Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
This post is a variation of a theme I’ve already covered, but this is such a good example that I have to share.
In a Huffington Post blog article by Deepak Chopra, MD. FACP, Stuart Hameroff, MD, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., and Neil Theise, MD, these authors took TED to task for all the same things that have already been covered by what seems like a thousand people. There was nothing particularly unusual about that; consciousness research is in their wheelhouse and this was a choice opportunity to take some shots at the intellectual equivalent of a training dummy. Chris Anderson and TED have gone a course that is built upon an easily discovered lie and it is no great matter to point out that lie and get down to the business of delivering a good smack down. There have been several incredibly eloquent examples of this. (Ben Goertzel.); (Charles Eisenstein.); (David Metcalfe.)
In choosing to quash the mountain of consciousness research and all the people who support it, TED has instead given them a platform upon which to build their case. It’s a very easy thing to use TED as an example of the legitimacy of consciousness research because all anyone has to do is ask TED to explain its reasons for pulling the videos and TEDxWestHollywood and point out how vacuous the reply is: the response is always the same:
What set this encounter apart from the others was that apparently Deepak Chopra et.al. blogging on the Huffington Post was enough to goad Chris Anderson into responding with the same rather poor logic that he has been using all along.
Is TED under the thumb of “militant atheists”?!
That’s another simple no (and a chuckle). We certainly have talks on our site from prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. We also have talks by religious leaders, including Pastor Rick Warren, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and His Holiness the Karmapa, among many others. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in 2008. Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast will speak at TEDGlobal this June. When it comes to belief in God, and the practice of spirituality, a broad swath of beliefs are represented on TED.com, and also in our organization; our 100-person staff includes observant Buddhists, Bahai, Catholics, Quakers, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, as well as agnostics and atheists.
Militant atheists aren’t bothered by religion, which they regard as simply the woo of belief in the bearded sky daddy. They are, however, threatened greatly by serious consciousness research which undermines their belief that science, -which they consider to be the only source of truth- is firmly on their side. Although this distinction is glaringly obvious to everyone who follows this stuff, Anderson just glosses it over.
Should TED have a policy of asking its TEDx event organizers to avoid pseudo-science?
Your note implies we should not. We should allow “any speculative thinking…” and just let the audience decide. I wonder if you’ve really thought through the implications of that. Imagine a speaker arguing, say, that eating five Big Macs a day could prevent Alzheimer’s. Or someone claiming she was the living reincarnation of Joan of Arc. I’m sure at some point you too would want to draw the line.
A humble college freshman could point out the flaw in this statement: it’s a straw man argument. Anderson has completely side stepped the hard problem of dealing with the evidence for non local consciousness by comparing that research to the reincarnation of Joan of Arc and Big Mac research.
But he or she should expect to face a robust standard of proof before their ideas take hold. And for every Galileo, there are thousands of people who just have bad, unscientific ideas. That’s why in our guidance to the thousands of TEDx organizers around the world, we ask that they steer clear of talks that bear hallmarks of unsubstantiated science.
Another straw man. He is not not talking about consciousness research because that meets a robust standard of proof. Anderson again steps away from the hard problem of the evidence by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Anderson isn’t saying anything here that he hasn’t already said before; that is to say, copious amounts of nothing. All he has given here are ridiculously vague statements that never specifically deal with the reasons for TED’s actions. To claim that someone is practicing pseudoscience is, itself, a claim. You have to provide proof for your statement otherwise all you have is this:
The point here, is that criticizing TED is ridiculously easy and when Anderson replies, Chopra responds in the best way possible: he lets others do the talking for him. I found this one the most compelling:
As a psychologist and professor who has spent years studying and teaching about consciousness at a public research university, I am alternately shocked and amused at the lengths people will travel to preserve an outmoded, materialist belief system in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I have colleagues who know nothing about the complexities of consciousness studies yet who, in their ignorance and arrogance, snidely condemn it as “pseudoscience”, much as TED and its “anonymous” scientific advisory board have done. In response I have trained myself and my students to ask “What specific studies and data are you troubled by? What experimental procedures are you questioning? Have you read Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of a Scientific Revolution?” Invariably the answer is silence.
The kind of backlash exemplified by TED has occurred again and again since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for proposing what astrophysicists now call “the multiple worlds theory”, and it is always is at its most vociferous and vicious as a new way of thinking is emerging. But, as Thomas Kuhn reminds us, the old guard eventually and inevitably gives way to the new. I am currently teaching an upper-division undergraduate course entitled “Consciousness, Ethics, and the Natural World.” Among other works that we are reading is Rupert Sheldrake’s “Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.” Yesterday I asked my students what they thought about TED’s censuring of Sheldrake. Here are some of their thoughts:
“TED is starting to exclude the very minds that it was created to gather.”
“TED is behaving in a very immature way….just like middle school cliques.”
“TED has become a synonym for censure.”
“To which special interests will TED bow before next”?
“The scientists who pressured TED into censuring Sheldrake are afraid that accepting his perspective invalidates their own work and that they’ll be pushed aside. They don’t realize that there’s room for everyone in the Multiverse.”
These are students at a mainstream research university for whom Sheldrake’s ideas are common sense rather than “pseudoscience.”” Clearly, this latest scientific revolution is upon us.
Kathleen D. Noble, Ph.D.
Professor of Consciousness
School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
University of Washington – Bothell
The kids have this one figured out.
I keep emphasizing how easy it is to criticize TED and Chris Anderson because I want to demonstrate something important that has shifted in the Psi Wars. There is nothing to fear from the skeptics. I used the analogy of a training dummy earlier because they hit back with all the force of a four year old boy. Once you get past their invective, insults and bad arguments you’re left with . . . nothing. They have no intellectual position to stand on; they can’t prove that they’re right and they can’t prove that we’re wrong. If you look at it from this perspective, you’ll see what I see: Chris Anderson has closed the gates and walled himself up in his castle because his arguments are too weak to march into battle. As anyone who understands warfare will tell you, if all you can do is defend, then you have already lost; it’s just a matter of time.
It’s as if the skeptics have been viciously attacking us and we cowered at first, but then suddenly realized that they can’t punch hard enough to even bruise us.
You can see that happening here. Deepak Chopra et al have no fear of Anderson or TED. They know that the skeptics have no answer, no legitimate argument; no science to fall back on. Everyone can march right up to their gates and debate them with only the most feeble responses in return. Sheldrake and Hancock knew this when they challenged the science board to a debate. Everyone knows what cards the skeptics hold: They’ve got nothing. They can’t give a good explanation of their actions, they can’t debate Sheldrake or even Hancock; they won’t respond to the open letter by Ken Jordan and they have no real answer to Deepak Chopra’s criticism beyond bland corporatese assurances that say all the right things but have no substance at all.
What I’ve presented here is a way of looking at what’s happening. We can either be upset by the intransigence of skeptics and complain about how they distort everything or we can choose to view them as making desperate moves to shore up their defenses against rising tides. The former is a defensive position that plays right into their hands, the latter acknowledges that we are taking the field and driving them back and forcing them to operate with a diminishing number of supporters and a shrinking space in which they can say what they please without having their poor arguments exposed. As far as I can tell, this is what winning looks like.