Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
There was a protest at TED headquarters in New York on April 2nd from 12pm to 2pm. Actually, it wasn’t technically a protest, rather it was a “rebuttal.” It was a small protest with about twelve attendees, although around sixty people had said that they would show up. It was initially a rainy day, but the weather let up after the first twenty minutes and the small band of science advocates were left in peace by the weather gods of New York. One person came all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. Paul Revis, the organizer, felt that having a small group was actually more effective in delivering it’s specific message. It was never supposed to be about the sheer number of people showing up at TED’s door. The real goal was always to draw attention to the over 250 PhD’s and MD’s that signed the petition.
Paul Revis explained his reasons:
I started Set Science Free because I’m very passionate about the nature of reality and understanding the nature of reality. There is a large body of research within the scientific community that is dismissed sight unseen by scientists around the world. This is the key. This research is essentially overlooked because of dogmatic assumption. This is a major oversight that has gone on too long and must be confronted in order for science to progress. Ultimately, I’d like to see all scientific research introduced as part of the standard educational curriculum. Psi research is one example of this. This TED campaign is the first step in a larger movement to make that happen. This isn’t just about psi research or quantum mechanics; this is about all research within the scientific community. Everyone has dogmatic views and we all need to look beyond that individually and institutionally.
I originally found out about the protest February 10th of this year in an email that was forwarded to Rupert Sheldrake from Dr. Menas Kafatos and Sheldrake had forwarded to me and other people. I immediately contacted Paul to introduce myself, since I was the author of the only book on the controversy and to see how I could hep. He was in the midst of creating a website for the protest and was working hard to get PhD and MD signatures for his petition. He felt that this would have more of an impact than a popular petition. When the website was ready to go I publicized the event on March 2nd on this blog and elsewhere and urged others to do the same.
The protest itself was a work in progress. Originally he envisioned the protest as being exclusive to those with advanced degrees, however as the date approached, too many were either too far away or otherwise committed on that date. The protest was officially opened up to everyone around March 18th, when I interviewed Paul for this blog.
Due to ongoing public requests, he also opened up a separate petition for everyone which I announced on March 26th. Because of the timing though, it never really caught on and as of today it has a mere 352 signatures.
The mainstream media did not show up and did not cover the event. It was a small price to pay though. Protests become increasingly unpredictable as they become larger. You might get angry crazy people protesting with you who make things worse. You might have a bathroom problem or you might have a police problem. It’s crazy what some people will do to get media attention for their protest. While the mainstream media ignored this protest, we did have one in San Francisco that same day that did make the news. The headline? “Protesters block, vomit on Yahoo bus in Oakland” <http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2014/04/02/protesters-block-vomit-on-yahoo-bus-in-oakland/> And of course, just google “Protest, half naked women” and you’ll see that a dozen recent bare breasted protests show up. These protests get covered no matter how obscure the topic is. It’s a cheap hook, but if you want mainstream press coverage, it works every single time.
Paul Revis didn’t want the protest to be like that. Everything he did was with the intent of keeping all facets of the operation on the high ground. A small protest allowed him to keep things that way. Such was the extent of his civility that a week beforehand, he contacted TED’s offices in New York to let them know what was happening and he sought to have a conversation with Chris Anderson, which didn’t end up happening until the day of the protest. This photo pretty much captures the mood:Meanwhile I worked to get the word out and enlisted the help of Suzanne Taylor, who was the producer of TEDxWestHollywood. Her story had gotten into my book, but wasn’t really spelled out in an article that everyone would see. I took the opportunity to do that, which resulted in her getting interviewed on the popular radio show, Coast to Coast, where she gave the protest a shout out. Meanwhile, I was interviewed by Mary Ann Butler of OpEd News and that article took off, generating around 5,000 views, where I also drew attention to the protest. We did not, of course, get any mainstream coverage.
