TED’s Spectacular Fail: Ideas Worth Suppressing
TEDTalks, as a platform for “Ideas worth spreading” has become incredibly successful in recent years, now with over 800 thousand subscribers on YouTube and 1.5 million monthly visitors to ted.com. As their motto suggests, TED has sought out and given wide exposure to people with revolutionary ideas. It is their hallmark, and many people, myself included, have found inspiration in the ingenious, beautiful and thought provoking ideas presented on the TED stage. So it may come as a surprise that TED has recently removed from distribution two popular talks given by brilliant speakers with revolutionary ideas. Ironically, these two talks, one entitled The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, and the other The War on Consciousness by Graham Hancock, were given at a TEDx event with the theme Visions for Transition: Challenging Existing Paradigms and Redefining Values.
After the talks had already become popular on YouTube, certain activists from the atheist/materialist camp complained, leading TED’s anonymous board of scientists to determine that the talks “crossed the line into pseudoscience”. Unfortunately, TED’s initial critiques, scant on details though they were, proved so erroneous and/or slanderous that they’ve since been stricken out and rebuttals from Sheldrake and Hancock appended. To begin with, I recommend reading that original post on the TED blog.
TED subsequently set up separate discussion threads for each talk, buried on their site by the way, to house all further comments on the matter. One might expect that a more substantive, well reasoned argument for why the talks were removed would then be given there. Unfortunately, despite repeated requests from hundreds of supports of the talks, that hasn’t happened. Even TED’s curator Chris Anderson stated that “Maybe I’m expecting too much for this forum, but I was hoping scientists who don’t buy [Sheldrake’s] ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible.”Here are the relevant links
- Sheldrake’s TEDx Talk framed for our protection by TED
- The debate about Rupert Sheldrake’s talk
- Rupert Sheldrake’s comprehensive website
- Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake’s blog
- Hancock’s TEDx Talk framed for our protection by TED
- The debate about Graham Hancock’s talk
- Graham Hancock’s facebook page
UPDATE: The discussions on ted.com have closed. In total, the comments for Sheldrake and Hancock have exceeded those for any other TED Talk, or any other topic on the TED website for that matter. Sheldrake shared his experience, and his conversation with Chris Anderson, in this interview on Skeptiko.
I focused my own participation on Sheldrake’s talk and offer here an overview of the heavily one-sided “discussion” that followed there. As I initially suspected, TED has essentially put Sheldrake’s controversial work on trial, even though his talk was not about his work but about the dogmas he believes are holding back scientific progress. They’ve done this without making a very specific case themselves or answering the many comments contradicting their vague stance. For example, Chris Anderson commented that “These are talks that were widely criticized on scientific grounds” yet when I asked if he could expound on the wide criticism he referenced, I received no answer.On this matter, Freya Black wrote:
And also, Noah Vickstein wrote:The issue I have with the criticism of the ted talk is it doesn’t seem to be based on a proper analysis of the actual content for example the latest text from Ted refers to: “and claim that the speed of light has been changing.” which is clearly not a claim that is made in the ted talk at all. What concerns me about this is that it is not evidence based critical analysis. I feel any criticism of the Ted Talk should be based on a proper analysis of the talk and not on peoples personal feelings or other things outside of the realm of the talk itself. It especially concerns me that the critics in this matter are representing themselves as “a board of scientific advisers” but that they seem to be completely lacking in scientific rigor in the matter.
As expected, Sheldrake’s detractors attempt to shift the burden of proof. What about his talk is so objectionable? Apparently we will never know, as the only objections being maintained are vague accusations that have not as yet been substantiated.
TED’s Scientific Board questions whether the dogmas Sheldrake identifies are “a fair description of scientific assumptions.” Yet there are clearly taboo subjects and lines of inquiry that are routinely dismissed by mainstream science. Some scientists do buck the trend to discuss and research them, but many others are afraid to do so openly, even when they themselves find such topics compelling, because doing so could illicit scorn from colleagues, limit their funding, or cause irreparable harm to their careers. Telepathy is one such taboo subject, and by extension, any case in which information is exchanged without a recognized physical mechanism (e.g. Sheldrake’s landmark hypothesis of formative causation aka morphic resonance). These taboos are institutionalized in the review processes of top scientific journals and science funding committees… and so called skeptics actively attack, in a knee-jerk fashion, any scientist offering contrary hypotheses or evidence.
