TED under fire for pseudoscience AGAIN (UPDATE)

Back in December, TED, the premier web site for “ideas worth spreading”, took some lumps because the ideas they were spreading were pseudoscientific nonsense. They did something about it. So they said…  TED directors take a stand against pseudoscience.

But things have not improved so much. They are currently under fire again for having Rupert Sheldrake as a featured speaker at another TEDx event.

Let’s hear what’s wrong this time:

TEDx talks completely discredited: Rupert Sheldrake speaks, argues that speed of light is dropping! « Why Evolution Is True.

It’s all on view in this dreadful talk: antimaterialism, the narrow dogmatism of scientists, his view that inanimate things have consciousness, and his most bizarre idea: “morphic resonance,” a quasi-Jungian view that all members of a species share in a collective memory, so if you train a rat in Chicago it will make rats in Tokyo more trainable. The talk is obviously meant to flog his new book The Science Delusion, which I won’t link to.

TED editors again, to their credit, have responded.

Rupert Sheldrake’s TEDx talk: Detailing the issues | A conversation on TED.com.

While TED does not vet speakers at independent TEDx events, a TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific, and that includes misrepresenting the scientific process itself.

Sheldrake is on that line, to some commenters around Twitter and the web. His talk describes a vision of science made up of hard, unexamined constants. It’s a philosophical talk that raises general questions about how we view science, and what role we expect it to play.


They have opened a forum with particular aspects to discuss, namely his philosophy (he is grim about science, possibly because the scientific community has not been accepting of his ideas) and factual errors (which some have claimed he makes). Sheldrake is a darling of the pseudo-skeptics, those that are skeptical of science and anything that sounds “establishment”. Should his ideas be showcased? Probably not because they aren’t accepted as any good. Have your say about the quality of TED. This is just another step in their quickly degrading reputation. That’s too bad.

Sheldrake’s morphic resonance – The Skeptic’s Dictionary – Skepdic.com.

UPDATE (13-Mar-2013): The talks have been removed from the main TED page – both Sheldrake’s and Graham Hancock – but they are still available for viewing.

After due diligence, including a survey of published scientific research and recommendations from our Science Board and our community, we have decided that Graham Hancock’s and Rupert Sheldrake’s talks from TEDxWhiteChapel should be removed from distribution on the TEDx YouTube channel.

Both talks have been flagged as containing serious factual errors that undermine TED’s commitment to good science. The critiques of these talks need much clearer highlighting.

This did not go over well with many including Richard Wiseman and Stuart Richie.


UPDATE (16-Mar-2013): Graham Hancock has an open letter to the TED organizers. I believe he makes a valid point regarding the allegations that his reputation is hurt by this. I’m not a fan of having bad ideas given a platform such as this but I don’t agree that TED handled this correctly at all. They need to decide what exactly they are promoting with their forums and stick to some protocols they set to decide on speakers. Perhaps they should just have let these talks go and if they feel this is a problem, then fix it at the root, not cut it off at the tips.

Addition: Kylie wrote up a rundown of Sheldrake’s claims here.

  13 comments for “TED under fire for pseudoscience AGAIN (UPDATE)

  1. DrJen
    March 12, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    Jeff said that Randi got flack for the homeopathy-is-useless part of his TED presentation. I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater–I’ve seen a lot of excellent TED talks–but I try to keep my critical thinking cap on when watching them.

  2. Chris Jensen Romer
    March 12, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    I wrote a very long reply, covering Sheldrake’s past career and the reactions to it, but it seems to have been eaten. Suffice to say that while i am not a fan, I think he is an important figure in popularising questions that have long been asked by philosophers of Science, and I think the “Why Evolution is True” headline suggests at least a degree of scientific illiteracy (or inability to use Google) in the writer if they are not aware of the long history of VSL hypotheses and that Sheldrake’s speculations are from as crazy as implied – just look at Variable Speed of Light on wikipedia, or search for “declining speed of light” on any database, or go look it up on arXiv. The suggestion this is disreputable is just nonsense: may well , from the little I know probably is, wrong, but not like astrophysicists do not discuss it regularly enough.

  3. March 12, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    TED used to be so good when it started. Now it it’s no longer worth following. Who on earth thinks that listening to Sheldrake’s musings is worth a moment?

  4. idoubtit
    March 12, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    Lots of paranormal people really LOVE him. He sounds sciencey.

  5. Chris Jensen Romer
    March 12, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    He isn’t sciencey – he is by the Popperian definition of Science most sceptics employ doing science. Look at his best book, indeed the only one I could ever finish – and actually I have not finished it cos I mislaid it – Seven Experimets That Could Change The World (2002). He proposes alternative hypotheses, shows how the current hypothesis is underdetermined and proposes criteria to falsify them by experiment. There is nothing remotely unscientific about this? I have followed the Jaytee “psychic dog” matter from almost the beginning, and have spoken in person or by email to most people involved, barring Sheldrake who I have never met or even seen speak. I have actually prepared a bibliography on the subject of the “psychic dog” controversy which I will happily link to if anyone interested, so you can read all the papers and articles and look at the experimental data in order.

