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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: 9) psychic phenomena are impossible.

    there is no convincing evidence to the contrary. he is right, it is wishful thinking and confirmation bias.

    i don't think most scientists would say they are impossible, (as that is stating it as an unprovable negative) just that a) there is no evidence for them and b) any hypothesis for them would by occam's razor be extraordinarily unlikely given everything for which we do have evidence.

    the first person to ever deliver irrefutable evidence for any kind of paranormal phenomena could not only pick up the james randi foundation million dollar check, but would win a nobel prize and forever change the history of human knowledge. their name would be known alongside newton, galileo, einstein etc and would in fact dwarf them.... but i won't hold my breath, and reasonable people are perfectly within their rights to ignore such nonsense until a single repeatable undeniable instance is ever presented.

    10) only mechanistic medicine works.

    again with the "mechanistic" misnomer.

    medicine either works or it doesn't. there is a lot of research on complementary medicine. diet, exercise, meditation, supplements, the effects of stress and community support etc... all of which makes a quantifiable difference.

    but again sheldrake is gesturing toward magical thinking: prayer, distance healing via telepathy, some kind of quantum intentional interventions, perhaps homeopathy or acupuncture...

    there is simply no good evidence any of this works and the fact that the lack of evidence or the preponderance of evidence that none of it actually works when tested makes the claims of idealism, paranormal powers, the effects of prayer almost as unlikely as to be null and void is not evidence of dogma, it is simply where the evidence leads.

    scientific materialism is what science has discovered, not what science set out to prove. if the data ever goes elsewhere so will the view of scientists and the science literate.
    • Mar 25 2013: "there is no convincing evidence to the contrary. he is right, it is wishful thinking and confirmation bias."
      Ok, parapsychology's a huge field, so I'll just explain one of the more convincing series of experiments, Honorton's autoganzfeld experiments. Ganzfeld is an experimental protocol where a "receiver" is put in a state of mild sensory deprivation, a "sender" telepathically tries to send 1 of 4 randomly-chosen pictures (or videos) to them, then the receiver picks which of the 4 it was. They'd be right by chance 25% of the time.

      A lot of experiments were done with this, but skeptics said there might have been subtle sensory cues or pattern recognition. So a skeptic (Ray Hyman) and a believer (Charles Honorton) published a "joint communiqué" laying out the controls. These are ludicrously tight: a 100dB foghorn sounded outside the receiver's room can't be detectable on a high-quality mic inside the room. The experimental set-up must be inspected by two members of the Magic Circle who look for ways to trick it. This is literally the best-controlled study of any effect I have read in any field.

      Honorton conducted experiments under these conditions. His subjects got it right 32% of the time, not the 25% that you'd expect. The chances of this happening by fluke are 1 in 517. (Of course, it was just wishful thinking and confirmation bias, because we know in advance that telepathy is impossible. That's not a dogmatic belief; it's supported by all the data.)

      Other particularly convincing experiments you could look into are the Pearce-Pratt series (http://www.researchgate.net/publication/232494103_A_REVIEW_OF_THE_PEARCE-PRATT_DISTANCE_SERIES_OF_ESP_TESTS), the Maimonides dream studies, the SRI remote viewing studies (http://www.lfr.org/lfr/csl/library/IEEE1976.pdf).

      How can wishful thinking or confirmation bias cause statistical results to be skewed way above chance? I don't get it.
    • Mar 25 2013: Have you inspected the evidence yourself, or do you rely upon other people to tell you that the evidence is no good? If it is the latter, are you sure those people don't have a vested interest in you believing what they tell you?
    • Mar 25 2013: "there is no evidence for them"
      There are reams of evidence for them. The question is whether we will choose to allow ourselves to be convinced by that evidence. The answer to that question depends on what our existing Belief System is.
      • Mar 25 2013: standards of evidence transcend belief system. that's the whole point.

        something has either been demonstrated to be true in a repeatable, peer reviewed, way or it hasn't. no paranormal study meets the standards of evidence that would make such extraordinary claims or interpretations of data valid.

        when (which i personally find highly unlikely) there is ever a single experiment that is repeatable, meets peer review requirements and demonstrates conclusively a single paranormal effect you can bet it will be the biggest news in the history of news.
        • Mar 25 2013: "standards of evidence transcend belief system."

          Here is a peer-reviewed study showing that the standards of evidence that a biological robot demands is influenced by the Belief System installed in that robot:
          Lord et al. (1979), "Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 37 (11)
        • Mar 25 2013: Haven't gotten to all you comments yet, but saw something here I wanted to respond to real quick:

          "when there is ever a single experiment that is repeatable, meets peer review requirements and demonstrates conclusively a single paranormal effect you can bet it will be the biggest news in the history of news."

