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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 27 2013: My question then is: Are there other TEDTalks that, if held to the same scientific standards as these two, would have to be removed from TED?
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      Mar 27 2013: Yes, there are Talks on TED, and some more on the TEDx youtube channel that are dubious, or pseudoscientific and ought to be removed or added a warning sign or something like that.

      Or how about this one (on TED):

      http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_klein_on_the_intelligence_of_crows.html is also a hoax

      Some examples that I know about on TEDxTalks (youtube)

      Happed before:

      So if they TED wishes to allocate resources to check TED(x) talks on quality (and there are a lot of them!) , that would be appreciated. Or if the community can put up signal flags...

      TED and TEDx know about this problem:
      And we try our best to understand, and explain each other why we do need these criteria and how difficult it is to draw the line between ignorance and deceit,...

      Not an easy task, but we are always ready to learn and improve the quality of our events (or I want to be sufficiently naive to believe we do)
      • Mar 27 2013: Christophe -

        It is quite telling that you select as an example of another pseudo-scientific talk, one given by Stuart Hameroff. Dr. Hameroff holds a BS degree from the University of Pittsburgh an MD from Drexel University College of Medicine. He is Emeritus professor for Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona and Associate Director for the Center for Consciousness Studies.

        Hameroff's pseudoscience violation is that he argues the same point as Sheldrake, that human consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of brain function. The battle here is not between science and pseudoscience. It is about the business of consciousness. It is between the pharmaceutical industry and the free pursuit of scientific inquiry. Apparently, TED has been purchased by the industry, which accounts for why the so-called "science board" hides behind a veil of anonymity. Talks which are "bad for business" will be banished from the main distribution channels.

        In the end, even though the discussion which TED solicited is overwhelming opposed to their censorship, the decision will stand. The TED brand is a mouthpiece for corporate entities and they will insist on keeping the channel free of subversive messages.
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          Mar 27 2013: I'm not foolish to think that status is an argument.

          If you wish to state that consciousness is somehow transmitted from or to somewhere else, it should -according to the laws of thermodynamics- leave a detectable trace or influence. (see http://www.ted.com/conversations/17189/the_debate_about_rupert_sheldr.html?c=635740 )

          As long as you fail to show that such a that you need more than a brain to generate consciousness, the burden of evidence lies in your camp...

          As for scientific inquiry: everybody is free to do scientific research... And you shouldn't blame anybody if you fail to raise money to conduct it or fail to produce results that suit your beliefs.

          Your claim of TED being purchased is not based upon facts.
          But then again, facts are only for scientists, right ;-) (yes, this was sarcastic)
        • Mar 27 2013: "As long as you fail to show that such a that you need more than a brain to generate consciousness, the burden of evidence lies in your camp..."
          Could somebody please explain this 'burden of evidence' rule to me? Looking at how it's used, the rule seems to be "the burden of evidence is on the other guys". Have I got that right?

          " it should -according to the laws of thermodynamics- leave a detectable trace or influence. "
          Doesn't Hameroff's theory fit this measure? I mean his claim that consciousness influences the phosphorylation of tubulins on the microtubules?

          Hameroff's theory (i.e. that microtubules are involved in quantum computation relevant to cognition) seems to me entirely falsifiable - just not with today's technology. Personally I wouldn't call it pseudoscience, though I would call it very speculative.
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          Mar 28 2013: Conor:

          I don't disagree with your stance and remarks, as I think they make a lot of sense and are pretty close to what I think.

          * If two theories explain the same, and A has less assumptions than B, then A is the theory to be accepted (as B= A+redundancy)

          On that account, you don't need the micrutubuli or quantum idea to explain how our brains operate. Neural (electrical and chemical) activity works great and are sufficient to explain all our behavior. If Hamerhoff claims that it is not, he should prove that the "redundancy" part is not redundant.

          There is an evolutionary argument however: quantum-communication is very energy efficient, and should be a HUGE advantage for a lot of species. It should therefore be heavily selected in at least a few animals with serious measurable effects.
          This is not the case,...
          According to neuronal computation (synapses, chemicals): we do see a great expansion of it in a lot of animals,...

          So the likelyhood of Hameroff's theory is even lower, as it explains less than the current model and needs more assumptions.
      • Mar 27 2013: I mention Hameroff's credentials to support that he is a scientist.

        The whole point of Sheldrake's Science Set Free is that the laws of thermodynamics should themselves be examined. There is not even a theory of how consciousness works, much less a working model, within the boundaries of these laws. Without an answer to the "hard problem of consciousness" that coincides with the laws of thermodynamics, it is dogmatic to reject the mounting body of evidence that suggests these law may not govern consciousness.

