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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:



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 24 2013: @Noah Vickstein
    "Hi Daniel,

    I was wondering if you could clarify what you mean by this. Thanks."

    Sure. Example: If I gave myself a dose of DMT and had a powerful vision and felt that I had unlocked something unknown about the universe and wanted to convince others of this newly found knowledge. Would it be sufficient to regard that knowledge as truth, based solely on that DMT-induced experience?
    I hope that clarifies what I mean.
    • Mar 24 2013: I'm not sure Hancock is saying that it's truth. I think he's saying that it needs to be looked at, and he is certainly saying that one should not be sent to prison for a very long time just for looking (which is currently the case almost the world over). That is the gist of his talk, which is called the War on Consciousness after all. The rest of his talk is a necessarily brief exploration of some aspects of psychoactive plant use which range from the scientific to the cultural to the personal to the spiritual. And at no point does Hancock really try to conflate these separate aspect. It is unclear, then, what exactly the problem is with this talk other than that some people who didn't know some of the things he talks about were startled by the news and assumed (falsely) that he was making it all up.
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        Mar 24 2013: I wanted to give you, Steve Stark, a "Thumbs up" to your reply. But alas, I'm constrained and TED has decreed I've used my allotment of them about your comments for a week's time. I encountered the same thing with comments made by Sandy Stone and Lewis Smart. Sigh ;-)
        • Mar 25 2013: Michael - as I can't give Steve Stark a thumbs up either, I wished to give you one as I appreciated that you're in the same boat as me. However, I am unable to, as I have already filled my quota for you this week.

      • Mar 24 2013: I have not argued for keeping it illegal, I'm actually for people using it to have a powerful experience. So are you replying to me or someone else?
        Does he not argue that we should abandon a reductionist view in favor of what the Egyptians thought? There's one of the problems I have with the talk, but I do not argue that it should be taken down or "banned" on what I think of it.
        My opinion is that it should not be taken down, but instead placed under scientific scrutiny - either he's right or he's not right, or does that make me "startled" and stating that he's making it all up, according to you?
        • Mar 25 2013: I wasn't particularly disagreeing with your comment, only trying to get clearer about what Hancock is doing. So, no, I don't think he says we should abandon reductionist science, but he argues that when it comes to the question of the survival of consciousness after death there is no point asking people who have decided in advance that no such thing is possible and thus have never looked. I mean, think about it, which scientist would you ask? Who would you consider an expert on such things? The few scientists who do study it (Pim van Lommell, Peter Fenwick, Ian Stevenson) tend to become non-reductionists quite quickly.

          Anyway, on account of that, Hancock thinks, if we're going to contemplate the idea at all, we should look firstly at what people have said who have actually investigated the matter for thousands of years. Fwiw, I think this is probably the weakest part of the talk since it's far from clear we can really understand the ancient Egyptians and there are others who have looked inwards who we may be better asking.

          Also, what kind of scientific scrutiny would you like? Re the visionary state, ongoing/recent studies by, eg, Shanon, Strassman, Griffiths, seem to suggest he is on to something. Re the socio-political points, it's unclear we can really do any science on this at all. And so in this case I don't think the idea of being right or wrong makes much sense. Societies operate well or badly.

          Lastly, the comment about being startled was more about the TED science board and some others who launched into one from a position of total ignorance. You were not on that list. My only problem with what you were saying is, as noted above, that I feel you are trying to force Hancock's presentation into a category it doesn't really fit into. It's a very general whistle-stop tour of politics, history, social issues, science, shamanism and spirituality. If I had to tag it on YouTube I should use all of those and others.
    • Mar 25 2013: Hi Daniel, thanks for replying. Is this a hypothetical -- or have you actually had this experience? If so, can you extricate the contents of that knowledge here? A good way of determining whether it has any veridicality is by testing it per the scientific method.
      • Mar 25 2013: Hi Noah,
        It was an example, as I wrote. But yes, I've had some very moving experiences when I experimented with different substances. I don't regard them as giving me any knowledge, though - and I agree that they can and should be investigated if one has the resources to do so. But I don't.
        There are interesting work being done on psilocybin as a medical treatment for clinical depression, but I don't know if they've done any clinical trials yet.

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