TEDx talks completely discredited: Rupert Sheldrake speaks, argues that speed of light is dropping!

March 6, 2013 • 1:46 pm

Well, TED has come down a long ways since it once presented a forum for quirky, advanced, and entertaining thinkers. In an effort to keep ahead of the intellectual tide, they’ve started incorporating substandard speakers, including woomeisters, and have spawned “TEDx,” local versions of TED talks.

Those, too, reached their nadir with a TEDx talk at Whitechapel by Rupert Sheldrake, who gives Deepak Chopra a run for the title of World’s Biggest Woomeister. I’ve written about Sheldrake before—about his antimaterialistic views; his ideas that dogs finding their way home, or people knowing that others are watching them behind their backs, proves Jesus; his weakness for telepathy and other bizarre mental phenomena; and his general attitude that science is DOING IT RONG by hewing to materialism and avoiding the numinous and spiritual (you can find some of my posts here, here, and here)

It’s all on view in this dreadful talk: antimaterialism, the narrow dogmatism of scientists, his view that inanimate things have consciousness, and his most bizarre idea: “morphic resonance,” a quasi-Jungian view that all members of a species share in a collective memory, so if you train a rat in Chicago it will make rats in Tokyo more trainable.  The talk is obviously meant to flog his new book The Science Delusion, which I won’t link to.

Watch, weep, and mourn TED, now a vehicle for pseudoscience:

One thing that Sheldrake said got my notice: his argument that the speed of light has dropped from 1928-1945, and that this drop was almost certainly a real drop in that supposedly invariant value rather than just measurement error or refinements in measurement technology. This supports Sheldrake’s renegade view that the “laws of nature” aren’t constant.

Well, I wrote Sean Carroll, our Official Website Physicist™, asking him about this speed-of-light business. Here’s his response, printed with permission:

The speed of light stuff is a non-kerfuffle, obviously. There’s a plot on this page of measurements over time:

Measurements of speed of light over time. From http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/lightandcolor/speedoflight.html

Measurements of speed of light over time. From http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/lightandcolor/speedoflight.html

and some values with error bars here :

From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_of_light#History

From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_of_light#History


There was a small shift in the central value around 1947, approximately the size of the error bars at the time. Nothing that would cause a non-agenda-driven person to give it a second glance.

What the crackpots don’t understand is that (1) scientists would love to find that the speed of light has been changing, they’d be giving out Nobel prizes like Halloween candy; and (2) in some sense, the speed of light can‘t change. It’s a dimensionful quantity — it can only change relative to something else, and there aren’t any other absolute velocities in physics. (Indeed, today the speed of light is fixed by definition, not by measurement.) What people really mean when they talk about measuring changes in the speed of light is measuring changes in other related quantities, like the fine-structure constant or the mass of the electron. And there are better ways of constraining those than by measuring light propagation.

Thanks, Sean!  And TED, you’d better vet your speakers from now on.

h/t: Via Token Skeptic

102 thoughts on “TEDx talks completely discredited: Rupert Sheldrake speaks, argues that speed of light is dropping!

  1. on the plot of c vs. years, can anyone verify – without perusing the references – if each error bar is the same, and what is it (presumably 3X)?

    1. Do you mean 3 sigma, based on estimating standard deviation? Usually an observation is given as +/- 1 stdev.

  2. I used to be a big fan of TED talks and listened to every one.

    I stopped listening to them over a year ago because the quality dropped precipitously.

    1. Yeah, the science talks went from “mostly good” to “occasionally good” to “holy shit I can’t believe somebody gave this person a microphone”.

      The musical performances have been consistently amazing, though.

    2. NEB I too used to live on the TED site, but now I’ll only watch if it’s someone I know or someone has recommended a talk. It’s sad really, they used to be brilliant. Now it’s too much trouble to separate the chaff.

  3. This sentence made me LOL

    “Genes only account for the proteins not the shape, form or behavior” @8:30

    1. Yeah. Clearly demonstrates to people with a certain level of understanding that he does not have a single clue about what he is talking about.

      Unfortunately a whole lot of people don’t have a certain level of understanding of any branch of science. Such people often award their credulity based solely on appearance and how pristine a line of bullshit the “expert” can spew.

      1. Sorry to chime in so late to the game – but technically speaking, isn’t that correct? Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ conjectures aside, doesn’t DNA code amino acids? We’re still uncertain how development follows specified patterns to give rise to form (shape). And as for direct DNA to behavior links – very few beyond the realm of ‘abnormality’ have been conclusively discovered. Not arguing for or against the merit of the entire talk – just interested in why that particular sentence is viewed as incorrect?