Conversely, there are beliefs commonly held by scientists, and many educated people, that have hardened into dogmas, sometimes despite a complete lack of observational evidence. Sheldrake sought to address these dogmas in his talk, though doing so within the 18 minute timeframe was no doubt daunting, which he himself stated when approached to speak. His recent book, Science Set Free, or The Science Delusion in the UK, deals with the same topic in copious detail.
While I believe there are many such dogmas to choose from, Sheldrake focused on more general ones, largely stemming from materialism, which has been the dominant philosophy in science for a long long time. Materialism argues for a clockwork universe, wherein animals are little more than “wet robots” and there is no need for any mysterious force or unseen agency to explain how everything in the universe works - everything can be reduced to purposeless components interacting according to fixed laws. Human consciousness is described as little more than an illusion: a secondary phenomenon of purely physical mechanisms. The tenants of this philosophy are widely accepted as indisputable by scientists and educated people, at least publicly… this despite the fact that 51% of scientists believe in God or a spiritual force, according to a 2009 Pew poll.
Indeed, Sheldrake has often commented on this dichotomy between the public and private beliefs of scientists. Because he is out on the limb, so to speak, scientists often approach him at his talks to privately reveal their true stances on taboo subjects, which they would never dare reveal professionally. Many, it seems, are in the closet, holding to the materialist viewpoint only because that is demanded of them, or at least they believe it is. There is evidence that this is changing, however. I believe we are on the verge of a paradigm shift… and the staunchest advocates of materialism may sense this as well, probably unconsciously, and seem to have become increasingly irrational and strident in recent years.About this, Conor O’Higgins wrote:
I want to address an argument I see coming up again and again:
- Sheldrake claims that there is a dogma that [X]
- But I found this statement by scientist [Y] questioning [X]
- Therefore Sheldrake is wrong about there being a dogma.
I don’t think Rupert Sheldrake believes that ALL scientists follow ALL ten dogmas ALL of the time. Of course the constancy of constants gets questioned. Of course mainstream scientists occasionally write about mind-body effects. But that doesn’t change the fact that the PREDOMINANT mode of thinking in science is to ASSUME a mechanistic-nomological-Platonist view of universe.
Sheldrake’s own words (http://www.skeptiko.com/184-dr-rupert-sheldrake-sets-science-free-from-dogma/):
“I think that there are plenty of people in academic science who are not materialists. One of the points I try to make in my book [Science Set Free] is that a great many scientists nowadays are not materialists; they’re not Atheists. The culture of science and indeed of the academic world is generally speaking Atheistic and materialistic. But that’s the kind of surface culture people pay lip service to in public. In private, there are a great many people with different views.”
Some commenters theorized that people like Daniel Dennett, himself a staunch materialist… and a member of the TED Brain Trust… must be behind this decision. Interestingly, Guy Hayward wrote:
I went to a talk by Daniel Dennett last night in London, and heard him saying to Rupert Sheldrake that he thought TED had made a mistake with regard to this whole controversy. Dennett also said he had had nothing to do with the controversy.
So who is behind it and why have they not participated in the conversation? Most of the comments supportive of TED’s position have been little better than this one from a TED Translator:
sigh. this talk was so bad i’m out of words. this kind of stuff should be debated … in the ufo magazine or something. such a total wreck of a talk clearly has no place anywhere near ted, neither as a featured talk, nor as a debate. shame that such a crap can mobilize huge ork armies.
Thankfully, Chris Anderson responded with the following:
I personally didn’t think the talk was ‘crap’. I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake a few days ago and I think he genuinely respects scientific thinking. He just disagrees with a lot of it. Some of his questions in the talk I found genuinely interesting. And I do think there’s a place on TED to challenge the orthodox. Maybe I’m expecting too much for this forum, but I was hoping scientists who don’t buy his ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible.
A very generous statement, considering what preceded and what Chris had previously written. Unfortunately, he was met with more stone throwing by commenters right when he should have been encouraged. He’d not returned to the discussion since.
