Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
In a move that surprised absolutely no one, TED has come to the conclusion that the videos of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock can stay in quarantine where they are searchable by Google by barely searchable within the TED site. As Chris Anderson put it in his messsage: (link here.)
Some asked whether this was “censorship.” Now, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google.
This message in its entirety is an amazing package of . . . nothing. Here’s another sample:
A number of questions were raised about TED’s science board: How it works and why the member list isn’t public. Our science board has 5 members — all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.
It’s very questionable whether the science board would have received retribution or harassment. From whom? But that wasn’t the real issue. Their names weren’t nearly as important as what their reasoning was. And we have no idea what that was. Why weren’t the talks re-instated? For that matter, why were they left in quarantine? What specific problems from these videos did the science board object to? Where. is. the. . . science?
This becomes even more glaring in his next paragraph:
Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we’re also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That’s why we invited this debate. The process hasn’t been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.
What open enquiry? What critical thinking? Where is the appropriate skepticism? Is it a secret? An endeavor can hardly be called an open enquiry or even a debate if none of the important questions are ever answered. So what are we left with? Nothing much. It has all the content of a BP press release right after the oil spill. I suppose I could go on criticizing them, but what’s the point? The fact that they’re not even trying to defend themselves pretty much says it all.
After TED revoked the license of TEDxWestHollywood, it was a foregone conclusion that these two videos weren’t ever going back up on the main page, so from there it was just a waiting game to see how long it would take for this predictable decision to be made.
Now that all the damage has been done and the story appears to have played itself out, let’s recap the amazingly ridiculous drama that has played out over the past month. Yeah, this has dragged out for a whole month. It had just started when I discovered the discussion when someone mentioned it on a parapsychology forum and I blogged about it. At the time, it was a minor affair that only involved Rupert Sheldrake, but my blog got picked up by Dean Radin and then by the Daily Grail and word spread quickly from there. A skeptic had complained and got the video pulled. I noticed that there was a bit of an outcry on the TED site, so I figured that TED would just back down and leave it alone. That would have been the sane thing to do. One thing that I mentioned in that blog post was that the pro Sheldrake crowd seemed extraordinarily well informed and quite solidly, if informally organized. But what I didn’t realize was the TED had been compromised by scientists with a materialist ideology. They’re typically referred to as skeptics.
On March 14th, the real drama began when TED elected to remove Sheldrake’s video and included Hancock’s as well, ignoring all of the public protest prior to that. Obviously weak reasons were given for the removal of the videos and if anyone had any doubt that skeptics were behind this, all doubt was erased at this point. Those of us familiar with the psi wars know that they are quite deaf to criticism. But they had made a crucial miscalculation; one that they would repeat over and over again through the month. The skeptics, for the most part, come from academia where they don’t need to concern themselves with public opinion and where their decisions can be carried out without penalty, regardless of the soundness of their reasoning. This is particularly true in regards to all things psi, because they are protecting the status quo. They are used to arguing from a position of authority.
But this was a public debate and that sort of situation is quite different. The public has no interest in preserving the status quo; they are solidly behind psi research and recognize a new and interesting idea when they see one. They are neither intimidated by the skeptics nor grant them any authority and they will call someone out for hypocrisy, evasiveness and bad reasoning in a heartbeat. And that’s exactly what happened.
The skeptics were in the very uncomfortable position of having to actually prove what they claimed. And they couldn’t do it. Part of the reason for this was that the psi side of the debate was filled with people with advanced degrees. I recognized many of them from their posts on my blog and from forums. Even Nobel Prize winning physicist Brian Josephson joined the debate. They weren’t going to let the skeptics get away with anything. Time after time in the debate the skeptics fell silent or resorted to drive by posts or distractions rather than admit that they were wrong. Everyone saw it and it was surely an embarrassment for TED. The other part of the reason was when the speeches were examined closely, charges of pseudoscience just didn’t hold up.
For those not familiar withe the psi debate, I should explain this because what happened at TED is what happens anytime well informed intellectuals engage in a psi debate, even scientists directly involved. The skeptics have a number of claims that they make in order to defend their position that psi is not a proven phenomena. Statements such as “there is no evidence for psi;” “it’s pseudoscience;” “the effect diminishes to nothing as you tighten controls;” “no one has ever been able to demonstrate psi in a lab;” “if psi were real then people would be able to (fill in the blank);” “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” etc. These statements work fine in academia where debate on the subject is taboo and pretty much non existent, but when there is no one to adjudicate in favor of the skeptics and they are forced to live or die on the actual merits of those arguments, they have no convincing examples back them up.
All a proponent has to do to make a skeptic look like an idiot is go back to the scientific evidence and ask a skeptic to explain exactly what they’re referring to. This was done repeatedly in the Sheldrake and Hancock debates when skeptics were fairly hammered by proponents asking them to point out the pseudoscience in the speeches.
Skeptics generally avoid doing this at all costs usually because they are simply ignorant of the evidence, but even if they know something about it, there is no way to defend the above statements because they are in direct contradiction to the evidence record for psi. What follows in these debates is almost always a game of whack-a-skeptic as they resort to a never ending series of rhetorical alleyways to avoid ever admitting defeat. This is the position that Chris Anderson and other TED supporters found themselves in and they were forced to support their decisions on less scientifically sound platforms, such as “TED has the right to make these decisions”, (or variations of that theme.) No scientific or well reasoned answer for banning the talks was ever going to be forthcoming because there simply wasn’t one.