The protest itself, of course, was about Rupert Sheldrake’s 2013 TED talk titled “The Science Delusion” at the TEDxWhiteChapel event in England. In the speech, Sheldrake had asked the audience to question the materialistic assumptions of science. TED removed the talk from their main page citing “pseudoscience” as the reason, but never provided any concrete explanations for doing so. TED’s actions opened up the whole can of worms about the legitimacy of parapsychology as a science and the larger scientific battle about the nature of consciousness. These are hotly contested issues. To make matters worse, TED was relying on a science board that they kept anonymous.
There were other, important features of the controversy that erupted last year, not the least of which was the removal of the TEDxWestHollywood program by TED and of course, the removal Graham Hancock’s speech as well, but the objective of this protest wasn’t to throw everything at TED, but rather to narrowly define the objective so that the most important message wouldn’t be lost in sea of other objections, even though those were certainly legitimate. Paul summed the basic idea this way:
TED, we agree with your mission and we advocate for open access of ideas. We simply ask that you put your own principles to practice in your distribution of information.
The protest had two demands:
1. Reinstate Rupert Sheldrake’s Talk “The Science Delusion” into the main database of searchable talks on TED.com. Desegregate it and display it equally, among other talks, as it does not lack any quality or qualifying factors that other talks have demonstrated. The caliber of scientific research behind Sheldrake’s talk is solid, and he should not be rejected purely due to (what we believe are) paradigmatic differences based in the dogmas of various scientists, vs. any actual scientific justification.
2. Publish the names of all members of TED’s anonymous scientific board. Members of scientific boards and scientific journals must be public without exception because they are accountable to their peers and to their readers. The anonymity of TED’s scientific board lends credence to the idea that its scientists may be biased against good science that leads to conclusions which do not fit neatly into the common scientific paradigm. If TED’s scientific board members were not anonymous, they would presumably make themselves known, such that they could be engaged in an honest intellectual challenge such as the debate that has stirred around Sheldrake’s lecture.
At the site of TED headquarters, the protesters were informed that they wouldn’t be allowed inside the building. However a helpful plainclothes policeman from NYC’s 1st precinct helpfully acted as a go between. (I called the precinct to get his name, but they weren’t able to help me.)
Perhaps because of the cordial atmosphere, Chris Anderson, curator and owner of TED, came down to talk with the protesters and graciously accepted the petition. He then spent about fifteen minutes getting into the whole parapsychology discussion with Paul Revis and Richard Perl. While nothing was decided, Chris Anderson did say that he supported their right to protest, but that his science advisors and the scientific community at large maintained that psychic ability is not accepted by mainstream science and that until it is, he regards the topic as too fringe for TED. (Or words to that effect. I don’t have his exact words and can’t directly quote him.)
Revis countered this argument but with so little time, it was difficult to be complete in his rebuttal. Revis invited Anderson to host a panel discussion of scientists to discuss this further and Anderson replied SSF should take up their cause with the scientific community, not with TED. According to Revis, the discussion continued and will be looked at further in the future after a transcript is created.
And that was it. The protest didn’t block traffic, nobody made a spectacle of themselves or shouted angrily or booed at Chris Anderson. Everyone was just . . . polite. It’s ironic really, that the protest that the media forgot was also by far the most significant. This protest was part of a popular movement to change the direction of science. I’ll say that again, -a popular movement.- That’s never happened before. This isn’t a philosophical or religious protest; it’s about forcing scientists to look at data that’s already there and move forward based on the evidence. As Paul Revis put it:
Set Science Free’s Mission is to unite, echo, and amplify the scientific and academic need for science to progress. We seek to be a bridge between institutions, the science community and the human family at large and encourage all involved to move beyond any dogmatic assumptions.
Set Science Free is independent and grassroots. We are not affiliated with any specific group or organization.
As far as I know, this is something completely new in the history of mankind. There have been instances where scientists have been forced by popular movements to stop doing certain types of research that was clearly unethical, but this is the first time that popular support is pushing scientists toward something. And on April 2nd. We moved just a little bit farther down that path.