At any rate, the largely unquestioned assumption of many critics, seemingly including the TED Science Board, is that Rupert Sheldrake is a pseudoscientist, and thus pretty much anything he has to say must be misinformation. Indeed, the question posited by TED to be answered in the discussion was effectively “is Sheldrake’s talk pseudoscience?” So how does that assumption hold up under scrutiny? Well, to start, one might look at Sheldrake’s academic record. Briefly, here it is in 12 points.
- Double first class honours degree, Cambridge University, awarded the University Botany Prize
- Studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, Frank Knox Fellow
- Ph.D. in biochemistry, Cambridge University
- Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge - Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology
- Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society
- With Philip Rubery, discovered the mechanism of polar auxin transport
- Principal Plant Physiologist and Consultant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
- Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project funded from Trinity College, Cambridge
- Fellow of Schumacher College, in Dartington, Devon
- Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences near San Francisco
- Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut
- 80+ papers published in scientific journals, including Nature
How could one with such a pedigree be accused of pseudoscience? Perhaps this is, as Bill Storm points out in the discussion, a proof of Clay Shirky’s assertion that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Sheldrake was firmly in the mainstream, early in his career. Then, while at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, his thinking on formative causation coalesced and he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life, which put him squarely at odds with mainstream scientific dogma. Since then, Sheldrake has been openly ridiculed. Philip Stevens did his MSc dissertation on Sheldrake, looking not at whether his ideas were right or wrong, but how he was treated - whether fairly or unfairly - by the scientific community. It’s an interesting read, and makes it clear that, like with TED, Sheldrake has been historically mistreated. Many have likely heard about the review of A New Science of Life in Nature by its editor John Maddox entitled A book for burning?. As Stevens points out, twelve years afterwards, in a BBC documentary on Sheldrake, Maddox revisited his review in a way that sums up this whole business rather nicely: “Dr Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason: it is heresy.” This examination by Stevens is particularly germane to the matter at hand. You can find the dissertation and an interview with Stevens on Skeptiko.
Before going too much further, I would like to acknowledge the one substantive argument supportive of TED’s position, though I don’t agree with it. To my mind, it’s the only one to date, and comes from Renee Hlozek, a TED Fellow:
There are many things that Rupert Sheldrake’s talk brings to mind. But his comment that one dogma of the scientific method is “that the constants of nature are fixed” is false. Yes, in the current best-fitting cosmological model the constants of nature are constant in time. However, I (and other) scientists constantly test this belief (you can see our test of a variable fine structure constant in a recent paper here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.0824).
What we have found is that given the current data, it does not support a varying fine structure constant. It isn’t a ‘fudging’ of the data, if the data supported this model, I would be the first person to advocate this. In fact, many cosmologists in my field take data and fit a wide variety of models to try and understand the universe, even if this means challenging ideas previously held fixed. It is my explicit job to test theories until they fail and when they fail, to refine them. Until they fail, they remain the best-fitting theory - and that is the key point: any theory has to be tested with data.
I agree with Sheldrake that dogma needs to be challenged and confronted with evidence. Unfortunately that also means dogma about the scientific method itself.
In his rebuttal, Sheldrake addressed this same argument given by the anonymous scientific board with the following:
“He also argues that scientists have ignored variations in the measurements of natural constants, using as his primary example the dogmatic assumption that a constant must be constant and uses the speed of light as example…. Physicist Sean Carroll wrote a careful rebuttal of this point.”
TED’s Scientific Board refers to a Scientific American article that makes my point very clearly: “Physicists routinely assume that quantities such as the speed of light are constant.”
In my talk I said that the published values of the speed of light dropped by about 20 km/sec between 1928 and 1945. Carroll’s “careful rebuttal” consisted of a table copied from Wikipedia showing the speed of light at different dates, with a gap between 1926 and 1950, omitting the very period I referred to. His other reference (http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/lightandcolor/speedoflight.html) does indeed give two values for the speed of light in this period, in 1928 and 1932-35, and sure enough, they were 20 and 24km/sec lower than the previous value, and 14 and 18 km/sec lower than the value from 1947 onwards.
In my talk I suggest how a re-examination of existing data could resolve whether large continuing variations in the Universal Gravitational Constant, G, are merely errors, as usually assumed, or whether they show correlations between different labs that might have important scientific implications hitherto ignored. Jerry Coyne and TED’s Scientific Board regard this as an exercise in pseudoscience. I think their attitude reveals a remarkable lack of curiosity.
What Renee Hlozek argues is that she and other scientists do test this assumption, which is what Freeman Dyson also argued in a ‘93 round table discussion with Sheldrake. Are they really doing this? I’m personally not in a position to say, but I wonder, even if true, how deep this acceptance of possible variation in the laws of nature runs. In my own response to Renee, to which I’ve not yet received a response, I wrote:
I applaud your work Renee, though your abstract is well beyond my ability to comprehend, and I’m glad you’ve joined us here. Do you mind responding to a couple thoughts of mine?
It’s clear there is scientific interest in examining the constants as you have done, and Sheldrake’s statements elsewhere make it clear that he’s aware of this: “The variation of fundamental constants is now a matter of serious debate among physicists” [Science Set Free, 92]. However, for decades he has been the subject of scorn and ridicule for believing that the laws of nature are more like habits and, to some degree, may be subject to evolutionary change or fluctuation. Earlier I referenced an interesting roundtable discussion between Sheldrake and others, including Freeman Dyson, on this topic. http://goo.gl/AQnaT
Considering this, and your own experience of course, would you agree or disagree that, historically, many scientists and educated people have been taught, and have frequently espoused as incontrovertibly true, that the laws of nature are fixed? I myself was taught this in college physics and astrophysics classes, and accepted it as undeniable.
If not, could you at least acknowledge that there’s SOME basis for such a belief being considered common? Or are the laws more commonly held to be working assumptions, as they are for you, and not incontrovertibly fixed?
Rupert Sheldrake himself made one post on the discussion, calling for TED to sponsor a public debate between himself and a member of the opposition - an idea most participants in the discussion have enthusiastically embraced, though no word from TED yet. He wrote:
I appreciate the fact that TED published my response to the accusations levelled against me by their Scientific Board, and also crossed out the Board’s statement on the “Open for discussion” blog. http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/14/open-for-discussion-graham-hancock-and-rupert-sheldrake/
There are no longer any specific points to answer. I am all in favour of debate, but it is not possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”
I would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. This could take place online, or on Skype. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.
Therefore I ask Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself.
This puts the ball firmly in TED’s court. Will they take up the gauntlet? Many doubt they will, while still hoping that they do. There is a petition asking TED to reinstate Sheldrake’s talk and a similar one for Hancock’s talk.
Certainly, the way TED handled this removal has been accepted as unfortunate, by both sides. TED is not a monolith, and the TEDx community, which are independent licensees, are not in unison with the decision, as Stephen Collins, a TEDx Organizer Associate points out:
… the TED attendee and TEDx organiser community is pretty broad. Not everyone within it is happy with this decision, and I certainly believe it could have been handled MUCH better. My hope is that TED learn from it.
There’s a number of private forums where TED attendees and TEDx organisers speak directly to TED (though no less directly than here, just on a smaller scale). Let me assure you, there’s plenty of upset and a diversity of views in those as well.
Matthew Clapp summed up the somewhat odd jumping around that happened with the following:
The debate started on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO4-9l8IWFQ). Those comments disappeared when the video was removed. Then the debate moved to a page that Emily McManus created (http://t.co/NvnpqcG5rZ). The conversation then moved to the “Open for discussion: Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake from TEDxWhitechapel” page on ted.com (http://bit.ly/1192f3p). Then, moved to the “Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, a fresh take” page (http://bit.ly/YPXCeq). Now, we are on yet another page.
There have been at least 2,000 comments on this topic so far despite this. Really thoughtful dialogue is now spread out across multiple pages (some no longer accessible). Now, Shedrake’s response is on a different page. There didn’t need to be yet another page for debate. The debate is documented in the previous 2,000 + comments. Each fork in the road is diluting the discussion, not enhancing it.
