Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I now have a follow up post to this one: TED Swings the Banhammer: It Rebounds in Their Face
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. This is an organization on a collision course with consciousness research and it was only a matter of time before the war spilled over into their territory.
In this case, the brouhaha started when apparently skeptics by the names of Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyer tried to have a video by parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake removed from TED talks because they felt he was unscientific. (Here is the video.) To the Immense credit of TED staff, they opened up the controversy to the public. Even more to their credit, the staff person who did this, Emily McManus, is an atheist who set aside her personal beliefs to open up the discussion. A comment section was set up for this topic and the floodgates opened. (You can find it here.)
The open discussion that took place is the kind of situation that skeptics cannot win if knowledgeable people show up to the discussion. It’s kind of like asking “who won WWII?” Most people (in the West) will argue that it was chiefly the U.S. and Britain. However if someone with the real facts shows up, the discussion changes dramatically. The credit for winning actually goes to the Soviet Union. Once you examine the evidence it’s not really up for discussion. The Eastern Front stretched for over a thousand miles and it was where about 85% of WWII was fought. This isn’t emphasized in High School history books so most people don’t know about it. The psi discussion is a lot like that. Skeptical arguments against psi don’t hold up against knowledgeable disagreement. For that reason, skeptics usually avoid just this sort of battle. They get into positions of authority and work behind the scenes to fulfill their agenda. This strategy has worked magnificently on Wikipedia where their compulsive persistence has served their agenda well.
I’ve been on many comment threads about psi on various on line websites and tangled often with skeptics, but what happened on the TED comment thread was something new. A tipping point has been reached and it was really clear in the thread. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the skeptics overwhelmed on a public forum. Maybe the JREF crowd just didn’t get the word. That skeptical organization usually shows up for these things. (It’s easy to spot. Someone will favorably mention the million dollar challenge and that comment will instantly get 15 likes.)
Even without them, there were quite a few skeptics. Mostly well mannered too. TED seems to attract a better crowd. A few people from the Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net weighed in on the debate, which brings to mind a sort of showdown between the Montagues and the Capulets.
I did not read through the whole 478 comments because frankly, the discussion is always the same with minor variations. The skeptics claim that there is no proof, etc, but provide no compelling evidence and the pro psi crowd counters with a barrage of links and counter arguments. The skeptics attempt to define evidence according to radically narrow definitions and the pro psi crowd calls them on it. Back and forth, back and forth. What was interesting to me was how many well informed posters were pro psi and how willing they were to work together to get their side of the debate heard. They even made a very strong effort to “like” comments from their side, which is new as well. That is usually a skeptical tactic. Somewhere, somehow, these people have learned how to counter the skeptics and they did it very effectively.
This supports my hunch that the internet is changing how science is done by making the skeptical gate keeping much more difficult. Information about consciousness research has spread far and wide and its supporters are growing ever more vocal. Among those supporters is a growing group of people who are persistent and engaged enough to do battle with the skeptical paradigm. Their numbers are apparently growing from what I’ve seen while the number of skeptics has stayed pretty much even. It looks like the tipping point has been reached. Skeptics are not winning.
Hopefully the staff at TED took notice because a wrong move on their part will create all sorts of havoc.
From a political standpoint, I think that the discussion made it crystal clear that many of the people on the pro Sheldrake side would regard it as censorship if Sheldrake’s video was removed. If the staff chose to remove the video they certainly would be making the excuse that the video was not scientific in nature, but this would not be considered credible by the pro psi crowd which has already made it clear that that in their opinion, Sheldrake is on solid scientific ground. The only really sensible thing to do is to leave the video up and let people decide for themselves. This has become the most conservative, low risk solution.
While the skeptical point of view is the mainstream position in science, the TED talks are for and supported by an informed public unconstrained by academic politics and belief systems. As the hosts of TED are learning, this public finds consciousness research fascinating. Whether they like it or not, TED must serve this audience or risk being viewed as hypocritical gatekeepers of the status quo.