        Thanks for the good post and interesting discussion!

  4. Wow, having known of Sheldrake for many years, this is an egregious lack of standards for TED, x or otherwise. Is Chopra next? Or Oprah?

  5. lol wait. If the speed of light isn’t constant does that mean that it’s still plausible that the earth is only 6,000 years old???

  6. TEDx aren’t local TED talks. They are a TED co-branding for programs that are not TED programs.

    I agree that the co-branding decision is risky – if they’re going to co-brand they need to either vet the TEDx programs or see their brand diluted. But TED is relatively clear that TEDx is a separate thing.

    1. It really doesn’t matter, and nobody cares. TED is actively associating itself with a program that has already attracted a ton of morons, and they deserve to have their name dragged into the mud.

    2. TED has, since its inception, been the domain of flashy talks about terrible science. Occasionally something that’s actually good will get through, but the TEDx talks have just made obvious what was already present.

  7. I’m going to point out the same thing I did over at Pharyngula — that Rupert Sheldrake provides good ammunition for our claim that science can be brought to bear against the hypothesis that there is a ‘supernatural’ component to reality. Sheldrake’s woo is supernaturalism. His metaphysical view of the universe — with its vitalistic morphic resonance fields and primary place granted to an irreducible conscious intention — is to all intents and purposes just another version of god. This time it’s more like an eastern deity. He apparently developed his theory when he was in India admiring all the spirituality.

    Sheldrake is demonstrably wrong. It’s bad science. BUT IF he were right, then naturalism is in trouble. That supports the gnu atheist contention that science isn’t consistent with religion. When the religious are foolish enough to bring their predictions and theories into a rational forum, they go down in flames.

    “Ideas worth spreading” indeed. Sunlight is a good disinfectant.

    1. You know, I think the discussions we’ve had in the past about the supernatural were mostly superficial. I don’t think we disagree very much at all. I, too, think science can be brought to bear on the sorts of things people generally identify as “supernatural.” And it of course demonstrates them to be wrong. I never wrote anything like “you just can’t test claims of ESP.” Of course you can.

      This is not at odds with my position that if, IF, some phenomenon and a mechanism for its occurrence is observed, it will necessarily have to be admitted into the natural world. I don’t see this as an immunizing strategy. The point is that the idea behind the term “supernatural” is to imply impossibility. If given a phenomenon for which we could hypothesize actual mechanisms, we wouldn’t put it in the category “supernatural.”

      But we can certainly test claims to all sorts of weird shit.

    1. They need to do some serious damage control or un-link the TED name in a hurry.

      In some ways, TED is a victim of its own success. The more popular it became; the greater the need became to book interesting and diverse people at a faster and more furious rate.

      However, that doesn’t excuse the slip in standards. TED was once a treasure trove of thought-provoking talks by world-class thinkers from an array of backgrounds and expertise. TEDx is rapidly descending to Oprah-Lite.

  8. TokenSkeptic (on FtB) links to a letter sent by TED (Lara Stein, TEDx Director, and Emily McManus, TED.com Editor) to “the TEDx Community” on 7 December last year, warning them not to present bad science on the TEDx stage: “Please know this above all:
    It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes. … We take this seriously. Presenting bad science on the TEDx stage is grounds for revoking your license.” See http://blog.tedx.com/post/37405280671/a-letter-to-the-tedx-community-on-tedx-and-bad-science. But I guess the message is taking a while to sink in.

  9. Because Carl Jung believed in several odd occultish ideas (such as synchronicity), he’s very popular with woomeisters like Sheldrake, but also open to eccentric interpretation.

    Sheldrake evidently believes that intraspecies empathy is actually caused by a kind of !*telepathy*! of tuning in to the “morphic fields” of all other members of the species. He identifies this with the Jungian “collective unconscious” in a way Jung probably never did. Specifically, Sheldrake writes, “Any given morphic system, say, a squirrel, “tunes in” to previous similar systems, in this case previous squirrels of its species…In the human realm, this kind of collective memory corresponds to what the psychologist C. G. Jung called the “collective unconscious.” http://noetic.org/noetic/issue-four-november-2010/morphic-fields-and-morphic-resonance/

    Because Jung was not at all scientific-minded, his definition of the collective unconscious remained imprecise- the term generally designated the shared unconscious mental stuctures, feelings and drives of the whole species that were not specific to one individual, but at times Jung hinted that the collective unconscious was a evidence of our connection to a higher spiritual world. Nonetheless, it is not some kind of reservoir of unconscious thought that is “out there” in some mystic space- Jung was quite clear that what he called the collective unconscious was transmitted by genes and enculturation!!!

