TEDx has second thoughts about Rupert Sheldrake’s talk, asks viewers to weigh in

March 7, 2013 • 7:14 am

Yesterday I put up the video of an absolutely dreadful anti-scientific talk by woomeister Rupert Sheldrake, a talk that he gave it for TEDx Whitechapel. After I kvetched about it here, I sent an email complaint to Emily McManus, an editor at TED.com (her TED biography notes that she’s an atheist!), adding a link to my post on Sheldrake’s video. Last night Ms. McManus sent me this obliging email:

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for writing in, and for the link to your thoughtful blog post. I wanted to let you know we’ve been looking at this talk all day today, and my team is both analyzing it for content and pulling together a list of the specific issues with it. It’s good practice for us to prepare a comprehensive list like this — we learn a lot from engaging.

We will concurrently open a public discussion of the talk on our TED forum tonight. I’ll send you that discussion link when it’s up.

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.

I appreciate your thoughtful blog post and comments. Please know that you have been heard.

Emily McManus
Editor, TED.com

And, sure enough, she wrote me this morning noting that they had started a comment site for Sheldrake’s talk. If you go there, you can leave a comment with your reaction to what you saw.  I’ve already commented, and I urge readers to express their opinions about what Sheldrake said, or about the scientific quality of TED and TEDx talks. This is your chance to make a difference, and to promote quality science and good science communication. Leave any comments at the link above (note: you have to register, but it’s dead easy and you can opt out of TED emails).

There are only a few comments now, none of them (except mine) criticizing the talk, and some tout Sheldrake as a great scientist, e.g.:

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44 thoughts on “TEDx has second thoughts about Rupert Sheldrake’s talk, asks viewers to weigh in

  1. lol.

    I wonder if the “roundness” of the earth is considered to be a prescribed scientific dogma.

  2. We should all go to the discussion Jerry links to, login by facebook or other means, and give the ol’ digital “thumbs up” to his post (provided you agree with the sentiment). Reason is too often drowned out by drivel on comments sections like this one.

    1. I quickly used up my weekly ration of thumbs-up. I didn’t realize they only let you rate 5X in a week (or was it 7?)! I would have been more judicious in my thumbing if I would have known that.

      1. I had the same problem but it was solved when I realized you can “undo” by reclicking on any thumb you’ve already given, and redistribute them more judiciously as you see fit 🙂

  3. In all the years he has had he has never detected “morphic resonance” or come up with something approaching a testable hypothesis for it.

  4. “We will concurrently open a public discussion…”
    Why do they set up a site asking for comments exactly? Are they going to keep or remove the video from their archives based on commenters input? This is how TEDx works? Truth discovered by popular vote? Do we really have to go to that site and play their game? Emily McManus and the TED people maybe nice and obliging but they should know better. This is a no brainer: Sheldrake’s talk is 100% pseudoscientific woo from start to finish and should be removed or, better, let it stay but label it correctly as what it is.
    I though TED had some standards, that they would never engage in obvious crackpot propaganda. There are things that should not be object of debate in serious, adult forums but directly sent to Dara Obriains sack: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI-Uu94vINg)

  5. lol.

    I wonder if a person’s morphic resonance alert system (spidey sense) goes ballistic when he/she rides the public transit system (bus or subway) because on occasion other people on that bus or train glanced at them!

    That then means everyone’s spidey sense is going haywire in a public bus because everyone is looking at everyone!


    Everyone’s brain must be on morphic resonance overload!

  6. When church or religions attack “those who question established ideas” they always do so on the basis that the new idea is wrong because it is ungodly. They point to sacred scripture and emphasize the importance of faith. Tradition is true because it was established by God. Case closed.

    When people attack “those who question established ideas” on the basis that the new idea is wrong because it is scientifically unsupported, then they are not acting just like a church or religion. They are acting like scientists. They are doing science.

    The commenter you quoted is playing the tired old Galileo Gambit. They always trot it out when they have nothing else. Sheldrake is not putting forth some brave new idea which is being attacked because it is so brave and so new. He’s trying to prop up the same old superstitious supernaturalism with pseudoscience — and its being defended with the same old craven apologetic tactics. “You’re just saying he’s wrong because you’re persecuting a heretic!”

    1. When confronted with that gambit, it is useful to crib from Carl Sagan:

      ” They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  7. We have a process by which the body of knowledge about the natural world is held up to scrutiny.

    It’s called “science”.

    It is NOT science to merely look at a well-established scientific tenet and to disagree with it. That’s called “lunacy”.

  8. The central mistake of the commenter, in defending the Sheldrake talk, is the common mistake of assuming that an openness to ideas in science means it must be wide open to ALL ideas, even already discounted nutty ones. It is not. Science is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy.

  9. Interesting that TED advertises “Ideas Worth Spreading” and then ends up having to ask the audience if the ideas were worth spreading.

    1. Sheldrake’s ideas might make good fertilizer if they were sufficiently composted. OTOH, that fertilizer might set up a morphic resonance among the vegetables.

  10. I have to sleep on it. (Only half joking here, managed a steep amp up in my training curve this week). Bookmarked for action, at the very least.

    1. Finally got around to comment and vote on comments. Of course my pc would crash and need repairs after I made a promise…

  11. I’ve done my bit in the comments section, engaging the arguments in a hopefully polite and respectful manner. It is interesting reading responses to my comments and how personal and “shrill” they are!! I find this interesting because one of the tone trolls made the knee jerk response that those who were calling for the video to be removed were “shrill and intemperate”. Oh the irony.

  12. With TEDX talks like these:

    The power of love
    Giving is good business
    The subtle secret of success
    Honor your heart
    Dare to be great

    I think it would be accurate to say he’s right where he belongs…with the new-agey fluffy-bunny-self-help crowd.