          It seems your observation is not born out by the evidence. The first few times obtaining unexpected results, SOP is to assume it's due to experimenter error. If absolutely convinced, the goal posts are likely to be moved indefinitely when moving to publish. I see no reason to expect a study that meets your criteria to be met with acceptance.
        • Mar 25 2013: If standards of evidence transcend belief systems then there should be no need to state the actual phenomenon in a scientific paper when it is being reviewed. That is, the peer-reviewer should be blinded to what the actual phenomenon is and should simply look at methodological issues. So, for example, the ganzfeld test results could be presented as evidence for human abilities to hear things at certain distances. Thus, instead of reporting that the experiment was testing telepathy, we could portray the situation as someone shouting from several hundred yards away. Thus, we would conclude that humans can communicate by voice (barely) from several hundred yards. Of course the wind and distance may interfere and so people may only score 33% where 25% is chance, but nonetheless we would have established the reality of the phenomenon. The question, then, is whether you would be happy to have the peer-review system blinded to the phenomenon in question so that we could make sure the standards of evidence were not being compromised by the a priori belief systems of the reviewers?
        • Mar 25 2013: @ Julian Walker, You write: "standards of evidence transcend belief system. that's the whole point."

          If only that were so:

          "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do... Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions." ~ Richard Wiseman (http://www.skeptiko.com/88-scientific-community-unfair-to-rupert-sheldrake/)

          Standards of evidence should be neutral. That would be an appropriate exercise of the Mertonian norms, but if you read the dissertation posted at that web address, you'll see that is not how science has been practiced as regards Rupert Sheldrake, or any kind of psi research. Similar prejudices can be found in the practice of many sciences. Any research which goes against the status quo is dismissed as nonsense and with total unwillingness to even look at the results. At best, it's approached as Wiseman did here and demand more proof than he would from status quo science. So, no. Standards of evidence do not, in practice, transcend belief.
        • Mar 25 2013: What happened to "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" ?

          To illustrate with an uncontroversial example, remember the neutrinos in CERN they were measuring moving faster than light? That experiment was replicated thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of times, with tiny fractions of error, but scientists didn't accept it because it was at odds with their Belief System (their current theory).
    • Mar 25 2013: The James Randi million dollar challenge has been exposed as fraudulent. The conditions create impossible barriers to even conducting a test.experiment. What's most interesting is the Skeptic community falls back on a phantom challenge offered by an illusionist with no scientific training or experience. Further, Randi's legal troubles in recent years over illegal immigration and identity theft expose him as a habitual liar.

      What is known as "The Big Lie" among serious researchers into consciousness-outside-the-brain is the assertion, "The first person to ever deliver irrefutable evidence for any kind of paranormal phenomena ...would win a Nobel prize and forever change the history of human knowledge." The truth is this evidence has been produced in many well controlled research studies. The response of the broader scientific community is to ignore it. If that is not sufficient to bury the knowledge, condemn it. I once heard Daryl Bem asked, "What is the first piece of advice you have for an academic scientist who is interested in pursuing research in paranormal phenomena?" His response was, "Get tenure."
    • Mar 25 2013: Julian there is just too much anecdotal data to dismiss psychic phenomena.

      In Greece where I live there was a famous monk who had been visited by countless very educated people, university professors, judges, and many younger people, some of which I know personally. He undeniably had the power to read people's mind and to read from a distance. There have been several books about him.
      Also, I know personally people who have been to impressive mediums. There have been mediums in Greece who were low profile and considred very serious, even collaborating with the police on occasion. They could also read one's mind, discover one's family and even distant relatives by name and description, even speaking about the character of these people. They knew absolutely nothing else about their visitoe, family name etc...
      I am sure that many, if not most people are aware of cases similar to the ones I just mentioned.

      There is just too much anecdotal evidence to throw it in the bin and be so negatively biased about it.
      Read skeptiko.com , it is a very balanced blog about these issues.
      • Mar 25 2013: Confirmation bias, cold reading and emotional investment make anecdotal evidence irrelevant unless it then leads to being demonstrated as valid by the basic standards of science.

        The whole reason scientific method is so powerful is that it allows us to get past our wishful thinking and bias.

        Ther are anecdotal accounts of everything from Bigfoot to UFOs to being visited by Jesus to poltergeists etc and yet still no actual evidence that any of these convictions and stories represent something demonstrably true about reality.
        • Mar 25 2013: Your answer is totally cliche. I was not talking about crazy stuff but rather an underlying large amount of anectotal, I know what this means, evidence.
          Somewhere in this discussion I discovered skeptiko.com, ablog I think people like you should study carefully. Only with a real dialogue about these important matters, and serious scientific models and experiments, will this debate help the whole community go forward.
      • Comment deleted

        • Mar 25 2013: You missed some stuff of your list of things for which we only have anecdotal evidence. The funniness of jokes, the meaning of words, the value of money, love, hate, pain, consciousness, and so on. I trust you think these things belong alongside dragons.
        • Mar 25 2013: It seems that you did not understand my point. There is really too much evidence! Iam a scientist, and one who still reads and bases his work on published results. But I tell you, not to accept that there is something there which needs some further research is really wrong, and stubbornly refusing it will leave you behind someday in the not too distant future.

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