    What most Skeptics don’t realise is that Wiseman never claimed Sheldrake’s paper was wrong – he claimed the dog failed to meet his experiment, by the criteria agreed – nothing more, nothing less. I actually think the psychic dog affair is a wonderful way to teach how important seemingly extraneous factors are to science – because both sides can perfectly legitimately claim that the statistics and experiments with Jaytee support their position (dog is psychic/dog not psychic) depending on how you look at the results. I don’t think Dr Matthew Smith would disagree with this — Sheldrake and Wiseman may or may not. However, idiosyncratic as testing dogs for psychic ability may be, it is a perfectly scientific endeavour, and if you read Sheldrake’s paper it is perfectly scientific – he had after all published extensively in Nature and other prestigious journals in biochemistry and biology before he took up his morphogenc fields or whatever he calls them,

  6. March 12, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    Talks like these do indeed hurt TED reputation, but most complaints have been about TEDx talks, which are indepentdently organised. Anyone can get the license and hold a TEDxWhatever.

    But they are the first to do this experiment of letting others hold events using their branding. Naturally, it has its growing pains as more groups start holding their own TEDx events.

    So as far as TED’s reputation, yes people are associating these indie events with the TED brand (the purpose of the license), but just the fact that a huge org like TED would try this is something innovative.

    I’ve never been to a TEDx but I’ve been to TED’09, and TEDActive’10 and they were mindblowing experiences.

  7. J
    March 12, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Of course any vetting process would be seen as elitism, and hardcore scientists aren’t that great at communicating with the public as it is, so this seems to be an expected consequence of just being nice about it. Perhaps when money needs to be made or public interest needs to be generated, a sacrifice of principles has to take place?

  8. idoubtit
    March 12, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    When you tout unfalsifiable theories like morphic resonance, you quickly lose respect in the scientific community, no matter WHERE you published before.

  9. Vas R
    March 13, 2013 at 2:51 AM

    I am sorry, but have you actually read the book? Have you actually read what Sheldrake has said?

    Apparently now.

    Sheldrake is PRO-Science. He advocated the scientific METHOD. He thinks it is the best tool we have for deducing even closer approximations of the final truths.

    What he objects to is dogmatic adherence to current scientific “facts” at the expense of experimental data analysis and the spirit of the scientific method. Or in other words, SCIENTISCM.

    He is in fact championing everything what a scientific SKEPTIC should always champion: data before theory, experiment of hypothesis, testing, repeatability, falsiability and relentless pursuit of truth regardless of where it takes us and whether we personally/emotionally are ready to accept the findings or not.

    It is a sad day when blogs like these comment on people’s work, ideas and talks without even bothering to listen to them.

  10. idoubtit
    March 13, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Vas: A few things. There is no ONE scientific method. Part of scientific thinking means applying logic and reason to the evidence. The idea of morphic resonance and his other psi-like ideas are not reasonable based on what we already know. His data has not been convincing to the scientific community.

    I can’t possibly read everything and have not been interested in reading his book. Why? I have read some of Sheldrake’s material, listened to him talk a few times and have not been impressed. In addition, people who have a grasp of how science and critical thinking are applied have found his ideas lacking as well. A HUGE part of science is ALSO building on the work of others, not discarding what has come before. It is up to the claimant to show that he has his ducks in line to overturn the scientific consensus/complete a paradigm shift, etc. TONS of people say they are in the midst of doing that. Extremely few actually have the goods.

    If you read the ABOUT page and the COMMENTS policy, you will see that this is a science-based site, not a debate forum. The news story was that many people are NOT pleased with Sheldrake’s inclusion in TED. It’s tricky because it depends on what their standards are. They can invite whomever to present their ideas. But they have stated they do not wish to promote BAD ideas. From what I’ve seen, Sheldrake’s ideas don’t qualify as “ideas worth spreading”. They don’t pass muster.

  11. idoubtit
    March 15, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    Have TED talks jumped the shark? http://news.discovery.com/human/life/have-ted-talks-jumped-the-shark-130315.htm

    I’d also like to add that I don’t agree TED did a good job in handling this. As I remarked on Twitter, they seem to need to decide what it is they want to be and do and stick to some guidelines beginning to end. Maybe they have those in place and we have not yet seen the results? I don’t know. I have not decided how to feel about this yet. But as Daily Grail mentioned on Twitter, it probably created a Streisand Effect. I don’t think that’s bad, though.

  12. Ian Morris
    March 21, 2013 at 4:20 PM

    I see similarities between morphic fields and “dark matter”. Neither can be currently demonstrated to exist, both are “invented” (to explain certain observations)., and both appear in peer reviewed journals. Sheldrake has published tests that can be performed to test morphic fields. I am not aware of any test that could falsify dark matter.

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was not on morphic resonance, but about (a) why he considered some science to be dogmatic, (b) How constant are some physical constants. These are valid fundamental questions that every scientist should be asking. They are on the philosophy of science, and should not be judged as hard science. A talk is not science, it is about throwing ideas around.

    It seems that Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks have generated more comments than nearly any other talk. That demonstrates an interest that did not deserve TEDs actions.

  13. Ezekiel E. Cortez
    January 1, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Ian Morris:
    Well said! Like a true pragmatist.

    Experimental/applied science and its community are but a fraction of the many groups to lead us to facts. Let us recall that Isaac Newton was also a pseudo-scientist. Yet, he has been accepted as one of THE pillars of western scientific methods. So, should TED also ban discussion of Newton?

    TED should indeed include discussion of philosophical and theoretical scientific ideas. Especially when such ideas have yet to be disproved. You make this point loudly and powerfully by juxtaposing dark matter and morphic resonance.
    Thank you.

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