        Everyone is not free to do scientific research. One needs a laboratory, equipment, staff, supplies, etc. Scientific research is anything but free. Bringing a single drug from conception to market can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The investors who supply the capital for scientific research into consciousness (the brain), expect to earn a return. Otherwise, they will not invest. I was recently declined a research grant to conduct a controlled study of a mind-body treatment for Parkinson's disease. When I explained the situation to a senior partner at Lazard Capital who runs their biotech division, he laughed and said, "How will the investors ever get their money back?"

        Pardon my misstatement about TED being purchased. Is it more accurate to say TED receives major funding from industrial donors?
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          Mar 27 2013: Everybody is free to falsify the laws of thermodynamics. Up until now, they are still in concordance with every observation in this universe.

          I would like other people to fund me to do that research... so feel free to support me.

          If you think Sheldrake is up to something: start a Kickstarter or fundraiser or whatever you like... And ask for the randy million or any other prize money...
          A lot of research can be done very cheaply. Start being inventive and do that research first. If it is compelling enough, You'll get more funding (I'm willing to help you if you succeed!)

          Anybody who can show that thermodynamics does not hold will probably get the Nobel prize as well as recognition in the future of all generations to come.
          If you claim there is evidence: can you provide me a link please, as i'm quite eager to discover this (and revise my worldview so it fits reality even better than before)

          As for 'the hard problem'
          It might be hard, but current hypothesis are quite good (see Damasio's talk for example)
          There are a lot of good ideas in the field of consciousness and how it works. All based on decent neuroscience, and well funded too... why? because it works, is based on facts, good previous research,...

          For answers by TED what they do with their money :

          I don't know their finances, but I know about my own TEDx events. Our sponsors have no influence on our stage: we decide who we program, and they just need to trust us that the quality is good. If they happen to disagree and stop sponsoring us: We'll find new ways to get funding. Oh, and we do this as volunteers (unpaid, because I personally think that scientific thinking, skepticism, the quest for truth and enlightenment are much needed in a world that is riddled by beliefs that deviate from reality)
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        Mar 27 2013: The difference between Science and Pseudoscience implies the presence of a distinct demarcation line between the two.

        Where is that demarcation line, how broad is it, and who or what designates it?

        With that in mind, can you explain how science moves into pioneering territory, or does it by nature, have to stay within its own method?

        Would you say certain cues taken from the metaphysical can be used to help define the first principles of the physical?
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          Mar 27 2013: I don't think it's so clear cut,

          there is a demarcation of what certainly is false (grass is blue, the sun smells like elephant dung, gravity sometimes changes direction, america is bigger than the solar system, the homeopathic principle of dilution,...)

          There are things that are somewhat unclear... and there you can have the whole range of innovation and experiments.

          As for the method: any form of data-gathering can become accepted when proven to be valid, reliable, &c &c.
          Deviating from this method would mean: oh, let's try and use invalid measurement methods (like revelation or dice-throws to measure my length)

          As for principles of the physical....
          We only have generalizations (as we have induction because we have incomplete information) that made us infer some things we call principles (disputable to a certain extent, but the data is not disputable)

          I don't know what you mean by metaphysical... If it means "our intuition", then I say: better test it first. If it means some kind of knowledge: just explain the method to obtain the data, and we are scientific again. If it means philosophical: all our thinking is in a sense philosophical, so yeah, we think and that helps us to formulate hypothesis... which need testing.
      • Mar 27 2013: Christophe, thanks for bringing the debate into sharp focus.

        You write, every [scientifically valid] observation in this universe is in concordance with the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore any observation not in concordance, such as evidence accumulated by Sheldrake over the last 30 years, the data collected in the Global Consciousness Project, Hameroff's research, etc. is false. Sheldrake's observations are not credible because there is no evidence... Well said.

        There is no theory or model of how the brain creates consciousness. There is a hypothesis that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain function, but it is far from being validated.

        Bringing the Randi Prize into the conversation exposes your bias and lack of knowledge about the Randi Prize. http://dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge.

        Finally, you fall back on what is known as the Big Lie in consciousness studies. That credible evidence of consciousness outside the brain will be rewarded with a Nobel Prize. In practice, it is the opposite. Conducting such research is a fast way to kill an academic career. As Daryl Bem said, before conducting research in this field, get tenure.
        • Mar 27 2013: "There is a hypothesis that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain function, but it is far from being validated."

