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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 27 2013: I am an independent science writer based in Vancouver, B.C. While I specialize in the behavioral sciences, I also have a pretty respectable informed layman's grasp of physics and astronomy, having studied these in university, and keeping abreast of the subject in my leisure reading. I first saw Rupert Sheldrake speak at a conference in Montreal in 2004, and then a second time here in Vancouver a couple of years ago. I have also read a few of his books. While it is true that more research must be done to substantiate some of his claims, particularly in the area of telepathy, good evidence is building from people like emeritus social psychologist Daryl Bem from Cornell, and intriguing new evidence from quantum biology, though admittedly, evidence that is still early in the game around quantum smell and vision, although quantum photosynthesis appears to be here to stay. But what fascinates me more, and I have written about it in a book that I've co-authored with a psychiatrist on the subject of the victimization process (a project that has taken seven years to complete, and which is now in final editing), is that science, or should I say scientists, are prone, as are all humans, to experiencing cognitive dissonance when new challenging ideas come along. Sheldrake's morphic resonance theory certainly fits that category. But it is a theory, and as such, it deserves the opportunity to find its legs if only as a placeholder theory until some better theory for explaining overall body plans can come along. Epigenetics may one day do that, but not yet. I am happy to see that TED decided to re-post his talk, even if it was with a cautionary note. I am most familiar with his case, and the manner in which he was excommunicated by Nature Magazine from the Church of Science. Ever since that inglorious incident, his reputation as a scientist has yet to fully recover. In this sense, his is a cautionary tale of what can happen to scientists who dare to push the envelope, even today.
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      Mar 27 2013: thank you for your comment!!!
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      Mar 27 2013: Whoa, independent science writer - is this also what happened to Michael Behe, then? He "dared to push the envelope" (as you put it)? And got 'excommunicated ... from the Church of Science"?

      "Church of Science ..." strikes me as quite a piece of talk. And it rings recognizably in my ear - from studying pseudo-critiques of science spawned and cherished by - the religious right. Our good friends in anti-evolution creationism etc. Knowest thou them?

      Likewise, the exhortation of ideologically-driven representation of science as some kind of cryptic religion, disguised as inquiry - like science is a fraud, a pretense feigning interest in nature and natural phenomena, its theoretical pursuit of explanation actually an ulterior operation - out to destroy inspiration, undermine faith - is a familiar narrative.

      Its the pseudoscientific anti-evolutionary right's exact line - verbatim. Same script - chap and verse.

      When any pov presents that sort of drum-beating caricature of science, all sanctimonious as if science were an ideological movement opposed to genuine interests - whether the tin horn is blaring from old time religion's right fringe (e.g. Bible-inspired) or opposed choirs from the neo left, whichever factions (various obscure little movements in the larger cultic milieu) - I suggest we might sensibly wonder, and in all good reason ask - maybe we're "not in Kansas anymore ..."
      • Mar 27 2013: Brian, are you sure you are being evenhanded here?

        In your 2nd paragraph, don't you say it is bad to compare your opponents to religious believers?

        In your 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th paragraphs, don't you compare your opponents to religious believers?
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          Mar 28 2013: Conor, I'm not sure how to address that. I think we are applying very different methods, from contrasting perspectives.

          I'm not sure if or how you understand, general level. What information base, what standard for analytic comparison and contrast are you working? I'm utilizing well-known 'right wing' pseudoscience, case studies if you will, as highly informative sources. "Sci" Creationism, Intel-D ... show and tell a lot.

          What does an ideological movement or extremity do and how, when antagonized by scientific findings that skewer its tenets, the authority of its teachings? What type of propaganda, how does it proceed, what are its tactics, strategies etc?

          And what are the vulnerabilities, the exposure points of science - from educational to public presentation to research settings?

          I'm not sure how to follow your line of thought. Its unclear to me how well you understand questions in evidence I'm asking. Perhaps I could explain better, if I knew what your background expertise is - for clues to what terms, what models or foundations of understanding would avail. By way of disclosure, I'm grad degreed in natch sciences (PHD, spec in plant/fungal biol) and social (MA, cultural anthro plus PHD coursework) - also comparative religion (BA).

          I put stuff under microscope, look at it close, applying different tests and methods. The brush strokes. X-ray, UV. Search images, what should we predict depending on what we're testing? My orientation is scientific investigation, research. There's plenty of 'funny business' in the history of science, exploitation of different kinds - object lessons from Piltdown to Castaneda's don Juan, that need to be understood, to realize some of the finer issues.

          The core of issue I find here has two sides, enabling a kind of 'round and round' that awaits vertigo and exhaustion. On one hand - Ideology posturing as philosophy, lack of boundary there. On other, TED might clarify criteria, as Christophe Cop rightly notes.

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