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The debate about Graham Hancock's talk

Please use this space to comment on the debate around Graham Hancock's TEDx talk, as described here:

http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-graham-hancocks-talk/

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Closing Statement from TED

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED's decision to move Graham Hancock'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 21 2013: I found Graham Hancock's talk intriguing. I'm not a scientist. My expertise is rooted in the arts, and I'm no stranger to the doors that psychedelics can open for creative thought. I'm also very interested in traditional cultures around the world and what some traditions might have to teach us. However, there comes a point in his talk where he uses examples of science (Lewis-Williams) bolster his ideas that hallucinogenic plants might have been a catalyst for advances in human culture, references which we know to be misinterpretations of scientific results, and then goes on to attack what he labels 'materialist science." These kinds of misuses of data would certainly prevent such ideas from surviving peer review. And, ultimately, it cannot be denied that TED has every right to decide what it publishes online (in this case perhaps the decision came a bit late), and set forth rules and guidelines for speakers and TEDx organizers to follow.

    Now I'm not out to label Hancock's ideas pseudo-science, but perhaps if framed in more philosophical terms, it could fall under the category of metaphysics. The trouble is, even if we call it metaphysics, Hancock still uses his subjective ideas as evidence to challenge science as a whole. It is the same folly as using religion to challenge science, a battle that continues to rage. Is there a 'war on consciousness?' Well, if there is, there are a lot of people on consciousness' side. It is a field that garners interest from not just the commenters on this blog, but many scientists as well. Plus, I haven't read one post here where someone argues in favor of the War on Drugs, or stating that the only path to progress is through surrendering wholly to the pharmaceutical industry, or that climate change is a myth. Instead, there is resounding support in the scientific community to address all of Hancock's concerns about the planet. To challenge that community without evidence is counter-productive to achieving our shared goals.
    • Mar 21 2013: 1. How do you suppose Hancock misinterpreted Lewis-Williams. Lewis-Williams' theory is that the cave art depicts, in part, visionary states attained by, amongst other things, the use of psychoactive plants. Moreover, Lewis-Williams feels that the ability to enter such visionary states is bound up in some way with the evolutionary step that led to full modern consciousness. That's pretty much what Hancock said.
      2. Where do you get the idea that Hancock was trying to give a science talk. His talk was primarily about socio-political issues and only touched on science very briefly a few times when the moment called for it.
      3. Where does Hancock challenge the scientific community without evidence. The only point I can think you are referring to was when he talked about survival after death and said there was little point is consulting mainstream science because they've decided, at the outset, without evidence, that no such thing is possible.
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        • Mar 22 2013: I hold that the right of people to make subjective judgement of the nature of reality, and to discuss their judgements amongst one another, is inalienable. If some scientists claim that this territory is theirs alone, and they militate to enforce this claim, then these scientists are oppressors who should and will be resisted.
    • Mar 21 2013: Here, eg, is a review of Lewis-Williams work from the Cambridge Universoty Press:

