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Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, a fresh take

Posted by: Tedstaff

We’ve been reviewing the response this past weekend to our decision to move two TEDx talks off the TEDx YouTube channel and over here onto the main TED Blog. We’d like to recap here what happened and suggest a way forward.

UPDATE: To discuss the talks, view them here:

The debate about Rupert Sheldrake’s talk
The debate about Graham Hancock’s talk

Four years ago, TED began an experiment in which we granted free licenses to people who wanted to organize their own local events in which ideas could be exchanged, with talks captured on film and uploaded to YouTube. These events use the brand name TEDx, where x stands for “self-organized.” Organizers pledge to work within a set of rules, but then they have freedom to run the event themselves. Speakers are invited without our pre-approval. Requests to hold TEDx events poured in from all over the world, and to date, more than 5,000 have been held, with around 8 more every day. There’s been TEDxBoston, TEDxAmsterdam, TEDxBaghdad, TEDxKabul, TEDxSoweto, and so forth, a thrilling explosion of idea sharing that has spawned more than 25,000 recorded talks on YouTube (uploaded there by the organizers themselves, without our prescreening). We have selected more than 200 TEDx talks to appear on ourmain TED.com homepage, where they have attracted millions of views. This growth is made possible by our deliberately open approach.

The obvious question is “how do you ensure the quality of these events”?

Our approach is to empower organizers to achieve greatness, by providing detailed guidelines – and guidance – on what works and what doesn’t. And we’re constantly amazed at how good most of these events are. But we also count on the community to help when things go wrong. Occasionally a TEDx event will include a speaker who causes controversy or upset. When that happens, someone in the community will flag the talk, and we have to decide how to respond.

One option would be to have an “anything goes” policy. We could just say that these events are the responsibility of the local organizer and wash our hands of it. The problem with that stance is that we would soon find the TEDx brand and platform being hijacked by those with dangerous or fringe ideas. And eventually credible speakers would not want to be associated with it. TED’s mission is not “any old idea” but “ideas worth spreading.” We’ve taken a deliberately broad interpretation of that phrase, but it still has to mean something.

The hardest line to draw is science versus pseudoscience. TED is committed to science. But we think of it as a process, not as a locked-in body of truth. The scientific method is a means of advancing understanding. Of asking for evidence. Of testing ideas to see which stack up and which should be abandoned. Over time that process has led to a rich understanding of the world, but one that is constantly being refined and upgraded. There’s a sense in which all scientific truth is provisional, and open to revision if new facts arise. And that is why it’s often hard to make a judgement on what is a valuable contribution to science, and what is misleading, or worthless.

Some speakers use the language of science to promote views that are simply incompatible with all reasonable understanding of the world. Giving them a platform is counterproductive. But there are also instances where scientific assumptions get turned upside down. How do we separate between these two? We have done two things as a tentative answer to this question:

- we’ve issued a set of guidelines to TEDx organizers.

- and we’ve appointed a board of scientific advisers. They are (deliberately) anonymous, for obvious reasons, but they are respected working scientists, and writers about science, from a range of fields, with no brief other than to help us make these judgements. If a talk gets flagged they will advise on whether we should act or not.

When Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks were flagged, the majority of the board recommended we remove them from circulation, pointing out questionable suggestions and arguments in both talks. But there was a counter view that removing talks that had already been posted would lead to accusations of censorship. It’s also the case that both speakers explicitly take on mainstream scientific opinion. This gives them a stronger reason to be listened to than those who simply use scientific sounding language to make nonsensical claims. So we decided we would not remove the talks from the web altogether, but simply transfer them to our own site where they could be framed in a way which included the critique of our board, but still allow for an open conversation about them.

What happened next was unfortunate. We wrote to the TEDx organizer indicating our intention and asking her to take the talks off Youtube so that we could repost. She informed the speakers of what was coming, but somehow the part about the talks staying online got lost in translation. Graham Hancock put out an immediate alert that he was about to be “censored”, his army of passionate supporters deluged us with outraged messages, and we then felt compelled to accelerate our blog post and used language that in retrospect was clumsy. We suggested that we were flagging the talks because of “factual errors” but some of the specific examples we gave were less than convincing. Instead of the thoughtful conversation we had hoped for, we stirred up angry responses from the speakers and their supporters.

We would like to try again.

We plan to repost both talks in individual posts on our blog tomorrow, Tuesday; note a couple of areas where scientists or the community have raised questions or concerns about the talks; and invite a reasoned discussion from the community. And there will be a simple rule regarding responses. Reason only. No insults, no intemperate language. From either side. Comments that violate this will be removed. The goal here is to have an open conversation about:

- the line between science and pseudoscience

- how far TED and TEDx should go in giving exposure to unorthodox ideas

We will use the reasoned comments in this conversation to help frame both our guidelines going forward, and our process for managing talks that are called into question.

Both Sheldrake and Hancock are compelling speakers, and some of the questions they raise are absolutely worth raising. For example, most thoughtful scientists and philosophers of science will agree it’s true that science has not moved very far yet in solving the riddle of consciousness. But the specific answers to that riddle proposed by Sheldrake and Hancock are so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking that we think it’s right for us to give these talks a clear health warning and to ask further questions of the speakers. TED and TEDx are brands that are trusted in schools and in homes. We don’t want to hear from a parent whose kid went off to South America to drink ayahuasca because TED said it was OK. But we do think a calmer, reasoned conversation around these talks would be interesting, if only to help us define how far you can push an idea before it is no longer “worth spreading.”