    However, others have noted that a lot of popular confusion about the “collective unconscious” may be due to the fact that Jung himself really !*did*! believe in telepathy (and other occult phenomena) and thus he lays himself open to this interpretation.

    1. Jung had indeed an open mind on the existence of telepathy but I think the article which you cite exaggerates where it refers to a belief.

      1. Well an awful lot of folk think Jung overtly endorsed telepathy in his essay “Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle” in which he certainly seems to indicate that due to mysteries we don’t understand minds can remotely pick up information by prescience, or affect one another’s working. It may not be precisely telepathy, though.

  10. Darn! If the speed of light is going down, I’ll never be able to make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs!

  11. I gave up on TED a couple of years ago; even the presentations that weren’t stupid were often shallow.

  12. The neutrino controversy was a good example of how scientists deal with anomalous results. According to Sheldrake’s model, scientists would ignore the anomaly because it didn’t fit the dogmatic mechanistic Newtonian paradigm; or it would be suppressed, ignored or shouted down. Obviously, that’s not what happened.

    (Sheldrake of course ignores this because it doesn’t fit his preconceptions.)

    Another thing Sheldrake doesn’t talk about is the fact that it’s not just “spiritual” theories that got rejected by science, but an immense amount of mechanistic, materialistic ones too. Obviously, they were rejected for the same reason the spiritual ones were: they didn’t work.

    And in his book he complains about Dawkins supposedly believing that genes are selfish. That’s especially funny coming from him, because he spends the rest of the book arguing that inert matter has conscious attributes.

    1. A correction, in the spirit (heh) of doing better against cranks.

      One should say “lifeless” rather than “inert”, as since Newton (if not Galileo) we have known that matter is *not* inert; in fact it is in ceaseless motion by “default”.

      That said, the hypocrisy is astonishing with this guy.

  13. “TED”: “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”

    “Design” strongly implies “Engineering,” which is based on science.

    Maybe if they add “S” for “Science,” and replace “Entertainment” with “Engineering,” that will solve the problem?

    (Stated not without some sarcasm.)

      1. Yes, this is exactly how some things melt down, and more important things than TED. Substitute “people who can afford to pay their mortgages” for “decent speakers”, and “mortgage-backed securities” for “revenue” (not that different I guess”, and you have the 2008 financial crisis.

  14. The idea that the speed of light is (at present very slowly) falling is part of a respectable physical model. See e.g.


    Most physicists prefer the theory that the force gravity has reversed in sign since the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang (implying an early inflationary phase – and an infinite cascade of further universes). A minority prefer the more parsimonious view that the spped of light was once much faster. I have to count myself among the “dummies”. I doubt whether the various theoretical physicists listed at that link would count themselves among the “crackpots”.

    1. That link is not a very accurate description either of the theories with variable speed of light or the scientific consensus that they are contesting.

    2. Respectable? I wouldn’t trust an unreferenced web article.

      With the lack of references I doubt Magueijo has done anything at all related to string theory, he is on record for working with “double special relativity” in the disgraced “Loop Quantum Theory”. (Which famously has no lower energy and so no harmonic oscillators, nothing to form a dynamics out of.)

      More pertinent is that alternatives to inflation has been rejected, as they haven’t been observed but inflation was at the end of 2012 with the 9 year WMAP data release. (Earlier releases couldn’t resolve inflation within the well tested standard cosmology, but this one could.)

      the force gravity has reversed in sign

      ??? I don’t know what that would mean, gravity is by general relativity single and positively charged, and it can’t be any other way as long as it is based on spacetime curvature. No physicists to my knowledge claims such a preposterous thing.

      I don’t think many physicists prefer a varying light speed either, since it conflicts with inflationary standard cosmology and tons of astronomical observations, so “minority” is at most a handful crackpots or die-hards. Barrow _is_ an asserted religious crackpot, a Templeton winner and coauthor with Frank “Omega point” Tipler. Moffat is a Hoyle student, and is so out there that it isn’t even funny. (MOND instead of standard cosmology, inhomogenous cosmologies instead of the beyond doubt homogenous standard cosmology, et cetera. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Moffat_(physicist) ) Et cetera.