          Beautifully said.
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          Mar 28 2013: Dear Dan,

          Please make a perpetuum mobile, as you claim it (violation of thermodynamics) has been proven by Sheldrake and Hameroff...
          Alternatively: explain one study they did that convinces you that no alternative explanations are possible, and their theory ought to be prefered over the rival theories.

          The word "epiphenomenon" is badly chosen. it's like saying ice is an epiphenomenon of slow moving h2o molecules.... while true, it is a value laden word.
          Yes: consciousness is a result of an active, living brain... think that is a plausible hypothesis, and we reducing our ignorance as neuroscience is getting more and more results.

          I know enough about the randy prize, that you can agree to an experiment that, if successful, will get you the money.
          And I can also help you with the Belgian equivalent, offering 1 million Euro's as well... I do demand 10% of the winnings for my help of course ;-)

          I did not know the "big lie" you speak of... conducting such research endlessly without results is something different as 1 good experiment that cannot be refuted. Sadly, there is no such study [edit: that I know about: feel free to inform me].

          [Edit 2:
          Randy will agree to do some form of staring test... And so will Skepp, so if you wish to do this.. it does not cost a lot of money, and it can immediately re-instate Sheldrake as your local hero for everybody in the world to see]
      • Mar 28 2013: Christophe, would you debate Rupert Sheldrake on some public event? I would love to learn from this. Could you give some detailed arguments why his talk is labeled 'pseudoscience' here? Is it then even claiming to be science? Looks like a talk about philosophy and/or sociology of science to me. Would you give him that he is interested in changing or expanding the scope of science, but not in abandoning the scientific method?
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          Mar 28 2013: I Would not mind doing that.

          Is there a transcript of the current talk?

          he starts with "science already understands the nature of reality"
          This starting claim is already a deep misunderstanding of what science is or does.

          * Science is a process of wonder, observation, testing, formulating hypotheses and observe and test again. This leads to accumulated scientific knowledge
          Scientific knowledge is knowledge that can be traced back to the observations being made, and is thus supported by them. You can verify the claims and you can see for yourself if the ideas are sufficiently valid and accurate.

          The current scientific knowledge is already up to a point where some things don't need to be investigated any further because
          a) There is sufficient evidence.
          b) it is in contradiction with the facts.

          Of course there are people who "believe" in science, while they don't know the reason why they should accept science on a probabilistic level. But I don't think talking about those people is interesting.

          But let's pass to the next issue:
          He adds the idea of philosophical materialism. And then he claims that it is part of that belief system...
          The current body of evidence points towards materialism, so it is the reigning paradigm (again, not a belief, but there are people who believe it, but those people are not interesting to talk about)

          The remaining of his talk is adding more and more to it: he claims a lot of things that are NOT science, says it is how science is, and then refutes it.

          He has a modernist view of science, and it is wrong.

          Sheldrake is barking up the wrong tree.
          I don't hold up what he claims (scientists hold up), and if he thinks such a crude simplification of science is worth spreading,... he is mistaken.

          It would be the same as claiming that any dualist believes in a God and does it purely based on revelation.
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          Mar 28 2013: Continuing:
          * the morphic resonance claims are unlikely, but if you fund me, I'll be happy to investigate them for you, There is no evidence of the crystals nor the rats...
          * speed of light & G : if they are changing, then you should be able to measure it. You can measure differences, and we can already look at the standard deviations to see how much the deviations are. If the deviation is bigger than the measurement error...
          If there are changes, then it should be really small... so what he says is unlikely, but might be possible (at least in principle)
          * Mind ideas: there is no evidence for the "stare" hypothesis...

          So he can question, but he does a lot of claims that are either wrong or within a small margin of possibility.
        • Mar 28 2013: Christophe, you are clearly assuming your conclusion. That you're oblivious is what I think others are finding exasperating. Here's an example:

          "Yes: consciousness is a result of an active, living brain"

          This is an assumption. There are compelling arguments that flip the causal relationship. We're in the realm of philosophy, not science.
        • Mar 28 2013: "Is there a transcript of the current talk? "
          Yes, I posted it in this comment thread, but it's pretty far down.

          "he starts with "science already understands the nature of reality"
          This starting claim is already a deep misunderstanding of what science is or does."
          That is exactly his point; that the claim is a deep misunderstanding of true science.

          "Of course there are people who "believe" in science, while they don't know the reason why they should accept science on a probabilistic level. But I don't think talking about those people is interesting."
          These are the people Sheldrake's talk is addressed at. He makes a clear-cut distinction between "science as a method of enquiry", and the dogmas of philosophical materialism, which he regrettably labels with the same word: "science as a belief system". This homophone is confusing a lot of people in this thread.

          "The remaining of his talk is adding more and more to it: he claims a lot of things that are NOT science, says it is how science is, and then refutes it."
          This is confusion caused by homophony. He claims a lot of things that are NOT science (the method of enquiry), says its how science (the materialist belief system) is, and then refutes it. You and Sheldrake are in agreement here: the dogmas of materialism are not true science.

          "There is no evidence of the crystals nor the rats..."
          I remember reading a studdy showing rats learned tricks faster in a seemingly Lamarckian way, but I can't find it right now. Sheldrake addressed the point about the crystals in his reply on the TED blog, citing the example of turanose; I don't know anything more about that.

          "there is no evidence for the "stare" hypothesis"
          There have been dozens of trials on this. Here's a meta-analysis showing odds above chance with a 1 in 10 billion chance of fluke: http://www.deanradin.com/papers/Radin-Staring.pdf . The quality of controls in the studies is a different question.
      • Mar 28 2013: Thanks for adding some substance to the discussion. I will study your comments. Maybe you could add this as a critique to his work somewhere on his website. I would love to see such substantial debate.

        A transcript has been posted somewhere in the original comment thread, I will try to find it.

        "The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle."

        So he is not claiming that this is defining science, but that there is a delusion about science in the level of understanding of the nature of reality it currently permits, which delusion individual scientists may or may not posess to varying degrees. Please quote him correctly, thanks.
      • Mar 29 2013: Dear Christophe -

        How is it that a TV illusionist has become the arbiter of a scientific question that Science magazine lists as number two on it top 125 open questions in Science?

        The scientific study of consciousness is in the embarrassing position of having no scientific theory of consciousness. The theories so far proposed by scientists are, at best, hints about where to look for a genuine scientific theory. None of them remotely approaches the minimal explanatory power, quantitative precision, and novel predictive capacity expected from a genuine scientific theory. We would expect, for instance, that such a theory could explain, in principle, the difference in experience between the smell of a rose and the taste of garlic. No current theory has tools to answer these questions and none gives guidance to build such tools. None begins to dispel the mystery of conscious experience.

        The "Big Lie" is false claim that experiments that produce positive results will earn the researcher the Nobel Prize. The case of Richard Wiseman replicating Sheldrake's dogs-who-knows study is more representative. Because materialism presumes that consciousness cannot exist outside the brain, all evidence to the contrary is declared no-evidence.
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          Mar 29 2013: Please dig into the biography of the person to refer to.

          As for consciousness: It is not because you don't like the current hypothesis that it is wrong, it is not because current data allows for alternative hypothesis, that they are equally likely and it is certainly not the case that a new or alternative explanation can suddenly contradict previous observations.

          Anyway, I don't think the people in this debate are willing to fund some research to do some simple test (double blind and all), in order to see if there is an effect, and how big the effect is. Currently it (the effect) appears to be so small that only people who believe it can see it...

          But then again, if it's true, I hope we can develop some neat technology to amplify this, and use it to improve human (and animal) communication...
          And then there is the evolutionary explanation or what to do with plants &c...
      • Mar 28 2013: Just some snarky comment,

        as a tip, you should be very careful to let Sir Roger Penrose speak again on TED, as he also caught the pseudoscientific virus, probably from Stuart Hameroff.
        To see this just look here (but be sure to wear your protection!):


        For further nonsense about experimental support:

        "Google Workshop on Quantum Biology

        Surprisingly robust quantum effects have been observed in warm biological
        systems. At the same time quantum information technology has moved closer
        to physical realization. This one day workshop will examine the significance
        of mesoscopic quantum coherence, tunneling and entanglement in biomolecular
        membranes, proteins, DNA and cytoskeleton, with particular attention to
        recently discovered megahertz ballistic conductance in microtubules.
        Potential utilization of biomolecular quantum information in regulation of
        cellular activities will be addressed, along with implications for disease and
        therapy as well as the future development of quantum computation and artificial

        List of Speakers

        Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard
        Anirban Bandyopadhyay, Nano Characterisation Center, National Institute of Material Science, Tsukuba
        Stuart Hameroff, University of Arizona Medical Center, Tucson
        Masoud Mohseni, Center for Excitonics, MIT
        Hartmut Neven, Visual Search, Google
        Jiracuteiacute Pokornyacute, Institute of Photonics and Electronics, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic
        Elisabeth Rieper, CQT, National University of Singapore
        Mohan Sarovar, Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley
        Jack Tuszynski, Department of Physics, University of Alberta
        Luca Turin, Center for Biomedical Engineering, MIT



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