN'T want to believe in psi and really what we're dealing with here is Julian's PERSONAL incredulity that CLOUDS his judgement and WEAKENS his ability to be RATIONAL about evidence when it is presented to him. I think "hardened sceptic" is the applicalbe term, or "believer-sceptic," maybe.

      Not to mention his fallacy that people who believe in psi believe in creationism, grouping that which is true with that which is not true to try to discredit it.
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      Mar 26 2013: Dear Julian,

      I think you explained your view in detail, and I agree.

      There is ample of research, easy examples, books,... that we humans do have problems with logical reasoning (even more so when it probabilistic) and accepting the consequences of what the scientific method reveals us.

      It is really hard to explain that one cannot be sure about something that is likely to be true as true, while one can be sure that one can be certain something is not true.
      It is even more difficult to understand it.
      And it is even harder to convince people that this is the case.

      Anyway, it is very hard to impose worldviews, especially one based on inductive reasoning and not on "emotional reasoning"...

      On a personal account: if TED(x) happens to encounter talks like this, or new facts come up that refute what has been said before, one can add a slide in the beginning or at the end of the talk indicating the doubtful nature of the claims made by the speaker.
      Or better: this is thought as "not worth spreading"

      In the end, one can compare talks from the "worth spreading" pile and the "not worth spreading" pile, and see what the differences are.

      I hope this made some sense (if not, feel free to browse other comments I made on this forum).

      I suggest the readers to value Julian's opinion.

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