Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
This is the story of a controversy that happened at TED. 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. On their website, which includes blogs and discussion areas, they mainly post excellently produced videos of interesting speeches from the conferences they have held. The controversy concerns two speakers, scientist Rupert Sheldrake and author/archeologist, Graham Hancock, as well as an independently produced TEDxWestHollywood event which included Dr. Larry Dossey and physicist Russell Targ as speakers. The controversy occurred because TED first allowed and then rejected these presentations.
I have a book coming out on the controversy early next year which follows the story in detail, but this should give you enough to get a broad sense of what happened. However, while this is solely a narrative of events, it will raise more questions than it will answer. The answers require a tremendous amount of additional explanation, and for that you’ll have to read the book. (To get on the mailing list click here.)
The story begins in late 2012 with a reddit thread devoted to trashing a TEDx event in Spain.
The TED name is being dragged through the mud in Valencia, Spain, where a TEDx-approved event is promoting pseudoscientific stuff like (and I quote): crystal therapy, Egyptian psychoaromatherapy, healing through the Earth, homeopathy and even “basic mind control”.
Lara Stein, the director of TEDx programs, saw the thread and responded to it.
In the past we have handled most of these issues as one-offs, and dealt with the organizers individually. Thanks to this discussion we decided to take on the “bad science” issue directly and openly. We agree it is an important issue. Here is the email that went out to all the TEDx organizers yesterday.
The email was reprinted to a blog post (here.) While it got the part about good science mostly right, it also contains a long and rambling list of topics and markers which TED considered to be pseudo science. This set up an inevitable conflict because some of those areas that are labeled as pseudo science meet the criteria of good science.
In January of 2013, TEDxWhiteChapel was held at Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios in London, England. This event featured, among others, a speech by Rupert Sheldrake, “The Science Delusion,” and Graham Hancock’s talk, “The War on Consciousness.”
On March 6th, Three mainstays of the skeptical movement and longtime critics of Rupert Sheldrake voice their objections. Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota Morris, PZ Myers, posts a short blurb condemning Sheldrake’s talk. On the same day, skeptic Kylie Sturgess also posts a quick piece slamming the Sheldrake talk. And also on March 6th, Jerry Coyne adds his opinion to the mix. His alarming title: “TEDx talks completely discredited: Rupert Sheldrake speaks, argues that speed of light is dropping!” The main part of Sheldrake’s speech, which was about the materialistic dogmas of modern science, was not addressed by Coyne. Jerry Coyne then sent an email to Emily McManus, an editor at TED, and published her reply the next day. TED was officially on board with the skeptics.
A short biography of Rupert Sheldrake can be found here. The Wikipedia version is under constant dispute, is absurdly biased, and is not recommended.
On March 7th, Sheldrake’s video is taken down from the TED YouTube page and TED opens up a comment section to view the video and invite opinions from the TED community. This balloons to 523 comments in just two days. The overwhelming gist of the comments was along the lines of, “Leave the video up. We can think for ourselves.”
I picked up on the story and published it on my blog on March 9th. (here) That was picked up by Dean Radin’s blog, by The Daily Grail, and by Reality Sandwich among others. It had started to be a bigger story, while Rupert Sheldrake was in India and had no idea what was going on.
On March 14th, Graham Hancock’s video is also removed. TED creates a post that subsequently gets several updates. (here) They give detailed reasons for removing both videos, with said reasons being from TED’s anonymous science board. TED is absolutely ripped in the comment sections of this post for not only removing the talks, but also because of their reasons, which were poorly thought out. (The TED criticisms are now shown as crossed out text.) The videos can be seen below.
On March 18th, Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock posted replies which were inserted into the March 14th post. It was because of the effectiveness of the speakers’ replies that the original TED science board comments now appear as crossed out text. It’s worth reading the crossed out sections and the replies to see how utterly effective the replies were. They leave no room for reasonable doubt. Another update to the March 14th post leads to yet another TED blog post combining weak rationalizations and justifications for their actions in addition to apologizing for using “language that in retrospect was clumsy,” and because “some of the specific examples we gave were less than convincing.” (here ) This new blog post is immediately ridiculed by myself (here) and by the Daily Grail (here).
At this point in the controversy here are some noteworthy issues:
One would think TED would have had the good sense God gave rocks to just put the videos back up on YouTube and put an end to the charade. But that’s not how it played out. See The Big TED Controversy, Part 2.
Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion:
Graham Hancock’s The War on Consciousness: