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 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)

  • Reece Sullivan commented on Apr 9 2013

    I had never heard of TED till this ordeal . . . And I’ve been a long time admirer of Sheldrake, so I came here to check out what was going on. And regardless of anything else, I will say that some of the dialogue here is drastically more civil and intelligent than I normally see. What a pleasant surprise . . .

  • Riley Holland commented on Apr 8 2013

    Sheldrake’s talk and his official response reflect a dignified intellectual poise that he’s carried on for decades, ever since Nature magazine called his first book fit for burning in 1981.

    What’s particularly embarrassing for TED is that Sheldrake’s talk explains the exact mechanisms of TED’s reaction.

    It must be sad for everyone involved in TED to see it revealed for the pop-science status quo intellectual bumper lane that it is.

    Maybe a few more TED talks on orgasms or motivational half-time speeches about “changing the world” will keep you relevant for a little while longer with young people who don’t know better yet. But from now on, I’m going to get my frivolous and diversional idea-themed entertainment elsewhere.

  • Jeanmarie Todd commented on Apr 7 2013

    TED has lost all credibility with me. Stop sequestering the Hancock and Sheldrake talks. Stop hiding behind the bogus secret scientific panel. Stop compounding your bad decisions and ‘fess up: you screwed up.

  • Jeanmarie Todd commented on Apr 7 2013

    The TED organization has severely tarnished the once-positive reputation of the TED brand with the cowardly, shady tactics taken in response to complaints by PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne about TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock. Science isn’t a set of dogmas, it is a method of inquiry. Your behavior and that of the still-secret science board of advisors have proven Sheldrake’s points so beautifully. Fortunately, your ham-handed tactics have utterly backfired and this controversy has surely given greater publicity to the important ideas of these two original thinkers. I have less time for TED now.

  • Jim Cornell commented on Apr 2 2013

    “[R]adical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking,” you write of Sheldrake and Hancock. So were almost every groundbreaking scientist who ever lived.

    The sad fact is that, whatever their self-promotional propaganda, scientists are as human as the rest of us. To challenge the status quo is to risk not just ostracism but ridicule.

    I don’t know anything about Hancock, but I’ve listened to a number of lectures by Sheldrake and the concept that he is somehow not committed to the scientific method is absurd. As he, or perhaps Dean Radin, have pointed out, scientists who hold beliefs about an INFINITE(?) multi-verse or that matter/energy invisible to our exquisitely sensitive instruments comprise over 90%(!) of our visible universe (otherwise, ohmigod, the pope–i.e. Einstein–was fallible) hold distinguished professorships. Whereas they are judged somehow lacking by an anoynymous science board.

    TED, of all organizations, you should be wary of bowing to the dogmatic dictates of the currently reigning high priests of science you’ve apparently appointed to your board (and, yes, science has become not unlike a religion and reductionism is its most intolerant sect).

  • Dennis Kautz commented on Apr 2 2013

    Solely because both Sheldrake and Hancock question mainstream science and point out how politics and indoctrination can skew progress in science is why they were flagged and removed by the anonymous panel.

    Some think that because anonymous panels are protected from accusations of bias that it infers protection of bias. In reality, anonymous panels protect their bias being free of ridicule.

    What irks me most is that TED and their anonymous panel can allow former president Gore the stage and intentionally cherry pick data and present it as “scientific proof” and then to go and label both Sheldrake and Hancock as dabbling in “pseudoscience” and discredit them is hypocritical.

    Graham Hancock does not pose that his studies of psychedelics are scientific proof of anything. Rather, he brings forth educated ideas and asks the viewer to think outside the box like much of the speakers on TED do.

    Rupert Sheldrake offers scientific data to question the validity of the theory that certain “constants” in physics are constant (i.e., speed of light, G). The data he uses are from mainstream scientific measurements.

    Both speakers are adversaries to the status quo. Which is to say that we know just about everything already. No need to go back and question scientific dogma.

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  • Marjorie Harris commented on Mar 29 2013

    The comment that ayahuasca would ‘talk’ to you during the experience and perhaps for days, weeks or maybe months afterward brought to mind ‘left hand syndrome’. The condition where something happens to the corpus callosum – that membrane that separates the brains hemispheres – and information between the hemispheres is altered. Some persons have had the effect of not knowing what their left hand is doing. It seems likely that the talking is coming ones’ own brain and perhaps it is the other half, the other hemisphere giving it’s two cents worth when it has a chance.

  • Don Wesley commented on Mar 28 2013

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    I offer the following new science publication.
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  • Fred White commented on Mar 26 2013

    I have read all the comments & watched the 2 talks, & I am very familiar with Hancock & Sheldrake & what they have to offer us at this juncture in our evolution. Fascinating how TED can take Sheldrake’s talk, which is offering us the exact opposite of pseudoscience in that he very clearly lists & illustrates the ways in which contemporary scientists make unfounded assumptions, and turn it completely around! Lies of misrepresentation & defamation of the speakers? Attempts to manipulate TED viewers & the public? TED, there is nothing you could have done to more clearly demonstrate phoniness & dishonor. Interestingly enough, I would be willing to bet that Sheldrake saw this all coming. He has faced this type of ignorance his entire career.

    With regard to how far TED or TEDx should go in giving exposure to unorthodox ideas? I don’t believe this question is even pertinent to these 2 talks. Anyone interested in what TED has had to offer over the years would very much want to hear these talks. There is no need for restricting access to their content and intention. The only people who would not want to have access to these talks on TED are those who experience & are trapped in aversions to their content, i.e. people who are brainwashed with their own materialistic dogma. For anyone at TED who can think clearly, this all must be VERY embarrassing.

    • Caleb Grayson commented on Mar 26 2013

      This whole discussion is founded on a fallacious premis.
      Have you stopped beating your handcock sheldrakes?!

  • Dan Steinberg commented on Mar 26 2013

    TED did the right thing by re-posting these talks. An end to the “war on consciousness” is long overdue. Visionary medicines have been used by humans to great benefit for ages. The fact they are criminalized today is stupid and destructive.

  • Croydon Kemp commented on Mar 26 2013

    “dangerous or fringe ideas” All ideas are dangerous as they may affect change. The choice lies in the hands of the populous not TED. When TED decides to censor or limit the scope of it’s discussions it limits the choice of it’s viewer base. In doing so it does not provide a credible base for discussion or choice. Wake up TED and smell the truth.

  • Jim Ryan commented on Mar 25 2013

    Mr. Hancock has placed himself and Ted in an untenable position, by what he says in his video. I personally liked his talk. However, what are the things that you heard, that create the untenable problems? I would think Mr. Hancock should know.

  • commented on Mar 24 2013

    I see no reason why these talks have to framed in a special wrapper. Both speakers have published several books with some measure of integrity. Certainly their talks could be left on Youtube and perhaps the comments disabled. TED has indirectly given these speakers and their ideal more exposure and rightly so.

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  • Mishra Suloway commented on Mar 22 2013

    TED says: “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”

    I thought TED was a stage for presentation of interesting or new stuff.
    I didn’t think TED was an arbiter of science/pseudoscience or orthodox/unorthodox.
    I assume, and I hope, there are scores of controversial statements that have been calmly and sincerely presented at TED. Why were Sheldrake and Hancock singled out?
    This whole thing stinks and is very disappointing.

    S Mishra Suloway

  • Christopher Rodriguez commented on Mar 22 2013

    TEDx is a great platform and a brilliant project, but it was very irresponsible to have the brand TED attached if all of these talks were supposedly not being monitored. So the abrupt removal of these two gentlemans talks could definitely be seen as censorship. It vindicates both of their claims that their topics are only pseudosciences because of the dogmas we hold and the restrictions on our our consciousness. The scientific method on exploring our conscious is repressed, but it can and should be open to study. I think these topics are unfairly mislabeled, and using a parent who’s kid might hypothetically travel to Brasil to try an illegal drug as an example is naive. TED viewers are much smarter than what you are painting them out to be. If we want the scientific method to reach out to topics you’re not comfortable with, just tell us why they’re being censored, instead of going into a failed damage control.