I feel too much of the discussion has centered around whether this action of TEDs constitutes censorship or not, with many people upset by the decision calling it so, and a few on the other side questioning this. Taken as a whole, Chris Anderson’s participation has been thus occupied. While I understand and share the emotion behind the censorship “battle cry”, to my mind it does little to further anyone’s interests. It only makes the TED staff, and others who agree with the rejection, more defensive. It pushes them away, rather than engaging them, and like fatty foods, even if there is nothing technically unhealthy about fat, or cries of censorship, by indulging in them we replace more nutritious calories. Rather than spending so much energy on a semantical argument, I would rather have seen more substantive fare early in the discussion. Nonetheless, there have been many deeply thoughtful contributions, which I’d like to reproduce here, as ideas worth spreading, starting with a letter from the organizers of TEDx Whitechapel, where these two talks took place:Amrita Bhohi
***OPEN LETTER FROM TEDxWHITECHAPEL TEAM*** Please join our call to TED to take the best course of action for all.
Dear Chris, Lara, and the TED team
We, the TEDxWhitechapel team - the initiators and co-curators of the event - have deeply reflected on your actions to remove the talks of two of our speakers Rupert Sheldrake and Graham’s Hancock from the official TEDx Youtube channel. We wish to clearly and openly express our views on the matter with the intention of constructively contributing to the discussion as well as to highlight potential pathways for moving forward which are mutually beneficial to all parties involved; our speakers, the TED corporation, and the TED community.
We want to begin by sharing what TED means to us.
We have been genuinely transformed through many of the inspiring TEDTalks; they have profoundly challenged our perceptions of and assumptions about the world, opening us up to new perspectives outside of the established mainstream thinking. Moreover, we really believe TED to be an ingenious medium to spread ideas across the globe. As such, TED represents the free and open flow and exchange of ideas globally, enriching and empowering an increasingly connected global community.
And it is with this passion that we decided to host a TEDx event with the theme “Visions for Transition: Challenging Existing Paradigms and Redefining Values (for a more beautiful world)’. We believe that in order to deal with the diverse and complex crises converging on our planet, we need to challenge the dominant thought paradigms and radically reassess the values which govern our world. In line with Einsteins wisdom “problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them” we saw TED as a truly special platform.
You can understand therefore, how shocked and saddened we were when we were alerted to the news that you had decided to remove Graham and Rupert’s talk from the TEDx Youtube channel and furthermore the disrespectful way in which they were treated publicly on the TED blog where you moved them.
We would like to offer our insights to you, as to why we chose to invite these speakers. We were guided by the advice that TED gives for identifying great speakers, which was as follows.
To build a powerful speaker program, seek out extraordinary voices in your local community who have a unique story or an unusual perspective — and who can convey it in a dynamic way.
Local voices that few have heard before
People who can present their field in a new light
Perspectives that the global TED community may not have access to
Speakers whose work fits your event theme
Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world.
We find that Rupert and Graham meet this criteria extremely well. Please also note that Rupert Sheldrake addressed his concerns to us that in the 18 minute format, he would not be able to give a comprehensive explanation of the complex and extensive research and ideas explored in his book. To quote from our response to him, “TED is not supposed to be a source of knowledge, but one of ideas and creativity, which inspire and stimulate to further engage with them.”
Naturally, we don’t expect TED to agree with the content of the talks, nor are we suggesting that they represent the ‘truth’. We think science offers us a kind of lens with which to view an unfathomably complex world. These speakers challenge the mainstream scientifically accepted viewpoints and this is exactly where their value lies. TED is a platform where these different points of view can be shared, debated and challenged so that we can collectively keep evolving and developing in our understanding.
In fact, in light of this situation, we are now even stronger in our conviction that these are valuable ideas that need to be discussed and debated widely. The massive response from the TED community and the conversations which this has sparked, tells us that there is much interest in these ideas and therefore that they are highly valuable to the science debate. Indeed, if they were so totally radical and ridiculous as you suggest they are, it leads us to wonder why they have they been worthy of so much attention? Both talks have simultaneously been supported and challenged, which for us reflects a model of how the progression of scientific understanding develops and flows.
Therefore, we do not support your actions to put the talks on separate blogs where they are hidden from the TED community, cannot be shared, and where the conversation is limited. We also oppose the lack of integrity with which they have been treated. In particular, It is obvious that the content of many of the other existing TEDtalks would not hold up to scrutiny were the same criteria applied to them. Furthermore, we hope that you would grant your community the respect to use their own faculties of discretion and reasoning with regard to the ideas and content of the talks.
