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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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    Apr 1 2013: Graham Hancock was one of the principal instigators of the 2012 "end-of-the-world" myth that was the focus of endless doomsday inanity over the past five years or so.

    In "Fingerprints of the Gods" (1995), he offered the following scenario:

    "Suppose that we had calculated, on the basis of sound evidence and beyond any shadow of a doubt, that our civilization was soon to be obliterated by a titanic geological cataclysm--a 30° displacement of the earth's crust, for example, or a head-on collision with a ten-mile-wide nickel-iron asteroid travelling towards us at cosmic speed" (p. 489).

    "At the beginning of the twenty-first century of the Christian era, near the cusp of the Age of Pisces and the Age of Aquarius, civilization as we know it is destroyed" (p. 496).

    "The reader will also not have forgotten the date calculated by the Ancient Maya calendar for the end of the world: 'The day will be 4 Ahau 3 Kankin [corresponding to 23 December AD 2012...' In the Mayan scheme of things we are already living in the last days of the Earth" (p. 499).

    "Like the Ancient Maya whose descendants all across the Yucatan are convinced that the end of the world is coming in the year 2000 y pico (and a little), the Hopi believe that we are walking in the last days..." (p. 502).

    In his uncritical scholarship and hype, Hancock grossly misrepresented the beliefs of both the Mayas and the Hopis, resulting in Maya leaders having to make countless statements to the press in attempts to rectify his errors and the problems that they caused. While Hancock was not the only one, the success of "Fingerprints" was a major factor in the growth of the "2012 phenomenon" and the endless hyping of pseudoscientific disinformation that accompanied it. His work even inspired Roland Emmerich's infamous "2012" disaster movie.

    2012 phenomenon
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon

    Isn't it reasonable to hold Hancock accountable? Doesn't what he did detract from his credibility in a major way?
    • Apr 1 2013: The talk should be assessed on its own merits. I am sure with enough snooping we can dredge up information useful for discrediting every TED and TEDx speaker. That should not be a surprise to anyone. That you insist on attacking the personality of the messenger is hardly a surprise either.
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        Apr 1 2013: I disagree, Noah. I doubt you'd find anything that would discredit any other TED/TEDx speaker to the extent that even just the 2012 phenomenon hype (not to mention the Ark of the Covenant, the Face on Mars, and so forth) discredits Hancock. Surely you must be joking.

        I am not attacking the personality of the messenger at all. I don't have any significant observations about Hancock's personality. I am arguing that Hancock has virtually no credibility with an educated and well-informed audience. His work is laden with hyperbole and wrong information and is unreliable. With respect to the 2012 phenomenon end-of-the-world hype, I think it has even been harmful to indigenous populations, especially Mayas. Do you seriously think that's irrelevant to the merits of his talk?
        • Apr 1 2013: That's funny. Here is how my dictionary defines 'personality':

          "the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character"

          Can we assume that credibility is a quality of one's character?

          That questioning one's credibility is a popular form of well poisoning, and unfortunately very effective, is evidenced by Mr. Anderson's email to Mr. Hancock.
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        Apr 1 2013: More evidence of Hancock's hyperbole and misinterpretation:

        Quest For The Lost Civilization (1993)
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yz1DfTF3-E

        How well have the claims and predictions he made 20 years ago stood up to subsequent scrutiny?

        Miserably.
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        Apr 1 2013: I don't think credibility is a quality of one's character. However, honesty certainly is.

        If someone's credibility is questioned and it doesn't hold up, that's not well poisoning. You need to review what that fallacy actually means.

        Poisoning the well
        http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_the_well

        You've expressed some really odd ideas and definitions (including your definition of materialism), but the notion that every TED/TEDx speaker could be discredited in the way Hancock can is the oddest of all. There are hundreds of speakers. Could you give me an example of just one (other than Sheldrake) whose credibility is as questionable as Hancock's?
        • Apr 1 2013: I supplied you with the definition that was given on the Wikipedia page -- and you say it's odd?

          Here's what Wikipedia says about poisoning the well:

          "In general usage, poisoning the well is the provision of any information that may produce a biased result."

          You're right, though; perhaps I should have said ad hominem, since that is more to the point.

          Here is how my dictionary defines 'character':

          1 the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual : running away was not in keeping with her character.
          • the distinctive nature of something : gas lamps give the area its character.
          • the quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way : the island is full of character.
          • strength and originality in a person's nature : she had character as well as beauty.
          • a person's good reputation : to what do I owe this attack on my character?

          'Credibility':

          the quality of being trusted and believed in : the government's loss of credibility.
          • the quality of being convincing or believable : the book's anecdotes have scant regard for credibility.

          Can you tell me what the 'actual' (i.e. your) definitions are? I find it highly ironic that you accuse anyone of confirmation bias. Would you say you make a good bias blind spot case study?

