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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 30 2013: As a young and concerned member of your species, I am deeply saddened to see this TED talk removed...

    The only example of a concern TED's reputable scientists gave was:

    For example, it suggests a world view in which DMT can connect users directly to “seemingly intelligent entities which communicate with us telepathically.”

    Thus, by eliminating the validity of this concern I expect a prompt reconciliation and restoration of the TED talk to regular viewings status.

    Graham states that his anecdotal evidence is just that, personal experience. Yet, TED is concerned that Graham is proposing the scientific validity of the intelligent entities he speaks of. Wouldn't the most skeptical scientist assume that the entity experienced is not a concsious being, but an illusion created by the mind of the tripper? If this is assumed, than Graham is simply suggesting that psychedelics may assist in self-healing, allowing the mind to reveal aspects of itself as beings that may support the better intentions and desires of the individual.

    So then, is TED suggesting that it is far outside scientifically accepted reasoning that people can recognize negative tendencies and alter behavior under different states of consciousness?

    I do not think so. Whether or not I fully agree with the relationship between Graham's experiences and the reality of things is besides the point. The point that should be asked, is whether or not the distilled message of his talk is supportive of the betterment of life and the expansion of bliss.

    If this is in question and you have no personal experience with psychedelics, then I encourage you to talk to the intellectuals you know who do have experience. I believe you will find a consensus that supports, in essence, the views of Mr. Graham Hancock: The illegality of specific mind-altering substances is damaging society, and the legality of such substances would lead to the betterment of life by ultimately increasing happiness and decreasing suffering.
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      Mar 30 2013: You write, "TED is concerned that Graham is proposing the scientific validity of the intelligent entities he speaks of. Wouldn't the most skeptical scientist assume that the entity experienced is not a concsious being, but an illusion created by the mind of the tripper?"

      Yes, but that is not what Hancock thinks. In his book "Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind," he asserts that these entities are real and communicate with humans from a parallel universe. He does not believe they are illusions, but actual beings.
      • Mar 30 2013: He doesn't actually - he offers a number of possibilities for us to consider. Possibilities that are every bit as reasonable as (probably much more reasonable than) the incoherent rubbish you promulgate.
      • Mar 30 2013: Okay, so because he believes something due to personal experience that is currently impossible to back up with scientific evidence, especially with the illegality of experiments, he is not only wrong, but his loosely related talk must be totally discredited and banned from being viewed by the masses?

        My rational friend, please explain your line of thinking...
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          Mar 30 2013: Well, it definitely hasn't been banned from viewing by the masses. Even if it weren't available on the TED site (which it is), it would still be widely reproduced on YouTube. Nothing has been banned. The question is whether the iffy, fringe-y, woo-woo nature of the poor quality talk diminishes the value of the TED brand under which it appears. I think it does.

          For me, it's an issue of quality control, which I think TED has every right to exercise in whatever way it sees fit. Public clamor has little to do with quality, IMHO.
        • Mar 30 2013: The problem being though John, that you can't actually find anything wrong with the talk. Your beef is entirely about Hancock the man. Thus your endless off topic stuff about other things he has(n't really) said. And when you did try to talk about this talk everything you said was hopelessly uninformed and often times just plain false.
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          Mar 30 2013: Wrong again, Steve. You lie a lot.
        • Mar 30 2013: Not at all John. Most of your posts here have been attempts at character assassination based on stuff unrelated to the content of the talk. On the few occasions you talked about ayahuasca every word you said was wrong. You argued for hours, eg, that ayahuasca was not used all over the world and only finally conceded it was when some real experts came in and told you you were spouting nonsense. You also tried to deny the ayahuasca visions have any universal aspects to them in anything like the way Hancock suggests, and here again you turned out to be wildly off the mark. You then tried to pull some stroke about Hancock speaking in code which was laughable. Thus you returned to Hancock's other works and more attempts at character assassination.
        • Mar 30 2013: John Hoopes - "For me, it's an issue of quality control, which I think TED has every right to exercise in whatever way it sees fit. Public clamor has little to do with quality, IMHO."

          John I cant believe you can be so naive.

          What you say above could so easily be said this way, by just replacing the word "quality" with the word "mind". see below:-

          For me, it's an issue of MIND control, which I think TED has every right to exercise in whatever way it sees fit. Public clamor has little to do with quality, IMHO


          Whether you are aware of it or not. That is the reality.
      • Mar 30 2013: Aye, although I must agree with you in principle, I disagree on the application of that principle in this circumstance.

