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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 23 2013: I had to pause several times getting through this because that argument-less tirade was - quite honestly - immensely tiresome to listen to.

    The main flaw with this talk is that it contains no facts, no arguments, no reasoning... nothing at all. It states some mundane knowledge (that there is prehistorc and early history art); that people have an altered state of mind when under the influence of drugs; that our civilization is doing damage to ourselves and our living conditions...

    ...and then says it can all be fixed if we just dope ourselves. The claim is that everyone will do "the right thing" if we just get ourselves drugged.

    Seriously, what are we to make of this?

    Well let me put it this way: if mr Hancock can get himself a study, where he can prove that getting doped on this drug somehow corrects your moral compass... by all means... I might be inclined to try it.

    But until then there is nothing in this talk we havn't heard a thousand times over by people trying to hard to be "alternative" and failing miserably, their argument failing to be in the least coherent.

    - There is no weight to the saying humanity is committing "wrongs". His wrongs are not everyone's wrongs. His priorities are not everyone's priorities.

    - There is no weight to the claim that the shamans of the amazons have diagnosed the "problem" correctly and that they know the "cure".

    - There is no weight to the claim that this civilization he have now is the worst of all states and that it's doing nothing to correct the situation. (On the contrary there are plenty of indicators to the opposite).

    - There is no weight to the claim that we can communicate with other entities in this drugged state.

    - There is no weight to the claim that this drug is the Silver Bullet that fixes all ills.

    The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows mr. Hancock to prove his claim. All he needs to do, is to do just that: prove the claim. He did not do that in this talk.Therefore it's rubbish.
    • Mar 23 2013: "The main flaw with this talk is that it contains no facts, no arguments, no reasoning... nothing at all."

      Let TED remove all non-scientific talks from their platform then.

      "a study, where he can prove that getting doped on this drug somehow corrects your moral compass"

      http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0042421 ("Analysis of life attitudes showed higher scores on the Spiritual Orientation Inventory, the Purpose in Life Test and the Psychosocial Well-Being test.")

      Also, I would suggest you consider the difference between offering up a speculation and making a scientific claim. Nowhere in the talk do I recall Hancock suggesting that his speculations were necessarily true or proven. To be consistent, you should lobby TED to censor all talks that make reference to anything not already scientifically proven.
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        Mar 23 2013: While I appreciate what Michael Karnerfors has written, Noah Vickstein, I think I'd prefer to follow the line of thought you present. Especially the bit where you suggest that TED "remove non-scientific talks."

        Michael Karnerfors: A fan of psychopharmacology I'm not. And Hancock's talk isn't any more scientific than Billy Graham's or any other individual known for their inspirations to large numbers of people in the conspicuous absence of science. Instead it seemed to me to be more of an impassioned, philosophical plea. But to each, his own, eh?

        From long study and experience it looks to me like "civilization" is still ignoring the suffering of our own kind, while continuing to commit ecocide against our own home and other species. Hancock would likely agree with that. By our own hands, Earth passed carrying capacity in around the 1980s. Look up what Lester R. Brown has researched and written about it if you like.

        Take a look at what Shell Oil company did in Nigeria, and most importantly to the Nigerian people and their ecosystems, for a good example of what passes for civilization. We continue to ignore the 200,000 year old fact that we're embedded in Earth systems, and inseparable from them. I don't see nearly enough indicators to show that we're making change at a rate quickly enough to counteract our kind's negative impacts.
        • Mar 23 2013: Yes, Michael, there's no denying it's the only consistent course of action left for TED if they choose to stay the course. That would necessarily deprive them of their most popular content (arguably their best) as well as reduce their web footprint considerably. They might have to rethink some of their slogans, and their brand would undeniably undergo a transformation. But it would be safe -- if diminished. The good news is, by shedding their reputation for innovation, they remove any possibility of courting controversy.
        • Mar 24 2013: @Michael Austin: "By our own hands, Earth passed carrying capacity in around the 1980s", "Take a look at what Shell Oil company did in Nigeria"

          I contend that neither of these two problems will be solved by doping ourselves with mind-altering drugs.
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        Mar 23 2013: Noah: for grins I nosed around the PLOS One research site. Very impressive, and I didn't know about it.
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          Mar 23 2013: Lime: now, with your consistently tiny-minded comments, which provide exactly zero thought and maximum opinion unsupported by reasonable thought, I understand why others like Lewis Smart might instantly reply to the kind of comments you make. And whatever TED wants, it can have, and in fact get.

