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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 31 2013: Mr. John Hoopes (who I can only assume is advisor to the TED science board based on his unflagging attempts to affirm TED's logic of discrediting Hancock, the man) says this:

    "Yes, a *perceived* experience whose interpretation is the result of revelation and whose actual cause may have nothing to do with telepathy."

    It's no secret that perception is, under materialism, hallucinatory -- not to be trusted. I could go on about how it serves the status quo to convince laypeople their perceptions are fundamentally unreliable. But I won't.

    I will suggest the following study as appropriate to the discussion:


    SD summary: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130327190359.htm

    Your position might oblige you to interpret the experience from within the materialist framework, but materialism is not the only framework (nor the best) with which to interpret these data.

    "To me, we're looking at the problem in the wrong way. I see the brain as the image of a self-localization process in the fabric of mind, like a whirlpool is a self-localization of water in a stream. If our consciousnesses weren't localized, it would make no sense to speak about 'memory retrieval': All reality, past, present, and future, would be a simultaneous experience. There would be nothing to recall because whatever could be recalled would already be in the present experience. So the active process here is the localization -- the forgetting -- not the recalling. People with 'good memory' are simply people who can relax the localization process more or less at will, allowing back in what is already fundamentally available to awareness anyway, beyond space-time constraints. There is no need to 'store' anything anywhere because everything is already at hand. Recall is more akin to removing blinders than reaching out for a drawer." B. Kastrup

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      Apr 1 2013: Noah says, "John Hoopes (who I can only assume is advisor to the TED science board..."

      Thanks for the compliment, but if you can only assume that, you're destined for error. I am not an advisor to the TED science board. Would you nominate me? ;-)

      I agree with you that perception is not to be trusted. In an earlier post, I mentioned this fascinating (though maybe somewhat dry) TEDx presentation by Olaf Blanke on out-of-body experiences (actually, the perception thereof):

      Out-of body experiences, consciousness, and cognitive neuroprosthetics

      I'd also recommend this essay on "phantomology" by Peter Brugger:

      Phantomology: The Science of the Body in the Brain

      I don't think "materialism" is the correct descriptor for their approaches, since I'm sure "science" is adequate. They have been devising and performing clever, replicable experiments that have revealed a great deal about cognition in the past couple of decades. I have confidence that ultimately their work, when combined with that of scientists such as Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and responsible researchers affliated with the Mutidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), will provide us with some well-founded, non-metaphysical theories for the complex interactions of cognition, memory, sensory perception, biochemistry, psychopharmacology, and even philosophy and cosmology.

      I hope that some worthwhile scientific research is presented at the upcoming Psychedelic Science 2013 conference in Oakland in a couple of weeks (April 18-23).


      I think it would be worthwhile to pay attention to new research and recommend effective speakers to TED staff. In the meantime, it's worth considering that this past Friday was the 51st anniversary of the famous Marsh Chapel Experiment at Harvard. How far have we come?

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      Apr 1 2013: Note that the Marsh Chapel Experiment was testing whether psilocybin would produce mystical or similarly gratifying spiritual experiences in religiously predisposed subjects. In a 25-year followup, Rick Doblin noted that this experiment cast "considerable doubt on the assertion that mystical experiences catalyzed by drugs are in any way inferior to non-drug mystical experiences in both their immediate content and long-term effects." Roland Griffiths has come to the same conclusion.

      One reasonable interpretation of Hancock's presentation is that it was based on his own personal "spiritual" revelations as a result of ritual consumption of ayahuasca. I don't see any reason to regard its effects on him any differently than a non-drug religious experience similar to the kinds described by Bob Cornuke, a fundamentalist Christian who, like Hancock, is an enthusiast for non-scientific explanations of the ancient past. Here's a link to one of Cornuke's videos:

      In Search Of Noah's Ark, Part 1

      In Search of Noah's Ark, Part 2

      In Search of Noah's Ark, Part 3

      In Search of Noah's Ark, Part 4

      Cornuke, like Hancock, is an enthusiastic and passionate speaker. However, his ultimate message is not about spirit entities from a parallel universe nor Mother Ayahuasca, but salvation in Jesus Christ.