        There is nothing per say, unscientific, about his talk, as it is expressed as personal experience.

        I believe your strong disagreements with Graham Hancock's personal views and other writings distorts your perception of this situation.

        Hopefully, you and TED can recognize the general consensus of the intellectuals on this forum, and see the overwhelming support both in the comments here and the cheering in the video.

        Sadly, there is no rational argument for the subjective area of taste, so if you believe that TED censored this video for quality control, than there is no argument I can make.

        I hope you have the opportunity and willingness to give psychedelics a try, so we may gain another highly intelligent and respected supporter of an extremely important movement.

        So, I bid you good luck in discovering the light ;)
        • Mar 30 2013: You got it. Well done.
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          Mar 30 2013: I appreciate your good wishes, Laser Nite, but I'm curious why you presume I haven't tried psychedelics. I've actually used several different ones, many times at that. Your implication that I haven't "discovered the light" is a bit condescending and presumptuous. It's ironic that I get charged with academic elitism when there are so many psychedelic elitists about. Do you think it's due to a natural desire to feel superior? Good luck with that.
      • Mar 30 2013: John, we seem to be at risk of being snared by a critically misundertsood issue here: namely, whether entheogenic experience is illusionary, or can open the brain-mind to direct intelligent externalities, that are demonstrably independent, and thus conscious, and not mere "projections" of the self. In simple language, angelic agencies.

        Have you an adequate explanation of such a profoundly esoteric "imaginal" neuro-phenomenology? It is a highly significant and important question, since almost all religion is virtually based on this fundamental premise ~ namely, the existence of "spiritual" entities.
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          Mar 30 2013: I don't have a good explanation myself, David. At least not a complete one yet. I'm an archaeologist, not a neuroscientist, so I'm most comfortable dismissing "ancient aliens" (to whom Hancock alludes) and ETs as absurdities. However, I do try to follow cognitive neuroscience a bit and I think Peter Brugger, whose group is based in Zurich, is probably on the right track with his suggestion that imagined entities may be "phantom people" produced by cognitive errors similar to those that produce a "phantom limb" effect. His research is thoughtful, deliberate, and credible. I think you and others should consider it. Olaf Blanke, who has been doing research on out-of-body experiences, has also been able to demonstrate and replicate such cognitive errors. The science is getting closer to explaining these phenomena. When it's there, assertions about spirit entities will make for endearing folklore, but not science.

          Peter Brugger
          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Brugger
          http://www.zihp.uzh.ch/static/person_detail.php?p=200

          Olaf Blanke's TED talk
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD7NzrBgXwM&autoplay=1
        • Mar 30 2013: On problem, of course, John, is that according to physics we live in a phantom world conjured seemingly out of (almost) nothingness by our consciousness. Unclear, then, how sharp a distinction can be drawn without circularity.
      • Mar 30 2013: Mr. Hoopes, By your own admission, you haven't been able to get through his books. If you had actually read Supernatural, you'd know that you are mistaken. He offers a number of possible explanations. That they are real beings in non-ordinary reality, an actual place at least as real as this one, is a shamanic view. That is one possibility. Due to my own non-psychadelically driven shamanic practices, it's the one I'm most inclined toward. So you can call me loon if you want. They can also be viewed as archetypes. They can be viewed as delusions or mental projections that are somehow helpful to the healing process.

        Just read the book and stop putting words in Hancock's mouth. Once again, you've taken something he's speculated about but not drawn a final conclusion on, something based on the views of shamanic cultures he's discussing, and stated it as if it's an assertion of fact of which he is trying to persuade people. It's a fallacious interpretation.
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          Mar 30 2013: I have no doubt that belief in spirits, shamanic entities, guardian angels, the healing power of faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and the infinite grace of an almighty God can be reassuring and therapeutic. However such beliefs are the result of faith, not science, and as beneficial and fulfilling and inspiring as such witnessing may be, I do not think that TED is an appropriate forum for religious/spiritual evangelism.
      • Mar 30 2013: @ John Hoopes, You write: " I have no doubt that belief in spirits, shamanic entities, guardian angels, the healing power of faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and the infinite grace of an almighty God can be reassuring and therapeutic. However such beliefs are the result of faith, not science, and as beneficial and fulfilling and inspiring as such witnessing may be, I do not think that TED is an appropriate forum for religious/spiritual evangelism. "

        So, your criticism of this talk is basically in line with the atheist view that got it banned. Talking about a spiritual experience you've had is not the same thing as evangelism. Evangelism attempts to convert. Hancock isn't trying to convert anyone.

