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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 31 2013: I'm currently reading Matt Ridley's "Genome", and I found this passage apropos:

    "William Cookson, an Oxford geneticist, has described how his rivals reacted to his discovery of a link between asthma-susceptibility and a marker on chromosome 11. Some were congratulatory. Others rushed into print contradicting him, usually with flawed or small sample sizes. One wrote haughty editorials in medical journals mocking his "logical disjunctions" and "Oxfordshire genes". One or two turned vitriolic in their public criticism and one anonymously accused him of fraud. (To the outside world the sheer nastiness of scientific feuds often comes as something of a surprise; politics, by contrast, is a relatively polite affair.) Things were not improved by a sensational story exaggerating Cookson's discovery in a Sunday newspaper, followed by a television programme attacking the newspaper story and a complaint to the broadcasting regulator by the newspaper. "After four years of constant skepticism and disbelief", says Cookson, mildly, "we were all feeling very tired."

    "This is the reality of gene hunting. There is a tendency among ivory-towered moral philosophers to disparage such scientists as gold-diggers seeking fame and fortune. The whole notion of 'genes for' such things as alcoholism and schizophrenia has been mocked, because claims have often been later retracted. Retraction is taken not as evidence against that genetic link but as a condemnation of the whole practice of seeking genetic links. And critics have a point. The simplistic headlines of the press can be very misleading. Yet anybody who gets evidence of a link between a disease of a gene has a duty to publish it. If it proves an illusion, little harm is done. Arguably, more damage has been done by false negatives (true genes that been prematurely ruled out on inadequate data) than by false positives (suspicions of a link that later prove unfounded)."

    Sounds familiar!

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