      Would his ideas be worth spreading on TED? As with Hancock's theories about a "lost civilization," Cornuke's theories have been sharply criticized by his peers, both religious and secular.

      Life and Land - Bob Cornuke

      Beyond Hancock's orientation to New Age spirituality and Cornuke's to fundamentalist Christianity, is there any meaningful difference in the nature of their respective approaches?
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      Apr 1 2013: Cornuke's organization:

      BASE Institute - Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration Institute

      Like Hancock, Cornuke has been involved in a search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant:

      "The fate of the lost Ark of the Covenant is perhaps the greatest historical mystery of all time. In Search for the Ark of the Covenant, Bob Cornuke, a biblical investigator and real life Indiana Jones, searches around the globe in hopes of discovering this important relic from the Bible. With footage from Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia, and England, this DVD reveals startling new information as to the exact location of the ark and includes photographic evidence never before seen by the world. As part of the Bible Explorer Series, this family documentary follows Cornuke on just one of his exciting adventures that uses the Bible as a road map for uncovering its ancient mysteries. Be amazed as this series helps support God's Word with modern archaeological evidence."

      Hancock's book:

      The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant

      "After ten years of searching through the dusty archives of Europe and the Middle East, as well as braving the real-life dangers of a bloody civil war in Ethiopia, Graham Hancock has succeeded where scores of others have failed. This intrepid journalist has tracked down the true story behind the myths and legends -- revealing where the Ark is today, how it got there, and why it remains hidden.

      "Part fascinating scholarship and part entertaining adventure yarn, tying together some of the most intriguing tales of all time -- from the Knights Templar and Prester John to Parsival and the Holy Grail -- this book will appeal to anyone fascinated by the revelation of hidden truths, the discovery of secret mysteries."

      Is there any meaningful difference between their methods?
      • Apr 1 2013: I think that, once again, you err when you use the copy from Amazon to draw conclusions about Sign and the Seal re: Hancock's methods. I can't speak to Cornuke because I'm not familiar. But the copy you posted is extremely hyperbolic and makes claims Hancock doesn't make. Reading other people's reportage and reading marketing copy does not prepare you to critique a book or an author, let alone to compare authors.
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          Apr 1 2013: Okay, here's the copy from Hancock's own website:

          "A journalist and travel writer in the employ of the Ethiopian government in the early 1980's hears mention that the great lost treasure of the Jewish race - the ark of the covenant in which Moses placed the ten commandments - is reputed to be held in a church somewhere in Ethiopia...

          "The same man later sees the Hollywood blockbuster 'Raiders of the lost Ark', and an idea begins to find shape in his mind which will take some years to come to fruition...

          "In 1989 at Chartres Cathedral, France, he is drawn to a small, seemingly insignificant carving which mysteriously hints that the tale he heard in Ethiopia may be true - that that may, in fact, be the last resting place of the Ark ...

          "The man is Graham Hancock - and the story of his quest to discover the truth behind the legends is the breathtaking real life adventure of The Sign and The Seal. the book that launched Graham into the bestseller lists worldwide.

          "Following obscure clues found within ancient stories and Biblical tales, through the occult knowledge gleaned from the coded Grail epic of Wolfram Von Eschenbach, and the obscure and secretive workings of the enigmatic Knights Templar, Graham traces the Ark from its source in ancient Egypt, to Jerusalem, and from there to its final resting place in Africa.

          "This is a tale worthy of Indiana Jones himself! A real modern day quest set against the lost knowledge of the ancient world and the political intrigues of the contemporary one.

          "Here is the first inkling that the technology of ancient Egypt, that produced the Ark, was something mysterious and powerful - a legacy, perhaps of something older and forgotten - here is the seeds that would flower in Fingerprints of the Gods. Was Moses an initiate of the lost Egyptian wisdom - the lost wisdom of the survivors of a cataclysmic flood?"