        I don't think Jill Bolte Taylor was trying to convert anyone either when she talked about her experience of the numimous. Should her talk be removed as well?

        A question: When shamanic cultures talk about interfacing with the spirit world, whether its with aid of plant teachers or other methods, do you think they believe they're hallucinations or do you think they believe the helping spirits are real?
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          Mar 30 2013: I think they believe the helping spirits are real. It think they believe that because they (and to a certain extent we) lack the knowledge that would help them/us to understand these phenomena in ways that more closely approximate reality. There was a time when the weather, crop growth, diseases, earthquakes, volcanos, electricity, etc. were attributed to supernatural causes, spirits, maleficent magic and the like. As Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is industinguishable from magic." (I think many people actually do consider their smart phones, tablets, and digital technogies to be "magic.") A correlary might be, "Any sufficiently scientifically inexplicaple phenomenon is indistinguishable from the supernatural." Just because we lack adequate understanding of cognitive neuroscience to explain "spiritual entities" doesn't mean they are deities or angels or spirits. As with magnetism and electricity in the 19th century and genetics in the 1950s, they are a phenomenon whose comprehension is in its infancy.

          People forget that we have been here before. What's happening with Hancock is a revival of 19th century Spiritualism, which at the time had the attention and support of such luminaries as Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Before that, it was "animal magnetism" and mesmerism.

          Spiritualism
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism

          Animal magnetism
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesmerism

          We now know that the odd behavior of magnets is actually not due to supernatural powers. I'm confident that a more advanced understanding of psychopharmacology and cognitive neuroscience will demonstrate that ayahuasca does not conjure spirit entities from a parallel reality. But that's just my own opinion.

          I also think that TED should be the venue for discussing new avenues of scientific research that "draw back the veil" on phenomena attributed to supernatural forces and entities, not one for reinforcing Medieval or Pre-Medieval beliefs.
      • Mar 30 2013: @ John Hoopes, "I think they believe the helping spirits are real. It think they believe that because they (and to a certain extent we) lack the knowledge that would help them/us to understand these phenomena in ways that more closely approximate reality."

        So, then, how would shamanism be discussed in a TED talk -- something you said down-thread you're not opposed to. Would it be discussed from the perspective of, "Look, these people who don't understand how the world really works have some funny beliefs?" Because that seems to be your view. It strikes me as an awfully ethnocentric view for an archaeologist. I just don't share your contempt for the beliefs of indigenous peoples.

        "I'm confident that a more advanced understanding of psychopharmacology and cognitive neuroscience will demonstrate that ayahuasca does not conjure spirit entities from a parallel reality. But that's just my own opinion."

        Conjure is not an accurate term for what occurs in a shamanic journey. To conjure is to produce something out of nothing or to materialize something here that wasn't. In shamanic practice, you don't bring anything here. You go there.

        But more to the point, it is, as you say your "own opinion." You are absolutely entitled to hold that opinion. Where we get into trouble is in the assertion of such things as fact and marginalizing as "pseudoscience" anyone who disagrees with that view, be they shamans or Graham Hancock, even when they never were claiming "science" in the first place.

        Hancock is nowhere near as certain of the reality of the spirit world as praciticing shamans are but he's being dismissed as a quack for acknowledging a religious view shared by people all over the planet. He's a westerner trying to make sense of a world view totally alien to his upbringing but which all the same brought him tremendous healing. And he does a great job of describing it from that vantage point.
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          Mar 30 2013: Personally, I think any serious discussion of "shamanism" must begin with critical analysis of the life and work of Mircea Eliade, who played a key role in defining that concept for Western audiences. "Shamanism" is not an indigenous term, but a Western one. For me, uncritical use of it is ethnocentric and disrespectful of indigenous belief systems, which have their own concepts and terminologies (which are often quite different). How much do you know about Eliade?