          If TED wants sound-bite, inadequate opinions unsupported by facts and instead prefers drive-by comments from users (and an anonymous scientific board) - who haven't the courage of their own opinion to use their own names - they can have that. That would mean, of course that TED can have its own club. Then it might resemble a closed-loop virtual corporate state, a little like Monsanto, which makes many pretty public statements and instead encourages you into *very* short-sighted actions. But, don't worry your pretty little head about it, Lime, because that kind of thought might be uncomfortable for you or too complex to act upon. You'd still be the kind of person who might resort to name-calling because you don't like change, you like what you have, and prefer the status quo to growth.

          That might be the TED which results from conversations like these. Then will come to mind companies like IBM, or Microsoft, or any other large corporate franchise - TED will have reached a steady state with which it's comfortable. Other companies will also arise and take some of its market share. This week I had a conversation with the kind of person who could start and make successful just such a company. They brought it up. Not me.

          TED might become just another big company which has outgrown its original mission. Google accomplished roughly that same thing with Microsoft, which was was unwilling to change. But over time, it's worth noting who has greater prospects for growth. It's not Microsoft.

          You can have that all that. And it's not up to me or you. It's up to TED's crowdsourcing, its marketing, and its clever but now transparent marketing spin.
        • Mar 23 2013: 'Lime Crime',

          Please provide evidence for your claims that:

          a) This talk is "quacky"

          b) That you are to be included among reasonable people

          c) The belief that anybody other than you will exhibit "crazy" behavior in this discussion

          d) That the censorship argument is nonsense (it may not be)

          e) That any of this vindicates TEDs handling of the situation
      • Mar 24 2013: @Noah Vickstein: "Let TED remove all non-scientific talks from their platform then."

        Your acerbic response doesn't add anything to the discussion... it's more like an emotional response to unwelcome criticism against as talk you seem to have appeciated.

        Let me clarify: Hancock's talk is not only unscientific but it is also does not contain any ideas worth spreading, in my not very humble opinion. Rambling attacks on the modern way of life is nothing new. New Agers have been doing it alot. Proponents of "alternative medicine", homeopathy, anti-vaccers and similar as well. It's nothing new.

        Not only that but assertation that the the offered "remedy" of the supposed problems is... vague and weak at the best. He's making a really poor case and offering nothing substantial. All he has is his own opinion and third-party testimony that essentially boils down to a statement with the meaning "The shaman said it is so, so therefore it is true".
        • Mar 24 2013: My response is acerbic? Your entire original comment reads like an emotional response to Hancock's talk, and yet you have the gall to point fingers. Where is the evidence for your "opinion". I find its lack extremely disconcerting, especially as people who share your point of view have taken it upon themselves to dictate TED's policy on the matter. I agree, Hancock's talk is unscientific. Why is it being treated as if it were? His claims about Ayahuasca have tentative support in the literature. Have you not put forth an effort to read the study I graciously linked for your convenience? Please support your arguments that the talk approaches being "poor", "weak", and "offering nothing substantial". (I consider vagueness a necessary evil in giving a timed presentation) Until then, all I see is your not very humble opinion.

          If TED can find no concrete evidence supporting their selective suppression of this talk then, the way I see it, they owe Mr. Hancock a much deserved apology for public defamation.
      • Mar 24 2013: @Noah Vickstein: "My response is acerbic?"

        That's how I interpret the tone, yes. A cranky, defensive quip that if Hanckocks talk can't be there then no non-science talk can be there.

        "Your entire original comment reads like an emotional response to Hancock's talk"

        I think I argued beyond my emotions why I thought that talk was a poor one. It's not only that he lacks the science... he also does not provide any new, insightful, or even thought provoking ideas.

        If there is litterature supporting his ideas, I suggest you give it to Hancock so he can write up a better talk, or why not make one yourself and present it at a TED meet.

        The talk above however is pretty much trash.... it cannot be repaired now. It is not worth having on TED... which I would think of any talk that only makes claims without bringing support for them to the presentation.
        • Mar 24 2013: The suggestion in my "cranky, defensive quip" is perfectly consistent with the logic of the complaints you bring up in your comment given the context. It is extraordinary and revealing that you extrapolate so much information out of it.

          As expected all you have to offer is more invective with no evidence whatsoever. If you can support your opinions with evidence, I might be inclined to pursue a dialogue.

