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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.”

Comments (418)

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  • Linda Reneau commented on Apr 5 2014

    These 10 basic assumptions of mainstream science need not fear scrutiny if they are correct. It is always good to question basic assumptions—in true science, it is essential. And there is evidence for the nonlocality of intelligence, or mind. The brain may be merely a focusing device for consciousness. I understand this is a very emotional topic to many scientists. But emotion should not cloud exploration. A great many well-respected scientists already promote the study of consciousness in this regard. Every assumption he brings up is a valid area of study and if new discoveries are actually made and verified, it could transform human evolution. Perhaps we are not fragmented, purposeless bits of chemicals. Why would it be so bad to discover life is more than that?

  • Serge Patlavskiy commented on Jan 10 2014

    “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…”

    This is strange. The case is that comprehensive paradigm in the field of consciousness studies is not established yet. I mean that there is nothing like “mainstream scientific thinking” in that field. Yes, we already have several versions of the theory of consciousness constructed, but to talk about a comprehensive version, we have yet to solve the problem of intersubjectivity.

    • commented on Jan 12 2014

      Yes “mainstream scientific thinking” is like four old men peeing at the same time in one pot.

      • Linda Reneau commented on Apr 5 2014

        Not so radical if you get caught up on the leading edge of physics. Psychology and medicine are based on Newtonian physics, which is a subset of a much bigger universe. Hey, we’ve only had real science for a few hundred years. Like Planck said, science progresses not because new facts are discovered but because the old scientists die and young ones familiar with new ideas take their place. There are a lot of young people out there familiar with the new ideas. It’s time.

  • John Ha commented on Dec 28 2013

    I just came across the talk by Graham Hancock. His ideas are certainly unorthodox. But isn’t that what TED is all about? If TED was trying to protect kids from dangerous ideas, then you might as well remove the talks about rock climbing, BASE jumping, hacking and card skimming. Which advisory board does TED need to consult to get those videos removed from Youtube?

  • Jose Castro commented on Sep 20 2013

    Dear Tedstaff:

    You have stated: “and we’ve appointed a board of scientific advisers. They are (deliberately) anonymous, for obvious reasons”. What are those obvious reasons? They don’t seem so obvious to me, rather the opposite.

    And also: “We would like to try again.” So do it! Where are your arguments?

    Whoever you are.

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  • Dorota Poma commented on Aug 2 2013

    I like Sheldrake and his way of thinking, he is smart, innovative and engaging. he is a free and reflective thinker. (Can’t say the same about R Dawkins whose ideas seem to be promoted by TED with a lot of vigour, and who just takes an easy target of religious fundamentalism as an excuse to bitch about people and talk about himself. BORING!. )

    I am not religious and I have a PhD in science, I do believe in the method and evidence. But I also believe in self-reflectivity and knowing our limitations; if a scientist can’t reflect on his or her own practices, there are as good as a fundamentalist anything. Sheldrake is not the only one that talks about it. But science became more holy that religion today – it has become religion-like philosophy wherein we are to believe and not question, Funny that! And self appointed ‘eminent’ scientist are like high priests, holding all the power. Very amusing indeed!

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  • LJ Ponti commented on Jul 29 2013

    Thank you, WoutH 7/29!
    While I don’t have a science background I do recognize scientism and balk at it’s claim to supremacy most especially in areas of cosmology and consciousness. Rupert Sheldrake is a respected and distinguished scientist and thinker. Isn’t it just a little absurd to expect anything but foreward thinking, radical concepts, the potential of which makes more than some uncomfortable? I believe TEDx was extremely short-sighted in any attempt to ‘manage’ the situation. They disgraced themselves and their mission statement.

    I don’t smoke cannabis or drink Ayahuasca. Perhaps if I did, I’d better be able to grasp the thought of these two thinkers. Perhaps if I did, it would become obvious that the entire edifice of modern science and thought is nothing more than an egoistic knee-jerk that leads life, cultures and the world away from well-being and towards psychosis. Perhaps if I did, I wouldn’t find it necessary to write this. It is something I’ll consider, but not because I’ve been exposed to this thought, but because these thoughts exist and from time to time are my own…thanks to morphic resonance.

  • Wout H commented on Jul 29 2013

    What a painful episode in Ted history. Those talks should have never been removed in the first place. In my interpretation this is against everything Ted stands for: an open mind, freethinking and a curiosity for dangerous ideas. It’s not because you dont agree with Hancock or Sheldrake (I’m not sure if I agree with one of both talks), that’s a good reason to remove those talks to a dark alley somewhere on this website.

    It’s a disappointment to discover how powerful the ideology of the Brand value is at Ted, because that’s what Ted is afraid of. (oh no bad press, we have sponsors to please!) Having a discussion about the scientific value of Hancock and Sheldrakes talks could be an interesting exercise, but has nothing to do with the question of censorship. There it is pure to mask the embarrassing mistake. If you really want to have an open discussion about this, then the talks should be back on youtube.

    I can not talk about the Hancock video, I haven’t seen it. But as a researcher with a PhD in philosophy of science, I can tell that Rubert Sheldrake has done important contributions to the way we deal with science. Even if you dont agree with what he says (and I dont agree with him), you must admit that he’s an influential philosopher/scientist. I’m afraid that when time will pass, this event will be a big mistake and will bring embarrassment over the otherwise beautiful things Ted has done the last years.

  • James Lightfoot commented on Jul 22 2013

    “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.”

    What even if it IS okay? Do you want parents prejudices to hold back scientific exploration? This statement to me is worse than the other censorship and is indicative of the prejudiced social paradigm that workers in the area of consciousness have had to put up with since the demonisation of altered states in the 60s.

  • Jolanta Şahin commented on Jun 26 2013

    I am very satisfied with your judgement. I want you to go on like this.

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  • Jeremy Gagon commented on Jun 1 2013

    I think TED should post a specific list of the “factual errors” or “pseudoscience” so we can all be clear on what ruffled the feathers of the scientific advisory board.

    Which big lobby was uncomfortably singled out? Drug companies? War profiteers? Neurologists? Soybean farmers?

    This is the most ridiculous and unnecessary case of censorship in a supposedly open forum of ideas. For this reason, I will no longer watch Ted talks.

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