As such, we request and urge you to re-upload the talks not only to the TEDx youtube channel, but also on the official TED.com site, including links to the discussions taking place on the TED blog. We also see this as a vital opportunity for TED to enhance their reputation as a forum for the free flow and sharing of ideas and open debate and an opportunity to win back the trust which may have been lost.
We think the controversy over these talks is a wonderful opportunity for TED to clarify and strengthen it’s commitment to free thought, especially in the face of pressure from highly committed ideological interests from the blogosphere. Otherwise, we fear that TED will take a lot of criticism for censorship. Several of the other speakers, even if they don’t fully agree with Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s positions, are quite upset that their videos were removed. At our urging, they have been holding back from going public, waiting to see how this plays out. It would be a shame if this ends up causing negative publicity.
We hope that you will consider this as an opportunity to become a resilient and remarkable organisation: one that has the capacity to be self-reflective, self-critical, adapt to change, evolve and grow with its communities and the challenges it faces. Most of all, that you can stay true to your values as a democratic and open platform for ideas worth spreading.
It seems to us that enhancing Radical Openness by accepting our invitation to reinstate the talks publicly online, is an outcome that can benefit all parties involved.
We appreciate your time to consider our message.
With hope for a positive outcome for all
Amrita, Stefana, Jennifer
And here are a few of the more poignant, top rated comments that I feel are well argued and representative of what many have said:Daniel Schulman
Matthew ClappIt is incumbent upon TED, if it is not pretense but actually truly does stand for what it claims to stand for - to take Dr. Sheldrake up on this offer - to sponsor, organise and hold a proper debate/discussion between Dr. Sheldrake and his (anonymous) detractors. That would be the ultimate rectification of this debacle and the highest service to the movement of ideas in culture. Running from it would reveal TED to clearly be something entirely other than that which it claims to be. I am on the edge of my seat and keenly excited. Lets get on with it!
I’m sure many of you have seen the newly posted “letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science” (http://bit.ly/14dbyE0). Good science is defined by TED as essentially respectability and academic conformity. This would ban most parapsychology and alternative medical research at a stroke. This criteria would also have disqualified Albert Einstein, who in his great creative year of 1905 was working as a patent clerk in Zurich and his work would have failed these tests:
It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field
It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy
Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation
It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge
The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a PhD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification
This is hard to believe, really. It’s the opposite the free market of ideas. In business, capital markets are based on innovation and radically different thinking - in fact, it’s always the new, new thing that pushes the market forward. What TED has outlined is not a recipe for innovative thinking - this is a recipe for dogma and status quo. Playing it safe does not work for long in business and I doubt it will work out well here either.
I’ve been a big TED fan since the Wurman days. This whole chain of event and the reaction by TED leadership has left me completely baffled.
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think either of the videos in question are particularly scientific in nature, they are largely philosophical and subjective, but anyway- TED’s “letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science” and the guidelines contained therein are, I think, dangerously dependent on the idea that the mainstream of science is the most valuable science.
It IS important to recognise that mainstream science largely is where reliable, trustworthy, and useful science can be found. The mainstream can be thought of as the resting point where ideas go to once they are accepted and their uses are well established (and where they often remain past their use by date, it must be said). However, much of what is now well accepted - Einstein’s theories; our most basic astronomical understandings; the existence and dangers of bacteria and viruses; evolution - began not in the mainstream, but in the tributaries, far out and visibly separate from the mainstream.
Many of those who are used to the mainstream, ideologically dependent on it, or some way have a vested interest in it, are resistant to ideas in the tributaries. This has always been the case, and it only makes sense. We can only be so open minded, and it takes time and effort to maintain awareness of what is going on on the fringe so as to be able to judge fairly the worth of different things going on there. It’s hard to maintain that effort if you’re heavily vested in what’s going in the mainstream - say if you’re trying for tenure with some mainstream institution, or you’re relied upon as a source of reliable, mainstream knowledge.
This situation isn’t surprising, but I think that it causes a great deal of conflict, and it holds us back. Our most progressive, pioneering individuals are alienated in this situation. I am sure that many of them simply give up, or lack the support they need to really develop their ideas.
I think that TED’s policy is likely to perpetuate this situation.