          Questioning Hancock's credibility is one thing. Questioning his honesty is another. It's presuming to know his motivations, and I think the burden would be on you to prove he was knowingly telling untruths.

          If I have mischaracterized materialism, maybe a materialist can speak up and say as much. I welcome the opportunity to learn from being wrong.
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        Apr 1 2013: Noah, you note, "Questioning Hancock's credibility is one thing. Questioning his honesty is another. It's presuming to know his motivations, and I think the burden would be on you to prove he was knowingly telling untruths."

        That is precisely why I am NOT questioning Hancock's honesty. I really have no idea whether Hancock is being honest or not and am loathe to make a suggestion either way. Yes, the burden would be on me and I have no evidence to support it.

        Credibility, on the other hand, is a different matter. It's problematic, because credibility is a subjective and far from consensual issue. Millions of people find the Pope to be credible. Millions find President Obama to be credible. Millions find all kinds of things that you and I might consider to be absurd.

        It's my own subjective, informed, and admittedly biased opinion that Hancock is not credible. I will readily admit that it is just my opinion, though I know that it is shared by many of my colleagues. The support for him in this forum indicates that there are many people who hold very different opinions. A factual statement would be that Hancock is not credible to some and credible to others. Sometimes there is no accounting for other people's beliefs.
        • Apr 1 2013: @ John Hoopes

          "That is precisely why I am NOT questioning Hancock's honesty. I really have no idea whether Hancock is being honest or not and am loathe to make a suggestion either way. Yes, the burden would be on me and I have no evidence to support it."

          And yet, you have repeatedly imputed intentions to Hancock that don't exist. Steve just pointed one of the more egregious of these attempts.

          Hoopes:

          "It's still my opinion Hancock claimed his visions were real. Others can listen to the talk and decide for themselves. His work makes it clear that he believes spirit entities are real."

          Stark:

          "But your opinion is wrong as demonstrated by Hancock saying he is "making no claims about the reality" of such experiences. "

          Again. I've read Supernatural, cover to cover. He makes no such claim there or in this talk or at any time that I've heard him speak. And when, pressed to validate this claim earlier, you quoted a journalist's characterization of his beliefs.

          Hancock can speak quite well for himself and he makes no such claim. You're misrepresenting his written and spoken record and making assumptions about his beliefs.

          Personally, I would make no criticism of him if he did believe that because it would simply put him in alignment with shamans he's writing about. But as I've written at some length, he's not been willing to go that far and presents many possible explanations for what he's experienced under the influence of ayahuasca.
        • Apr 1 2013: Here's another thing, John. If you're not questioning Hancock's honesty, why did you bring it up? Because it was this statement that Noah was referring to.

          "I don't think credibility is a quality of one's character. However, honesty certainly is."
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        Apr 1 2013: I brought it up because people frequently confuse credibility with honesty. They are two different things.
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        Apr 1 2013: As Noah points out, the talk should be assessed on its own merits. Here's a direct quotation:

        4:59 "The spirit of ayahuasca herself, Mother Ayahuasca, who is a healer, and although she's kind of the mother goddess of the planet she seems to take a direct, personal interest in us as individuals, to heal our ills, to want us to be the best that we can possibly be, to correct errors and mistakes in our behavior that may be leading us down the wrong path, and this is perhaps why it's an untold story, really."

        Is this not a claim? It seems pretty clear to me. The fact that it's later followed by this statement reinforces that:

        16:17 “It’s true that the message of ayahuasca, the universal message, is about the sacred, magical, enchanted, infinitely precious nature of life on earth...” and “It’s impossible to work with ayahuasca for long without being deeply and profoundly affected by this message.”

        Are the uses of the words "really' (at the end of the first quotation) and "It's true" (at the beginning of the second) not statements of belief?
        • Apr 2 2013: 4:59: You forgot the part where he prefaces that entire passage with the disclaimer that he is describing the phenomenological reality experienced by many people. Also you got the last part wrong. It should read: "And this is perhaps why, and it's an untold story, really, Ayahuasca has been fantastically successfully at getting people off harmful addictions to hard drugs."

          16:17 While he is saying this, the slide being shown onscreen reads: "Ayahuasca has a very insistent message. It's one of those universals that almost everyone who drinks the brew sooner or later reports." So that would seem to put the quote in a slightly more acceptable context.

          As for the "It's impossible... " quote, it's hyperbole, but I suspect not too far off from the truth, which is that the experience is profound and profoundly disruptive of one's ordinary, survival-oriented ontology.
    • Apr 1 2013: I agree John, that there are many times fringe ideas are inacurate, but like Eddie Huang says "if we keep looking under the same stones all we are going to find are the same bugs". Read in context i think you will find a lot of what Hankock said about 2012 was that it marks a symbolic milestone rather then an actual end to our world. And I think there is eveidence that sugests that on many philisopical levels 2012 represents watershed moment.