      The inflation process is an outcome of having an energetically dominant scalar field (scalar like the Higgs field), the inflaton field, but doesn’t change other physics. Inflation happens within spacetime of general relativity.

      Since inflation is past-timelike incomplete it is an entirely open question if the process “occurred for less than a yoctosecond or more than the present age of the (post-Big Bang) Universe!” [ http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/10/15/what-happened-before-the-big-bang/ ]

      Could we keep this website to the science instead of the Sheldrake like woo?

      1. I meant I doubt that Magueijo has done anything on variable light speed within string theory.

      2. Whether or not he’s right about the speed of light being variable, however, his method of demonstrating this- that is, by looking at the historical records of the measurement of the speed of light, and spotting a trend in them- doesn’t demonstrate this. One can be completely right (“the earth is not at the center of the solar system”) and still not be doing science (“because a magical dragon set it spinning about the sun!”)

  15. I love the story of how Galileo tried to measure the speed of light by sending an assistant to a faraway hill and opening a dark lantern. When Galileo saw it, he’d open his lantern too and the time there and back (minus human reaction time) divided by the total distance would be the speed!

    But then he tried it with a hill twice as far away and got the same result, so for these short distances it was only the human reaction time he was measuring.

    Oh well.

    Are there home experiments one can do to measure the speed of light? Aren’t there some mirrors on the moon we can bounce light off of?

    1. From:

      An experiment, begun when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a mirror on the lunar surface 40 years ago to allow Earth-based astronomers to fire lasers at it, has been ended by American science chiefs.

      . . .

      The decision means that four decades of continuous lunar laser research at the McDonald Observatory, run by the University of Texas at Austin, will be halted by the end of this year. Among the project’s unlikely achievements has been the discovery that the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of two-and-a-half inches a year.

      1. Indeed – he says he doesn’t know if the speed of light is finite or infinite, because he couldn’t *determine* that it was one rather than the other. So he kept an open mind. Just as he (and Newton, and arguably nobody until after Faraday) did not understand what produced gravity, only that it had such and such properties.

  16. There is actually a “home experiment” that allows you to estimate the speed of electromagnetic-waves, though in a round about way. The principle is that a microwave oven utilizes EM waves with wavelengths of the order of roughly ~10cm (which is small enough to fit in the microwave). Further, many of these microwaves mention a frequency rating for the radiation they are using (in MHz). So, if you could estimate the wavelength, you can multiply that by the quoted frequency to get the speed of light.

    And, as usual, enterprising folks on the internet have already put this into practice.

    The method with the moon will not work unless you had a very good quality laser: usual light sources will not have enough focus for a detectable amount of light to reach back to a source on earth after reflection from the moon.

  17. ‘Morphic resonance’ ? Rings a bell. I know that concept from the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I think it only operates in the presence of an intense magical field.
    IIRC, that same field is responsible for the speed of light on Discworld being rather slow, with consequent curious phenomena.

    Of course, Pratchett was writing fiction…

    1. I find physics to be pretty magical anyway!

      I am not a physicist & have no problem with people who are thinking outside the box, because we need something to hone existing ideas, as mavericks sometimes force us to. Questioning why we think certain things to be should be normal. However our cumulative world view should be based on evidence interpreted by ideas, rather than ideas interpreted by evidence.


  18. Sheldrake is challenging. I think he makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s good for us to consider the impossible, to think – what if we are wrong about some of our assumptions? Religious folks are dogmatic, we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into the same trap.

    1. Epistemic humility is all very well, but it is irrational to spend time scrutinising “challenging” ideas that neither provide more compelling explanations than established theories nor make testable, falsifiable predictions.

      It’s not a matter of dogmatism, it’s a matter of sensible allocation of resources.


    2. Keep an open mind, Sean Hull!

      There’s a flock of 13 pigs that live in the trees on my block. You have a hard time detecting them because the are almost invisible and are usually totally silent and still. When they move they make themselves appear to be branches. When the wind blows they mimic the sound of rustling leaves.

      A dogmatic mind would say these pigs are imaginary. You and I don’t fall for the usual assumptions about the nature of pigs and know better.

  19. Just wait until Mark Vernon at The Grauniad sees this video… He’ll self-combust in dribbling, drooling excitement.


  20. The dufus doesn’t understand the first thing about reality. Ever heard of MEASUREMENT ERROR Mr. Sheldrake?! Looks to me like we were simply refining our measurement tools. Any sane person with the tiniest crumb of scientific knowledge would also conclude so.