          Mircea Eliade
          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mircea_Eliade

          This short book by anthropologist Alice Kehoe is quite good:

          Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking
          http://www.amazon.com/Shamans-Religion-Anthropological-Exploration-Critical/dp/1577661621
        • Mar 30 2013: Beautiful.

          @John Hoopes

          First off, thanks for pointing out the elitism I exhibited, a common but avoidable error on my part. More to the point, if you are being honest about your psychedelic use (DMT, Psilocybin, Mescaline, or LSD) then I would be curious to hear your experiences. I have never encountered an intellectual who after experiencing the effects of such chemicals, has stuck die-hard to materialism. Although materialism is not totally unacceptable, I find it curious that you are so opposed to alternative scientific and philosophical inquiry. You are likely to say that you do support inquiry, but that Hancock's speech is unscientific and irrational. Unfortunately the evidence you provide to back up this claim is references to other materials he has written that you disagree with, not an error in reasoning in the video. You relate Hancock's views to those of any common religion, yet the relationship is totally unfair. Hancock proposes views and experiences, and lays them out for scrutiny, neither denying or accepting the absolute truth of anything he is saying.

          You believe that neuroscience will show us that the mind is conjuring illusory beings and not contacting parallel dimensions or universes, yet you have no evidence to back up your claim. Thus, you are as dogmatic and religiously faithful as those you criticize. Perhaps you think you are in the right because your view seems more "normal", yet neither science nor logic can back up any of your claims.

          I do not claim to know what is going on. I claim to not know, but to be open to rigorous inquiry. The only evidence currently available is personal experience, and until these substances are decriminalized and thoroughly researched there is no way we can know the true nature of these experiences.
      • Mar 30 2013: @ John Hoopes, shaman is an indigenous term if you're from Siberia, but, yes, it became the overarching term for similar practices around the globe.

        As to Eliade, I know the name, but I'm not terribly familiar. Harner was my gateway drug and from there I got acquainted with practicing shamans and other native teachers. For me, at this point, it's more about the practice than the theory, but I'll keep your recommendation in mind.
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          Mar 30 2013: If you haven't considered Eliade's "Shamanism" (Fr. 1951, Eng. 1964), you really should. It's the foundational text for understanding ideas about "shamanism" in Western culture. Note the publication date of the English edition. It became a favorite of Ken Kesey, Jim Morrison, and other counterculture icons of the Sixties.

          Yes, "shaman" comes from the Tungus in Siberia. Kehoe argues that it should be restricted to that and related Siberian cultures. Native Americans I know have come to despise the term "shamanism" and won't use it (though it does have commerce for some in the New Age marketplace). Anthropologists will often roll their eyes at it or use their fingers to put quotation marks around it (as I do).
      • Mar 30 2013: @ John Hoopes: I don't disagree with you as to the word shaman. But changing it would be a bit like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. And there really is no better term available for the universal elements of so many indigenous practices. At the same time I appreciate the concerns of native peoples that being lumped under shamanism is a form of cultural genocide. I don't think there's an easy answer to any of it.

        Thanks for the book recommendation. Jim Morrison, not really my go to on these matters, but I take your point.
      • Mar 30 2013: @ John Hoopes, I didn't say they were universal. I said there were universal elements. But I think we'll have to agree to disagree as to whether there are both core similarities and important cultural differences.
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          Mar 30 2013: You mentioned that your interest stems from Michael Harner's work. I think we probably will have to agree to disagree if you're not willing to participate in a critical examination of his theory about "core shamanism."
      • Mar 30 2013: Yes John, I'm quite aware of many of the limitations of Harner's work. And I'm well aware of much of the criticism. Some of it comes from my own teachers. I still think he's done quite a service because the healing techniques work. The brain works the way it works, no matter what culture you're raised in. No, I don't think all religions are the same or all shamanism is the same but, yes, I do think there are important universal elements simply because we are all human. I've heard a number of shamanic teachers of different traditions and cultures say basically this same thing, "This is original teaching." They believe it comes from the spirit world and from the earth itself, not cultural peculiarity. I have one teacher who clears everything through her tribal council to ensure that she's only teaching the universal elements and not the things that are specific to her nation and traditions. But many of these teachers make themselves available to westerners because they think the survival of the world depends on it, not because they're being exploited by anthropologists, new age merchandizing, or plastic shamans.

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