Getting back to the story, this whole time the debate was going on, it was attracting more and more attention outside of TED as blogs in the world of psi picked up on it one after the other. It was great for my blog because interest was so high. Because events continued to unfold, I shifted my attention from writing longer, general psi interest stories to exclusively covering the ongoing TED debacle. Because it was dragging on for so long, people had a chance to start following it before it ended. The powers that be at TED finally began to sense the heat and on March 18th decided to pull their initial criticisms and hold another debate, divided into a section for each speaker -for 14 days-. They still could have saved the day by putting the frigging videos back up, but rather than give in to the good common sense that God gave rocks, they dug in their heels and decided to try to wear down the competition. Rather than try to get out of the hole they’d dug, they went deeper; their desire to never be wrong was leading them into a disaster of immense proportions.
The main problem with the new debates was that no new reasons were given for having the videos removed. To add to the drama, the names of the members of the science board were kept secret. The two speakers were caught in a Kafkaesque virtual courtroom where they had no idea who their accusers were or what the crimes were that they were accused of. Rupert Sheldrake, a decades long veteran of the psi wars, challenged them to a
duel debate. That, for the reasons I stated above, was never going to happen. The whole affair was so obviously ideologically based and so devoid of any pretense of fairness or consistency that no matter what decision was eventually handed down, -and we all pretty much knew already what that decision would be- this battle was already an epic loss for TED. The “radical openness” was being exposed as being radically reactionary.
TED’s position was ripping at every seam, which I listed in this article, but after almost a month of nonstop drama, the affair was managing to wind down and most of the comments in the TED commenting section were degenerating into a pointless back and forth between skeptics and proponents. The smart thing for TED to do at this point was to avoid rocking the boat any further and just let the whole thing die down. The story had not hit the mainstream and people were getting tired of arguing; but it was not to be. I was pointlessly arguing with skeptics in the comment section of the Hancock thread when on March 27th, TEDxWestHollywood organizer, Suzanne Taylor, mentioned that she liked my blog and expressed concern that TED was making things difficult for the event she was about to put on. They were shutting her down. I gave her my email address and we took the conversation off line. I know a scoop when I see one.
According to Suzanne, TED had raised objections to her lineup early on, but had decided that the best course of action was to allow the event to go forward, but not put the offending talks on their main page. Then, out of the blue, only a couple of weeks before the event, they decided to revoker her license, leaving her and her speakers in the lurch. Had TED been negotiating with Suzanne in good faith at that point, they could have bought her out, had her sign a confidentiality agreement and buried the whole thing quickly and quietly. But they were playing hardball; offering her first nothing, then only a fraction of her expenses and according to Suzanne, were not being very nice about it. In other words, they drove her into my arms. On March 30th, I broke the story. Within hours, it spread like wildfire generating thousands of views within a few short hours. TED, in its infinite wisdom, had taken a fire whose flames they had been unintentionally fanning and threw gasoline on it. The next day, even more views were generated. Over the next few days the story broke on the usual psi news websites like the Daily Grail and Reality Sandwich, but also noteworthy people such as Ray Kurzweil chimed in.
At issue were three speakers, Russell Targ, Larry Dossey and Marilyn Schlitz. All are scientific experts in the field of parapsychology. While the powers that be at TED were ostensibly making arguments about meeting certain scientific standards at TED, in fact, they let a lot of rather dodgy talks get through. These three speakers were targeted as well as Rupert Sheldrake with Graham Hancock sort of thrown in as an aside not because their science was questionable but because they represent the most convincing and direct threat to the skeptics. You can easily read between the lines of Chris Anderson’s non statement above that this was not a decision based on facts. Everyone who understands the game of psi wars knew the truth immediately.
The staff at TED was furious at organizer Suzanne Taylor, of course, but what did they expect? She had been planning this event for a year and had no intention of shutting it down on such short notice. TED had backed her into such a tight corner that her only real option was to use the betrayal to leverage as much publicity as she could manage. That’s exactly what she did. In point of fact, the strategy worked for her. She raised awareness of her event enough to enlist help of unlikely allies and got herself a new venue and a waiting list of people interested in attending. By cutting her loose, she was relieved of her contract obligations and TED totally lost control of the situation.
A couple of days ago, the story finally went mainstream in L.A. where the event is happening. (I even got quoted.) As far as I know, the story could still be breaking in places. I have no idea how much this has hurt the TED brand because these things are kind of intangible, but it can’t have been good and it may not be over yet. The public does not share TED’s aversion to all things psychic. While the organization has succeeded at its goal of removing psi related material, it has come at a tremendous cost of embarrassment, bad publicity and has had the unintended effect of promoting the very thing they were trying to discourage. It also provided a focal point for organizing the psychic community and significantly raised my own profile. It could not have turned out worse if they had deliberately set out to do so.
I hope that TED gets over it’s love affair with skeptics. Their hard headed, stubborn attitude and deafness to public opinion has no place in a non profit organization promoting openness and the exploration of new ideas. They will destroy TED if it is allowed to go on long enough. This event was certainly survivable, but if it keeps happening there will be hell to pay as public trust becomes increasingly eroded over time. As I’ve said before, the parapsychology crowd is growing along with their profile and becoming increasingly mainstream, while the skeptics’ numbers remain about the same. They have to work increasingly hard to hold back the evidence and the people who present it. It’s a new order and we all know what happens to those who can’t adapt. . .