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          Apr 1 2013: Here's a link to a discussion of Cornuke's search for the Art of the Covenant from his own website:

          Here's a link to a discussion of his search for Noah's Ark, which supposedly came to rest in the mountains of Iran after the cataclysmic Flood that was described in the Book of Genesis:

          He and Hancock actually have a great deal in common, though I strongly suspect Cornuke's attitudes about cannabis and psychedelic use would be quite different.
      • Apr 1 2013: I think you've missed my point, John. You keep talking about Hancock and his work as if you're really familiar with it. You're not - not if you haven't read his books. It makes you sound a little foolish and it calls your own credibility into question. If you're going to take on such a tirade, criticizing a person for his poor research and lack of scholarship, you should at least do your due diligence and read his work. Otherwise you're the one who looks like a poor scholar. He's a journalist. You're a college professor. Whom do you think that hurts more?

        From reading through Corunuke's page, I'd say his motivations for doing this research are different. His appears to be a religious interest. Hancock's was not. It also appears that his interest is rather singularly focused on Biblical lore as all of his research seems to be focused on Biblical sites and artifiacts. Hancock's is not. That's a pretty big difference. But I'd still be cautious about conclusions because I know nothing of Cornuke. I haven't read his books.

        I have read The Sign and the Seal and while the copy you provide from his site is better and doesn't misrepresent the book it's not even Cliff's Notes. It's eight very short graphs. I used to write marketing copy for books. It's used to sell them. Period. One hopes, when writing it, that it doesn't distort the meaning. But I certainly never would have hoped to convey in a few graphs what a writer put across in an entire book. That would be a) impossible and b) negate the purpose of writing the copy in the first place, which is to get people to buy the book. Why buy something if you already know enough about it to go around telling everyone what's in it and what the author's methods were.

        To imply that everyone who has an interest in looking for the Ark of the Covenant is basically the same is ludicrous. To imply that simply because Cornuke's path is similar to Hancock's is also ludicrous because his book follows Hancock's by nearly 10 years.
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          Apr 1 2013: But I *have* read his work, Time Walker. I just said I hadn't read all of it cover-to-cover. I've got a copy of "Fingerprints of the Gods" sitting right here and recently quoted from it verbatim with page numbers.

          I obviously don't think it's ludicrous to compare Cornuke with Hancock, regardless of the chronology. Cornuke is not literally following Hancock, since their research goes to different places. However, they are both non-archaeologists using the methods and approaches of pseudoarchaeology to appeal to poorly informed, uncritical audiences on ideological grounds and--with effective ad copy--to sell lots of books and videos and lectures.
      • Apr 1 2013: John, you said yourself that you can't get through his books, which is entirely fine, unless you're critiquing them. I've read most of his books -- cover to cover -- and it's clear to me that you're misrepresenting them. It gets even worse when you quote him as you did in the comment you're so proud of on Fingerprints and it turns out you're quoting a quotation in the book, not citing the primary source, and stripping it of its context.

        And, I'm sorry, journalists can't write books on archaeology now? Hancock isn't claiming to be an archaeologist and he always credits the archaeologists whose work he draws from. It think it's likely your quarrel is more with his sources than with him. He's not writing scholarly books, nor is he claiming to.
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      Apr 1 2013: Just because Hancock uses cannabis and ayahuasca while Cornuke uses fervent prayer, is there any reason to regard these two writers in different ways? If Hancock can make strong political points, why not Cornuke (even though their beliefs and orientations may prove to be quite distinct from one another)?

      I think it would be indefensible to give Hancock a forum while denying one to Cornuke just because they have different fan bases and practice different forms of spirituality.
      • Apr 1 2013: Is it customary that "skeptics" adopt the Gish Gallop in debate these days?

        It would seem you betray a woeful lack of philosophical knowledge, Mr. Hoopes. I guess I was expecting more from you.

        Materialism is predicated on the notion that the 'real' world lies outside anyone's mind. It's therefore unfalsifiable -- hardly meeting the definition of 'science.' To postulate that 'objective' reality lies beyond empirical verification may in fact violate the same Occam's Razor you invoked in an earlier comment.

        Subjective experience is implied to be a kind of hallucination modulated by physical brain processes, according to materialism. This is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific one. I'm quite astonished that a professional of your stature can operate unaware of any of this.

