Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
With the protest of TED coming up on April 2nd, all of the attention is being focused on Rupert Sheldrake’s talk. The controversy began and ended with him after all. While it was certainly insulting for Sheldrake and Hancock to have their talks pulled and dismissed unfairly as pseudoscience, both men were already controversial figures and the resulting publicity arguably did them more good than harm. They became more popular. Certainly their videos got much wider exposure than they would have otherwise.
It was the takedown of TEDxWestHollywood however, that pushed the controversy into a full blown culture war. This was the turning point where everyone could see that TED was unequivocally taking a completely one-sided ideological position rather than relying on evidence. It was big news at the time. I scooped the story and I got more visits to my blog in that one day (over 7,000) than I had previously ever gotten in an entire month. It was this story that finally pushed the TED controversy over the top and into the mainstream media.
Of everyone that TED went after, Suzanne Taylor, who was the organizer of TEDxWestHollywood, was the hardest hit. TED treated her horribly for the crime of putting on an event that they had already cleared. Indeed, the entire process had consumed a year of Suzanne’s time as well as that of her volunteers, only to have TED cancel the program two weeks before it was scheduled to go on.
I saw the emails that went back and forth between Suzanne and TED as she tried to get things sorted out, but it was clear that TED wasn’t interested in negotiating. They didn’t like how she was presenting her program, so she changed it. They singled out five speakers, Marianne Williamson, Paul Nugent, Marilyn Schlitz, Russell Targ and Larry Dossey. (Marilyn Schlitz dropped out for unrelated reasons.) Of these speakers, Williamson went on to speak at another TED conference later. At TED, of course, they had not seen the speeches but their mere presence with the titles of their talks was enough to sound the alarms.
Why? Because TED was relying heavily the advice of professor Jerry Coyne, who seems to specialize in over-the-top radical atheist type rhetoric. Coyne was the person who first wrote to TED asking them to take down Sheldrake’s video. Before the TED controversy, I had no idea who this was, but after seeing him in action, well, I’ll let the words of philosopher Edward Feser speak for me. This is in regards to Coyne’s views on philosophy and theology but it could just as well apply to his views on parapsychology and related subjects:
Naturally, his incompetence is coupled with a preposterous degree of compensatory self-confidence. As I once pointed out about Dawkins, Coyne may by now have put himself in a position that makes it psychologically impossible for him even to perceive serious criticism. The problem is that his errors are neither minor, nor occasional, nor committed in the shadows, nor expressed meekly. He commits a howler every time he opens his mouth, and he opens it very frequently, very publicly, and very loudly. His blunders are of a piece, so that to confess one would be to confess half a decade’s worth — to acknowledge what everyone outside his combox already knows, viz. that he is exactly the kind of bigot he claims to despise.
And Coyne went after TEDxWestHollywood with the same enthusiasm and ignorance of the subject matter that led him to call for Sheldrake’s video to be taken down. TED, apparently, loves this guy.
Two weeks before the program was scheduled to go on, TED cancelled it. Perhaps they were hoping that Taylor would quietly go away. They were wrong.
Suzanne Taylor was a veteran of controversy. She is affectionately known as “The Crop Circle Queen” for her two documentaries on crop circles and she maintains a strong presence in the crop circle community.
Suzanne Taylor made the very expensive decision to put the show on despite having virtually no time to do it. She already devoted a year to this project and had the speakers lined up. Four of them dropped out but her headliners stuck with her. Williamson, Targ and Dossey, no strangers to incoherent, incompetent, irrational criticism themselves, just rolled with the controversy.
She originally had the WestHollywood Library, a fine facility, lined up, but that was withdrawn when TED withdrew their license. She also lost all of her TED related sponsorship. TED was unsympathetic and would only pay to have the show -which they knew next to nothing about- shut down completely. It was basically an attempt at censorship but they used Suzanne’s determination to put the production on to their advantage.
To be clear: This event is not being “censored.” The event organizer is still planning to hold an event with the same speaker lineup. It just won’t be under a TEDx license. According to the organizer, the event will be held April 14, and we wish the team well with it.
She lined up the Vortex dome in Los Angeles and went ahead with her video crew to do the filming which would be live streamed. It was a great location. Two days before the event TED twisted Livestream’s arm and got Suzanne’s account closed without linking to a new account. They have not responded to her requests for a reason. TED had gone from working with TEDxWestHollywood to being downright vindictive in the span of only a few day. There was no goodwill, understanding or sympathy from TED at all.
It’s very likely that Chris Anderson and TED felt pressured to close down TEDxWestHollywood because of the growing controversy over Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s videos. How could they justify taking them down but leaving TEDxWestHollywood alone? The topics were all of a similar vein.
The show did go on, but ended up costing Suzanne $40,000 out of pocket. You can see a promo reel for the event here, or find the videos here and decide for yourself. Suzanne talks about her experience in this YouTube video. (Skip to the 48 minute mark.)
Suzanne has her own demands of TED. She wants them to actually see the program and for TED to reimburse her:
If TED would promote getting our program seen, it would be appreciated by many. There was profound conversation in the TED threads about what is fundamental to being human that could continue. And, with your offers to reimburse me stopping short of what I needed to present my program, I’m appealing to you now to cover the $40,000 I spent.
It’s a reasonable request, but I’m doubtful that TED will respond. TED’s handling of TEDxWestHollywood was less than stellar, to put it mildly. It was the part of the controversy that provided the last bit of proof that a very narrow attitude existed within TED that did not allow certain mainstream scientific ideas to be questioned or challenged.
Craig Weiler is the author of the book Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet