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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 29 2013: Can what's bad for the goose, yet be good for the gander ??

    Reason I ask, is preponderance of arguments that scold one ideological camp (e.g. Dawkinses, Maddoces, etc) - from another perhaps equally questionable.

    A modest plea for impartiality of reason, whatever its application yields. From 'just the facts, ma'am' ('never mind o-spinion') standpoint. A perfectly intelligent poster suggests, on reasonable ground I think:

    "One lesson I've learned from this incident is to never give materialism the label 'scientific'; it creates confusion, and allows defenders of materialism to accuse their opponents of being anti-scientific."

    But the rub (as strikes me) is - the same categorical confusion is being used in reverse, for opposite ideological intent. Surely same principle would apply? I think it has to. Otherwise, its just an exercise in partisan rancor, partiality - not critically balanced, evenly informed (seems to me).

    That's a deep dark issue I find, the prejudicial or 'one-sided' application of any otherwise valid consideration.

    its not just materialists who can exploit a false equation of science with scientific materialism (or 'radical secularism' - Reliigious Studies vocab). By a reverse play, the same also enables religious interests - both Bible-inspired, and neo-psychedelia (or new agey in general) to scorn science as dogmatic, call it a religion of ‘godless atheism’ etc.

    Alas, that seems Sheldrake’s message too. Though left-fringe, rightwing pseudoscience provides a necessary critical comparison standard, simply because its well known and exposed - unlike its more obscure counterparts. in Western hermetic and esoteric currents, subcultures including psychedelicism (as pertains in this case, I find).

    It amazes me how ideologies as opposed as (1) Bibley pseudoscience, (2) neopsychedelia / fringe left, and (3) Scientific Materialism - can each get play value from same dubious blur. And how consistently 'one-sided' its use in arguments here.
    • Mar 29 2013: Brian - I am a strong supporter of Sheldrake's research and his inclusion of his work as an "idea worth spreading." However, I do not perceive myself as an ideologue.

      TED, at first, censored Sheldrake's talk on a claim that is was bad science - filled with errors of fact and false statements. When that argument was torn to shreds and the so-called Science Board failed to offer any response whatsoever to Sheldrake's detailed rebuttal of the sham charges, his opponents stopped focusing on the talk and took to attacking him on ideological lines.

      In reading this forum, the divide is between those who are opposed to TED censoring talks versus ideologues who dismiss Sheldrake as preaching woo. Would you call the TEDx organizers the neopsychedelia fringe left? Hardly. They simply are advocating that TED not allow its content to be censored by Randi and his followers.
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        Mar 29 2013: Dan, thanks. Do you distinguish ideology per se, from philosophy? If so, how - I'd appreciate info you might cite sources, educated perspectives you might refer us to?

        Or do you feel they are synonyms, same thing by different words?

        You've summarized very well a perspective I see many here opining from, not just you. I don't find its responsive, however, to question I raise. That's okay if you prefer not address it. But if you would, given your reply interest - I'd be obliged.

        If you rather not ok - but that in itself is indicative of the very issue I raise.

        There's a massive inquiring interest, years of discussion ongoing, in various disciplines about the bigger perspective and questions of essence - from philosophy to political science to social sciences.

        To try and convince by argument is one thing. To convey info is another, very different. That difference is a common standard applied in court for evaluating witness testimony, under question.

        Is a witness forthcoming - replying informatively, to 'just the facts' questioning? Or, are they slippery, resisting questions of bare fact, instead trying to persuade, convince (e.g., of their innocence)? I feel you're coming from a more argumentative than informative posture. That's fine - but I doubt firmly that can address the questions I realize, as I survey this little tempest.

        BTW - can you name an ideologue, even one, who self-identifies as such? I doubt you can possibly realize how mercurial, the impression anyone makes who protests the very question, doesn't perceive themselves coming from an ideological stance. Too innocent. My loyal opposition Amfortas (regards bro) said it well: "Its always the other guy, who's ideological, isn't it?"

        Well and good to be critical of others - and too easy. As Sun Tzu said, you can go through a thousand battles and not only prevail but never be in danger, if you know two things well: your opponent. And, harder part - your self, Grasshopper.
        • Mar 29 2013: Perhaps you can state your question succinctly. I am not understanding it from your post above.
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        Mar 29 2013: From my own impression, I'd agree, you likely do not understand. I wouldn't be the one who could explain why. I can't get inside your head.

        If there's a 'succinct' problem - really? - in a question like ...

        "Do you distinguish ideology per se, from philosophy? If so, how?"

        I sure don't know what it would be. Bear in mind, you're a guy who just declared to me, you're no ideologue - out of the blue; I never said you were, don't even know you (you weighed on your initiative).

        I submit, I can't reasonably be tasked to explain for you, to you - why or how that's so hard for you to understand, apparently. If that's what you're saying. Does not compute, Will Robinson.
        • Mar 29 2013: Are you asking if there can be general discrimination of 'ideology' from 'scientific theory' without looking at matters at hand? I don't think so, as people tend to speak and fight as passionately for some truth as for some bogus idea. Also, you can't always chose your supporters.
        • Mar 29 2013: Thanks for clarifying your question. Given your tone, I will not respond further.
        • Mar 30 2013: Having read - I think, then ask myself, what is this question. Is there a question, if so then an answer. Maybe, but. The way I am putting this. This WAY I am putting this. Seen that way. Then, we can see, if we look, and why wouldn't we, the point. The point then it is. This point. Which point. The point I am making. What you're saying is crap.
      • Comment deleted

        • Mar 29 2013: Randy wrote: "I find Sheldrake's work silly and not worth considering any further."

          And yet you have given it more consideration than most, but only on the condition that you are judge and jury, and don't have to abide by the scientific standards you claim to uphold.
    • Mar 29 2013: For the question "what is true science/knowledge" I might have another go at the Theatetus tonight.

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        Mar 29 2013: Just tried clicking you a thumbs up, Amfortas. Got the old "your quota's used up for that poster" finger message. Sigh - now to check out the link (thanks, i like 'dot edues')
    • Mar 29 2013: "a false equation of science with scientific materialism... seems Sheldrake’s message too."

      No, no, no. That was my whole point in the bit you quoted. Sheldrake does NOT equate science with scientific materialism, but he uses the same word for both ("science") and that creates confusion. Sheldrake is at pains to distinguish the two in his talk:
      "It's the kind of belief system of people who say, "I don't believe in God; I believe in science." It's a belief system which has now been spread to the entire world. But there's a conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour."

      Brian, your point that science =/= scientific materialism is precisely the main point of Sheldrake's banned TEDx talk.
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        Mar 30 2013: Conor, good you're sensible of a distinction between science, and scientific materialism.

        So far, repeatedly, you've steered clear of - not responded to the key question of ideology, as opposed to philosophy. Not to be confused, regardless of anything ideologies borrow from science and philosophy. I brought that up because of your idea Sheldrake's talk is more philosophy than science. I don't find so much philosophy as ideology. And I don't think confusing them, i.e., failing to make that basic distinction, can clarify the issue.

        That's a key critical distinction, needing to be factored in - submitted for your approval. In this case the ideological movement Sheldrake signals, overtly, is the neopsychedelic following of revered charismatic figurehead Terence McKenna.

        I think you're right to suggest that with science, and materialism, Sheldrake "uses the same word for both ("science"). Alas, he 'distinguishes' them fallaciously, as opposite ends of 'a conflict at the heart."

        I submit, science's core duality is method and knowledge - not method and belief. The word science literally translated: "knowledge." So he takes a real duality, method and knowledge - copies and pastes faith over knowledge - to essentially misrepresent science (per its core features), and scientific materialism. as if it were something inherent to science. You know better

        If you're not observing closely, critically - such a shell game easily escapes notice. Its subtle. Art and craft. Sigh; that's simply in the nature of ideological uses of scientific or philosophical content. If you're not on lookout - left flank too not just right, Conor - how are you going to spot that?

        Yes, Sheldrake uses same word ("science") for science proper, and sci materialism. I'll confirm your note too, that "creates confusion." That's what happens minus critical rigor, failing to distinguish them categorically. You seem to think that's just 'oops,' but to me it matches a clear pattern.

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