        As for your myriad other remarks, I'm not sure I understand their relevance.
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          Apr 1 2013: I'd like to see a citation for your definition of "materialism." It's apparently a word that has multiple interpretations. Yours is quite different from mine, which is more like this one;


          Are you sure you're not thinking of "idealism"?

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          Apr 1 2013: As for my other remarks, their relevance is that I'm arguing that Hancock and Cornuke are both avid practitioners of pseudoscience with respect to the distant past. They are each ideologically driven to make claims based upon their respective, but quite different, interpretations of mythological and metaphysical phenomena as manifest in the human past.

          If Hancock's ideas have merit, then why not Cornuke's? I see little difference between them with respect to the kinds of arguments they make, the methodologies that they use, the strategies they employ for marketing their books, videos, and lectures, and their appeal to respective audiences seeking materialist confirmation of idealist beliefs. Hancock appeals to a New Age audience and Cornuke to a fundamentalist Christian one. Other than that, they are actually quite similar in their approaches and probably also their goals.
      • Apr 1 2013: From wikipedia: "To materialists, matter is primary, and mind or spirit or ideas are secondary, the product of matter acting upon matter."

        On one end of the spectrum, you have reductive materialists (mind reduces to matter) and on the other you have eliminative materialists (mind does not exist). It follows that subjective experience is a hallucination generated by physical brain processes. The world of matter, that exists apart from mind, is all that can objectively exist to a materialist. You probably got confused because you're laboring under the mistaken assumption that it is idealism that says reality is a hallucinated illusion. This is a popular misconception, so I understand your confusion.

        Can I safely assume you to be a materialist? If so, then I trust you'll have no objection if I characterize your "relevant" comparison as the result of apophenia.
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          Apr 1 2013: Sorry, I do object to your mischaracterizing the comparison as the result of apophenia. The similarities I'm identifying are not a meaningless pattern, no matter how much you may wish them to be. The force of confirmation bias is strong in you.
      • Comment deleted

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          Apr 1 2013: Oh, please. This is not an ad hominem attack on Hancock and his character. It's a critique of his scholarship and his credibility, which are directly relevant to the issue at hand of whether his ideas are "worth spreading" on TED. I'm not saying Hancock is a dishonest person or that he has any moral shortcomings. I'm saying his *ideas* and his his arguments are flawed, of poor quality, and even harmful. Please learn what "ad hominem" means. It's one of the most misunderstood fallacies in online discussions.

          Ad hominem

          The "War on Consciousness" talk has not been censored. It is available on the TED site for you to watch right now by clicking on a link at the top of this page.
      • Apr 1 2013: John - one big difference is that we can test Hancock's claims here easily enough and pretty much all of them turn out, on inspection, to be correct. Thus whether credible or not what he says in this talk is almost all true, albeit unknown to many. Almost the definition of an idea worth spreading.
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          Apr 1 2013: What you consider to be true and correct and credible is baffling to me. I have the same experience with religious fundamentalists. That's the nature of subjectivity.
      • Apr 1 2013: @ John Hoopes "I have the same experience with religious fundamentalists. That's the nature of subjectivity. "

        Subjectivity and fundamentalism are not the same thing. We're all subjective even when we strive for an ideal of objectivity. When you conflate having an ideology with being an ideologue -- as you have below -- and having a subjective viewpoint with religious fundamentalism and dogmatic world view, you show us just how blinkered you are. Do you think you're "objective?" People who think they have an objective world view; those are the real ideologues because they think they know "the truth."
      • Apr 1 2013: @ John Hoopes, Debbie is absolutely using the term ad hominem correctly. Her point is that this debate is supposed to be about the lecture and its content -- not Hancock, the man. Your beef is clearly with the man and a lot of his previous work which has no bearing on the talk itself. The only book of his that is on point in this discussion is Supernatural and only in as much as it provides a little context for a talk that tried to compress a lot of that information into 18 minutes. But much of the talk is about things that have happened since he wrote Supernatural.

        Yes, ad hominem is a widely misused and abused phrase, often applied to all insulting language. That's not how Debbie is using it here. Her point is that is your argument is "to the man" not to the content of the talk itself. It's a point many have made to you since you started this tirade.

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