          As it is, Mr. Hancock is not obligated to defend his talk until such time some actual substantiated objections are raised. If you cannot provide any, then your opinion remains merely an opinion. I will not respond to you any more until you have something substantive to say regarding the presentation under discussion. My ability to discompose you is not what's on trial.
      • Mar 24 2013: @Noah Vickstein: "I will not respond to you any more until you have something substantive to say regarding the presentation under discussion. "

        Well that is your perogative... I have stated my piece and I stand by my opinion: the talk is not TED quality, for reasons stated in my original post.
        • Mar 24 2013: Perhaps if you could specify where in the talk Mr. Hancock made the offending assertions we can discuss the merit of your conclusion.
      • Mar 27 2013: @Noah Vickstein: "If TED can find no concrete evidence supporting their selective suppression of this talk then, the way I see it, they owe Mr. Hancock a much deserved apology for public defamation."

        You just took a big leap into fanboi territory. Being on TED is not a right, it's a priviledge. Having one's TED talk re-issued with caution is not defamation, it's an adjustment of that priviledge when you have shown that you weren't worthy of it in the first place.

        "Perhaps if you could specify where in the talk Mr. Hancock made the offending assertions we can discuss the merit of your conclusion."

        Perhaps you should read my argument properly then so we can actually discuss it and not have you reply to somthing you have imagined I said instead of the actual thing.

        The argument I put forth was not that what he said was offensive, but that what he said was not backed up by anything substantial. He makes claims but does not bring anything to base them on. It's not what he says that is the (major) problem, but what he does not(!) say.

        I go by the by the David Humeian and Laplace principles of judging the veracity of a claim: "proportion [the] believef to the evidence", and "the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness".

        And Hancock does bring a very strange claim to the talk: that by getting doped, we can talk to spirits and become better people. He does not bring the corresponding evidence. That is the problem with the talk.

        Apart from that it's also tiresome to listen to because it's soaked with tired ol' anti-consumerism plattitudes.
        • Mar 27 2013: Michael:

          "You just took a big leap into fanboi territory."

          I'm not a fan of TED, nor am I fan of Graham Hancock. Your characterization is irrelevant. Are you certain you're not the fanboy here?

          "Being on TED is not a right, it's a priviledge. "

          Absolutely. No objection there. TED can curate their brand how they want.

          What you're overlooking, however, is the fact that TED did not simply take the talks down. They attempted to justify doing so, and in the process smeared two guests, who had been invited to speak, for free, by making attributions that were demonstrably false. In doing so, TED accepted the onus for publicly demonstrating the invalidity of the talks. Many of us are merely pointing out that not only have they failed to do this, but they have not apologized for potentially damaging the professional reputations of these two men in so public a way, which is inexcusable, even for TED.

          "Having one's TED talk re-issued with caution is not defamation, it's an adjustment of that priviledge when you have shown that you weren't worthy of it in the first place. "

          Whether or not Hancock's talk is appropriate for TED, TED has an obligation to get their facts straight. If TED had merely re-issued the content with a 'health warning' I doubt there would be such an uproar. But the fact is, neither talk has been shown to be unworthy at all. If they had been, this discussion would not be taking place.

          "Perhaps you should read my argument properly then so we can actually discuss it and not have you reply to somthing you have imagined I said instead of the actual thing. "

          I will be happy to look over your reply and document every case I can of fallacious reasoning, if that will satisfy you.

          The fact is, your grounds for rejecting Hancock's talk is personal preference. TED pretended that there was a scientific basis. If TED criticize Hancock's talk for not being scientific enough, integrity obligates them to apply that same rubric to their back catalog.
    • Mar 23 2013: There are a variety of studies completed and ongoing which substantiate the idea that the psychedelic experience can have a positive effect on the moral compass and motivation for social and environmental engagement of it's participants. Many of these studies have already been linked and discussed in the threads surrounding this video. Hancock didn't go into any of this in depth, but that doesn't mean that the research doesn't exist. Forgive him for assuming you were up to date with that particular field. His talk was given from a place of personal experience in the context of this emerging public awareness of the benefits of entheogenic / psychedelic practise.
      • Mar 24 2013: @Lewis Smart: "There are a variety of studies completed and ongoing which substantiate the idea that the psychedelic experience can have a positive effect on the moral compass"

        "Can have" is not good enough. In order for Hancocks proposition to be valid it *must* have that and it must also be proven to be safe.

        Also we also run into the problem of deciding what constitutes the "right" moral compass. Who's going to do that?
        • Mar 24 2013: It can never be proven safe in an absolute sense. It can never be proven a universal and automatic cure, because it isn't. There is no such thing. Have a look at our current psychiatric medications and tell me they're perfect - would you have them banned, or a talk on them banned? The fact of the matter is that the studies I mention have demonstrated that psychedelics are generally far safer and more effective than current medications.

          Only individuals can decide on what's right for them. We're talking morality here, not ethics.