I have been trying to understand why, for two days, I have been feeling angry with TED, and why the new pages/separate discussions/endless attempts to debate the issues have made me feel more irritated, rather than less. Superficially, it seems that TED are trying to make things better by moving the debate to cover whether or not Mr Sheldrake’s material was worth spreading. This would not be a problem, if it wasn’t so obviously a ploy to cover the shortcomings of TED’s policy. Suddenly we are not talking about TED anymore; we have left it behind, nothing changed and nothing answered.
We learn TED refers to an anonymous board of scientific advisors. This causes me great concern, because in supposed careful refutation of Mr Sheldrake’s talk, a link was offered on the TED page to a frankly terrible piece of writing, sneering of tone, with words like ‘crackpot’ being thrown around. It wasn’t even as though the link went to the primary source of information - TED took me to an angry man’s blog ! What worries me is that TED cited this as a careful rebuttal. This makes me deeply doubt TED’s scholarly credentials.
If TED does not know the difference between a primary and a secondary source of information, how can I trust TED’s panel of experts to know what they are talking about, let alone make judgments as to what information I should and should not be able to access? How do I know that this bizarre piece wasn’t in fact written by a member of the TED panel? This board should not be anonymous, we need to know who its members are, because they may have agendas. Most humans do; I don’t resent this, but neither do I want it affecting my ability to connect with information and decide for myself. Ironically, the material which was once too dubious for TED’s approval seems perfectly fit when used as a smokescreen.
I am very touched by the recent events around Rupert Sheldrake. I think his stance is widely and unjustly misrepresented by a particular camp of critics. These critics attempt to frame Sheldrake’s activities as if he was against modern science. This is not so.
In my opinion, this happens not because of a careful consideration of Sheldrake’s work but due to political reasons (i.e. human beings are political creatures): A group of people who share a specific worldview and read a specific corpus of texts seems to want to protect their right to monologically claim what science “is” and what science “isn’t,” often refusing to have a polite and reasonable discussion.
What Sheldrake does, however, is something different than undermining science and the grand scientific project of humanity. Sheldrake himself is a scientist; and he has always been. I believe his intentions are to expand science, to add more curiosity to it, to dissolve some of the obstacles inherent to contemporary scientific praxis.
You see, we most often think of science as a flatland phenomenon (especially if we are outsiders to science): There is one science, there is one consensus in science, and our immediate perception reflects the world of science in a correct way (reflection paradigm).
However, the relatively recent emergence of post-metaphysical philosophy represented by Jurgen Habermas (who grounds much of his arguments in the work of Lawrence Kohlberg on the stages of moral development) and constructivist developmental schools of thought and psychology (Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, etc.) carefully points out that there are hierarchies of complexity of thinking about reality, and that the leading-edge perspective today is the one that involves grasping that both the cognizing subject and the cognized objects arise in a vast interconnection and both of them follow stages of development (from a lesser complexity to a higher complexity).
Unfortunately, TED still seems to be unable to let go of its preconceived notions of what Sheldrake said by, for example, talking of his “radical … claim that the speed of light has been changing”. He didn’t say it had been changing, at least not during the timescales during which measurement has been taking place, and not on account of the data observed. He merely made the observation that the data itself had been changing and that this was explained away without much investigation and without even the curiosity to examine the data in detail to see if any interesting trends could be observed. A further point was about the extent to which the measurements themselves seem to have clustered at various times and he wondered aloud about what, if anything, the explanation of “intellectual phase locking” might tell us about the veracity of data in general.
His point, then, was far more about the scientific process and the mindset that guides it than it was about any actual deviation in the speed of light during the time measurement has been taking place. It does not auger well for this discussion that this fairly straightforward point, which has been made numerous times on the various discussion forums, has been completely ignored and the critic’s false view of what Sheldrake was saying is presented up front as fact.
I should also point out that the community has spoken, and spoken clearly, on at least two occasions about this talk. They want it to stay, and they want it to stay by a ratio of, as best I can gather, more than 10 to 1. It seems as if you’re just going to keep asking the same question over and over until nobody can be bothered posting anymore. What more can we say? The general points are:
1. The talk is primarily philosophy of science.
2. We don’t buy the perceived errors/factual inaccuracies and believe these are a function of an inaccurate view of the talk.
3. Even if we did buy the potential legitimacy of the complaints, Sheldrake has refuted you.
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