      We have a very hierarchical structured society and method of enquiery, making room for a fractal aproch is not a bad thing IMO.
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        Apr 1 2013: After spurring and capitalizing on the 2012 end-of-the-world mythology, which was poured on thick in "Fingerprints of the Gods," Read the last chapter of that book and you'll see. In fact, had it not been for the success of "Fingerprints," the 2012 end-of-the-world hype may have been far more muted, especially among aficionados of pseudoarchaeology.

        After the success of Daniel Pinchbeck's "2012" book, Hancock *also* contributed to and profited from the 2012 "transformation of consciousness" mythology. In fact, he played it both ways, as did many other prominent 2012 hucksters. However, Hancock's "lost civilization" theory hinged on the idea of an ancient culture with a global presence having been destroyed by a major cataclysm, suggesting that was what was imperfectly recalled in legends of the destruction of Atlantis and the Flood story in Genesis. It will be interesting to see whether Hancock returns to discussing a worldwide cataclysm in his next nonfiction work.

        The forthcoming movie "White House Down" by Roland Emmerich (whose movies "10,000 B.C." and "2012" show clear Hancock influence) proves that there is an enduring and lucrative market for catastrophe narratives.
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/white-house-down-trailer_n_2952581.html
    • Apr 1 2013: Here's the problem John: You link credibility to things Hancock has said in the past. But let's look at things you've said in the past (and which are also directly pertinent here).

      1. You were adamant that ayahuasaca was NOT used all over the world - it is.
      2. You were adamant that there are no near universal aspects to ayahuasca visions - there are.
      3. You were adamant there are no negative connotations to the term "dreamer" - there are.
      4. You were adamant Hancock claimed in his talk the entities encountered in visions were real - he didn't.
      5. You were adamant there is NO academic support for use of hallucinogens in the Pleistocene - there is.

      Thus, by your own standards, you are not credible.
      • Apr 1 2013: And where Hancock is always circumspect and careful not to make absolutist statements, Hoopes is not. Hancock has revised his thinking on many things, including 2012, through the years and been transparent about his journey of personal discovery. And at least Hancock had the good grace to read his primary sources before writing about them.
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        Apr 1 2013: You're wrong, Steve.

        1. I was not "adamant" that ayahuasca was not used all over the world. I was not specific enough. I was referring to its traditional, indigenous use, which was restricted to Amazonia, not its fairly recent, appropriated, globalized use by non-indigenous peoples.

        2. Whether there are or aren't has not been clinically established. It is open to highly subjective interpretation. If there are similar, widespread explanations of ayahuasca experiences, there are non-metaphysical and even non-biochemical explanations for those. That includes the effects of the narratives of guides who facilitate the experience and its interpretation. If they tell people what to expect or how to interpret it, there will be widespread "universals."

        3. I didn't say there were no negative connotations to the word "dreamer." I said that Hancock's assertion that it was "an insult" in "our culture" was incorrect. I still think that and you have provided no persuasive evidence to the contrary.

        4. It's still my opinion Hancock claimed his visions were real. Others can listen to the talk and decide for themselves. His work makes it clear that he believes spirit entities are real.

        5. I did not say there was no academic support. I said there was no archaeological evidence. There isn't, despite David Lewis-Williams' controversial theories, which are not widely accepted by specialists in more recent rock art much less cave paintings from the Pleistocene.

        You routinely confuse subjective opinions with reality, Steve. No wonder you are such an adamant devotee of Hancock. You are so "cocksure" about me and yet you are repeatedly wrong. I think you should be mindful of that quote from Bertrand Russell I posted earlier.
        • Apr 1 2013: John
          1. Lie - you did, for hours.
          2. It has been established in clinical sessions with DMT by, eg, Strassman and others. Also unsure why this even needs to be established clinically anyway - baseball hasn't, to my knowledge, been established in clinical sessions, yet that is no cause to doubt it's existence.
          3. It is - I provided the definitions from two dictionaries which defined it as meaning "unrealistic". You, by contrast, misunderstood a song by John Lennon.
          4. But your opinion is wrong as demonstrated by Hancock saying he is "making no claims about the reality" of such experiences.
          5. Why bring up specifically archaeological evidence when Hancock never said the evidence was specifically archaeological. Thus your point is either wrong or irrelevant.

          And since none of these things are in the least subjective, your summary is wrong. Re Russell, irrelevant insult. Next!
      • Apr 1 2013: @ Steve Stark

        "3. It is - I provided the definitions from two dictionaries which defined it as meaning "unrealistic". You, by contrast, misunderstood a song by John Lennon.
        4. But your opinion is wrong as demonstrated by Hancock saying he is "making no claims about the reality" of such experiences. "

        Precisely.

        Again, I wish I had more thumbs to give you. Instead I just have to say thank you for your clarity.

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