          It's not hard to think about how psychedelics might effect personal morality. They put you in a position where you tend to look at your past actions, your habits, your judgements of people. To the degree that we have naturally occurring sympathy for others, we can't maintain attitudes towards others that cause them pain once we're aware of them. Thus, morality change.
      • Mar 24 2013: @Lewis Smart: "It can never be proven safe in an absolute sense."

        I didn't ask for that either so it's moot of you to reply as if I did.

        "It can never be proven a universal and automatic cure, because it isn't."

        Well then... in that case I think we're pretty much done because that is - although thinly veiled - pretty much what Hancock claimed. Thank you for the chat.
        • Mar 25 2013: If he claimed it, show us how. Tell us how you know that what he said is just a veil and what he meant is something else.
    • Mar 23 2013: "- There is no weight to the claim that this civilization he have now is the worst of all states and that it's doing nothing to correct the situation. (On the contrary there are plenty of indicators to the opposite)."

      Are you kidding ? I don't know in what kind of "state of consciousness" someone could say that, but I know some "alteration" would do it some good :)

      Sadly, and possibly lethally, having no conscience is too common a state of consciousness ...
      • Mar 24 2013: @Alexandre Letellier: "I don't know in what kind of "state of consciousness" someone could say that"

        Well your lack of knowing that is your problem, not mine.

        "I know some "alteration" would do it some good"

        Oh you can "alter" your mind with any(!) kind of drug. But "alteration" is not the same as "improvement".
    • Mar 23 2013: "Well let me put it this way: if mr Hancock can get himself a study, where he can prove that getting doped on this drug somehow corrects your moral compass... by all means... I might be inclined to try it. "

      Here you go : please read it, it's perfectly legal to read studies about illegal substances.

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2043397/Single-dose-hallucinogenic-mushrooms-alter-personality-forever.html

      One of MANY researches conducted on the subject. If you had any scientific honesty you would know that already.
      • Mar 24 2013: As I said above: "change" is not - by a longshot - necessarily the same as "improve".
        • Mar 25 2013: If you look at the study on which the article is based, you will find that the changes were considered positive by the subjects and the researchers. The results were considered desirable. Quality of life was improved.
    • Mar 23 2013: This idea that Hancock's political ideas have to be proven scientifically is laughable. When did science ever say anything about politics. This is one of the most outrageous myths of scientism. The idea that the society we have now is thanks largely to science. Yes, the technology we have is due to science. But the laws, the social structures, the education system - these things have nothing whatsoever to do with science. These things are the result of people's hard work in a whole variety of other disciplines which fall under the general heading of the humanities - something supporters of scientism despise fwiw. And yet, those same supporters of scientism, who tell us everything has to be proven in a lab, and who tell us if we disagree then we should hand back our medicine or out televisions etc, have no intention of putting their own money where their own mouth is and refusing, eg, money for research given to them out of the pot generated by the non-scientific act of taxation. Nor will they refuse the protection of the law (the law!) because it is not the result of any scientific investigation. So next time you complain that people who make socio-political points must prove it in a lab, remember that without non-scientists thinking up non-scientific social policy far away from anything that could be called a science lab, there wouldn't be any science labs in the first place. Science has a place, but when it comes to politics, that place in 750th in the list of good/sensible ways to proceed. That's the first point.

      Re the specifics of your claims, you are wrong in almost every respect. There is, eg, for example, copious evidence that the phenomenology of altered states includes communication with entities.

      And so once again, sadly, we have a critic who has not bothered to inform himself of even the basics before coming here and telling everyone what's what. What is it with you guys, if you don't know about it it's not true
      • Mar 24 2013: Your comment is as poor as mr Hancocks talk. It's just an assertation that science is poopoo and next to useless in building a society, and that there is (scientific?) evidence for spirits or other entities.

        I disagree. Science does not provide the answers and moral compass, that is true, but it does provide us with the tool we need to examine reality and society so that we can get the facts and models we need to make rational decisions.

        And this is where mr. Hanock run into an obstacle.... because a scientific look at Hancocks proposition will - most likely - not give the kind of fact he needs to make other people reach the conclusion that his proposition is a good and safe one.

        He needs to show that 1) the use of the drug is safe and (sufficiently) free from harmful side effects and 2) that the effects are beneficial.
        • Mar 27 2013: Your intransigence when faced with contrary evidence is astounding.

          "1) the use of the drug is safe and (sufficiently) free from harmful side effects and 2) that the effects are beneficial."

          Both conditions have been tentatively confirmed by initial investigations. Please refer to the study I had linked several days ago, which, I can only assume, you have yet to read.

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