    1. “Ever heard of MEASUREMENT ERROR” – that’s what he thought, but the all the Woo came out & went “WOOOOOO”, & he lapped it all up!

  21. And by his nonsense illogic, the SOL has actually been increasing since about 1935, not decreasing. Sheesh!

  22. Here’s what I wrote to Jerry in an email — he wrote to let us know about this post, which is much appreciated:

    > While TED does not vet speakers for independent TEDx events, we do hold the TEDx licensee to the standards outlined in Lara’s and my letter, and take it seriously when viewers suggest the guidelines have not been met. We also take seriously the act of removing a TEDx talk from the archive; this is why we’re thoughtful and deliberate in our analysis.

    So I wanted to let this thread know, we’re reviewing the talk on two fronts: philosophy and fact. I’ll be pulling details from Jerry’s post and this comment thread as my team writes up our review of the talk.

    You’re invited to jump into our public forum as well: http://www.ted.com/conversations/16894/rupert_sheldrake_s_tedx_talk.html

  23. Sheldrake said, “Dogmatic assumptions prohibit inquiry.” That is so true of the religious. Based on many of the above comments it seems it’s true for science as well. Refuting something is admirable. Denigrating is not.

    1. What’s to refute? Until one shows a clear experiment (Faraday) showing a new field, or writes down some field equations (Maxwell), what is there to do? (Also, there are a few logically and epistemically prior steps to each of those.)

  24. When I read Sheldrake in the early 80s I assumed he’d fade away completely in no time. No, he tapped into the US market for twaddle, which is apparently inexhaustibly lucrative.

    I’d hardly ever watched a TED talk (or known of a distinction with TEDx…?) despite getting weekly emails for a couple of years. Then I couldn’t resist one that came up the other day, Allan Savory: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change. Sound’s exciting, doesn’t it?

    During the talk (in which he maintains that using domestic ungulates to mimic the Pleistocene migration patterns of wildebeest or bison is really good for the soil) I was thinking “This obviously can’t work in Australia, but if true anywhere it would actually be quite important.”

    As Savory’s claims are all either universal or very specific, I went looking for some science, and found quite a lot of it through GS. One abstract reads in part “Continued advocacy for rotational grazing as a superior strategy of grazing on rangelands is founded on perception and anecdotal interpretations, rather than an objective assessment of the vast experimental evidence.”

    Pseudoscience sells, because so many people want to think they’re so much smarter than those snooty book-learnin’ types.

  25. The graph of c over time simply shows that scientists are sometimes really poor at estimating their error bars. That in itself is a very valuable lesson. Remember a few years back when there were apparently some stars that were older than the Universe, the error bars proved that there was a serious problem and everyone was worried and or excited. The error bars were inaccurate.

  26. I have many problems with Sheldrake but the one that annoys me the most is the way he goes so far out of his way to pollute his own ‘experiments’ so that they seem vaguely successful.

    For example, he was on the BBC’s flagship national news programme Breakfast a while back talking about how dogs are obviously psychic because they know when their owners are coming home. Now this would not be difficult to test. You could put a camera in the room, get the owners to come back at a random time and see if the dog gets up to wait by the door before it could possibly have heard them.

    But Sheldrake did not do this. He installed some researchers in the house, for no reason at all. Then the dogs’ owners TELEPHONED the researchers to tell them they were coming back. And the dogs did indeed run to wait by the door in at least this one instance.

    Couldn’t it just possibly be explained by the researchers were unconsciously looking at the door expectantly whenever they heard a car?

    The only possible motive for introducing this variable into the experiment is dishonesty. He stacked the deck then turned an inconclusive experiment into an anecdote.

    I’ve no doubt that some woo-peddlers believe their own hype, but I don’t think Sheldrake is one of them. This kind of thing seems way beyond simple incompetence and looks a lot more like deliberate dishonesty.

    Plus, he blocked me on Twitter when I asked some questions about his methodology so is clearly A VERY BAD MAN.

  27. Hold on a sec. When the writer says “(Indeed, today the speed of light is fixed by definition, not by measurement.)” in parenthesis, does that not undermine his point a bit? I beleive Sheldrake noted a conversation that the the metrology fellow noted redefined both c and the measurement units in relation to each other. How could you then know, by direct measurement of the speed, going forward, if it changes? Argumentum, would not any theoretical change in the constant be corrected by a correspondeing change in the measurement units? Presumably a third order effect might be detectable, as he indicates, but what is the rationale for changing the measurement units into components of the thing measured?

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