      "Some 15 years ago, with Thomas Dowson, [Lewis-Williams] proposed that Palaeolithic art owed its inspiration at least in part to trance experiences (altered states of consciousness) associated with shamanistic practices. Since that article appeared, the shamanistic hypothesis has both been widely adopted and developed in the study of different rock-art traditions, and has become the subject of lively and sometimes heated controversy. In the present volume, Lewis-Williams takes the argument further, and combines the shamanistic hypothesis with an interpretation of the development of human consciousness. He thus enters another contentious area of archaeological debate, seeking to understand west European cave art in the context of (and as a marker of) the new intellectual capacities of anatomically modern humans. ... Lewis-Williams argues that such cave art would have been beyond the capabilities of Neanderthals, and that this kind of artistic ability is unique to anatomically modern humans. Furthermore, he concludes that the development of the new ability cannot have been the product of hundreds of thousands of years of gradual hominid evolution, but must have arisen much more abruptly, within the novel neurological structure of anatomically modern humans. The Mind in the Cave is thus the product of two hypotheses, both of them contentious — the shamanistic interpretation of west European Upper Palaeolithic cave art, and the cognitive separation of modern humans and Neanderthals."
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        Mar 21 2013: There are much more qualified people then I (a professional layperson) who could argue about Hancock's interpretation of Lewis-Williams, but specifically there is a difference between shamanistic practices involving altered states of consciousness (which could be acheived in various ways) and the use of hallucinogenic plants. You will no doubt find fault in my limited ability to intemperate the science, but I refer instead to those who are in the field who have expressed concerns with Hancock's interpretation. Is there evidence that mystical or spiritual practices gave human's an advantage or helped create a more advanced level of thought? Sounds like a very interesting idea to put to the test. Regardless, I think it is remarkable how much enthusiasm and interest this discussion has garnered on the subject, and I do hope it spurs people to dig deeper.
        • Mar 21 2013: Just to be clear on this matter, some critics of Lewis-Williams have written articles with titles such as "Desperately Seeking Trance Plants". This is because Lewis-Williams theory does, amongst other things, implicate psychoactive plants. That being said, I don't want to come over as too harsh because I think that, other than with regard to this particular issue, your comment is a well thought out constructive attempt to discuss Hancock's talk. As regards "those who are in the field" who have expressed concern, my understanding is that it was a couple of atheist bloggers who don't know jack. But then I am not privy to the make up of TED's science board. Perhaps you have me at a disadvantage.
        • Mar 22 2013: Hancock doesn't claim that it was necessarily plant teachers that were used by these ancient, shamanic cultures. He simply says there is some indication of that possibility. But he also points to other possibilities such as fasting and rhythmic dancing. Hancock is always clear when he is raising questions or speculating which is the case with most what he says. He's not given to stating things as proven facts. But so much of this whole discussion, starting with TED's announced removal of the videos, has been poisoned by putting absolutes in Hancock's mouth that he's never stated.

          I've read practically every book he's written and I would not have done if he'd been absolutest about any of this. I have little patience with people who claim to have answers because there are so few of those in life. I think we'd all do better if we would dare to "live the questions," to quote Rilke.

          The lecture in question is primarily about his own experience with ayahuasca. It's a very personal and vulnerable talk about himself and his process. Yet, somehow, he's been accused of making all sorts of claims about archaeology and science that he simply hasn't made.
    • Mar 21 2013: I am interested in what it is you are privy to regarding the "catalysts" for human culture -why do you say that Lewis-Williams' theory is a misinterpretation of scientific results? Which "scientific results' are you referring to? I think you missed the point -Mr Hancock's talk was not about challenging "the whole of science" -it was about challenging the fact that we have no right to explore our own consciousness.
      Those of us on the side of consciousness and against the war on drugs ought to applaud the brave few who speak up for humanity's rights not criticize them for upsetting the sensibilities of reactionary establishmentarians.
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        Mar 21 2013: I would agree that a rational discussion about the War on Drugs is warranted these days. I don't think the debate about this talk in particular goes against that sentiment, it has more to do with framing subjective (albeit profound) experience with scientific study, and the further implications this might have on scientific credibility. I personally found his explorations with ayahuasca fascinating. I don't agree with some of his points, but we all have our own opinions. Is it an idea worth spreading? Many on this blog seem to think so, but ultimately TED does have their own rules on what it sees fit to publish. The fact that they have created these debate blogs shows a desire to not just sweep these talks under the rug, but to let the voices on all sides be heard, and be publicly published for all to read. They have created a stage for these ideas to be explored even further, and in my mind that's a good thing.
    • Mar 22 2013: If the only way to challenge the scientific paradigm is by invoking paradigmatic science, then the scientific paradigm is unchallengeable. Nobody except paradigmatic scientists are going to accept that situation.
    • Mar 22 2013: What he's trying to do is get you to see it for yourself. Thats all the proof one needs.

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