    1. I think an important distinction is that these speakers probably don’t pretend to be scientists, and don’t pretend to refute fundamental aspects of science as mere dogma. To be honest, Sheldrake’s bio should emphasize that he gave up on science at least three decades ago and decided it was easier and more lucrative to sell new age books that titillate people’s imagination than to engage in the really hard work of science.

      I seems TED has a dilemma about how stringently to manage the quality of TEDx franchisees. McDonald’s would be very concerned if a franchisee started serving cat or dog meat in its burgers.

      TED risks damaging it reputation (even more) by allowing such fluff.

  13. I also particularly enjoyed Sam Harris’s two take-downs (Take Down #1 and Take Down #2) of similar woo nonsense by a “science-y” guy. Brilliant.

    I think if you are enthusiastic enough about any woo nonsense, you can easily find a troup of ignorant followers. Throw in a few words like “quantum”, “resonance”, “spiritual” and so on, play the victim card (those who disagree with me (and pull my pants down in public) are shrill, mean, and dogmatists with closed minds), and play to people’s wish thinking (we’re more than meat, there’s an afterlife, we have a universal mind, you can “transcend” physics, space-time, etc., consciousness proves we are non-material, yadayadayada) and write your book, go on Oprah, and make your millions.

    P.T. Barnum would be proud! As would L. Ron Hubbard.

  14. The comments are so depressing. I read through as many as I could stand, and they were all pro-woo.
    I guess calling science dogmatic is just all the rage, and providing actual evidence for your assertions isn’t. I hate people.

  15. I posted my comment and, as always, tried to be thoughtful and reasonable. The responses often seem orthogonal to the facts and my intent. None of the pro-Sheldrake commenters actually offer evidence to support either his contentions about scientific ‘dogma’ or his hypotheses about morphic fields or psi phenomena. They merely attack those who offer often detailed criticisms (or reference them) as adherents to scientific orthodoxy. I realize that this is the state of affairs in the world, but I, like Astrobot, find it discouraging. I will go back to actual science.

  16. The vast majority of comments is STILL complete and utter WOO.

    I sincerely hope the editors will take quality over quantity of arguments, or else we shall mourn the loss of TEDs credibility for ever… 🙁

  17. I’m intrigued that Sheldrake can get away with this. At no time in his talk does he produce any evidence or even point to evidence. Bald assertion does not make his talk true.
    I’m appalled that he states that the form of a crystal can be affected by woo and will be easier to form next time and easier the time after that and so on and that a crystal in Asia can learn formation from crystals that have already formed in, say, Europe……crystals take their form because of the molecular structure of the elements and compounds forming them not because of some inherent race memory that crystals have. All other factors being equal the process of formation of a particular crystal will always be the same. This is all taking Jungian theory to the edge and it’s nonsense.

  18. Not one poster has attempted to reply in kind to his points in the talk let alone peer review his work or even do research themselves. In that regard you seem to be validating his central point on science restricting itself by having a default position on these dogmas.

    1. Anybody with a good understanding of science already knows what is absurd in Sheldrake’s claims.

      When a scientist proposes unconventional new ideas, such as relativity or quantum mechanics were in the early 20th century, the ideas are only considered valuable if they offer explanations for phenomena we could not already explain, or if they reveal errors or limits in existing theories and explanations. To gain validity for such new ideas, experiments must be proposed that can test these ideas. Sheldrake doesn’t do that. He simply asserts things without any scientific basis. So he’s no different than someone in the middle of the 18th century proposing that someday flying machines will exist, without actually providing even the slightest detail on how they might be built or work. It’s mere fancy, and for each fancy that might someday be true there are millions of dreams that are just fantasy.

      To chase down every such assertion that can be made would be an enormous waste of time. We don’t see a reason to be investing money, time, and energy into testing the theory that giant earthworms cause earthquakes because we already have better explanations, and we don’t see evidence that suggests such giant earthworms exist or could be capable of causing earthquakes, unless you count hollywood movies as evidence. Sheldrake’s ideas fall into this absurd and wildly unlikely and not useful category of fictional ideas.

      Simply doing a quick evaluation of Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance makes it obvious that he has proposed no measurable mechanism whereby this resonance can take place. The phenomenon of resonance requires a medium capable of energetic oscillations, and he has proposed no concrete properties or mathematics of such a medium that could enable resonance to occur in the shape of objects like giraffes, or that could enable us to detect and measure such energetic resonance. He has also provided no reason why existing theories of genetics and embryonic development are wrong or inadequate to explain the growth of organisms like humans or giraffes.

      Sheldrake’s idea amounts to something like this: Sailboats move in the wind because they have a will to follow the wind, airplanes fly because they have a will to acheive lofty heights, and water flows downhill because it fears heights.

      Should we waste time examining such claims when we already have mathematically effective theories based on forces and fluid dynamics that actually enable us to design, build, and analyze the efficiency of wings, sails, dams, levees, and hydroelectric generators? Attributing a will to objects adds no practical scientific value, relates to no measurable or testable phenomena, and seems in no way promising as an avenue of research to anyone who knows even a small amount of science.

      Sheldrake’s ideas are mere poetic metaphors. Unfortunately too many people are unable to see the difference between a poetic metaphor and a scientific theory.

      1. Wow, a very nice reply. I was going to say, more than the poster deserved, but perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt; as you did.

        1. Thanks Diane. I must say while I was typing that there was a nagging thought in my mind saying “why the hell am I doing this?” Oh well. Hopefully Charles will read it and understand.

          1. “Simply doing a quick evaluation of Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance makes it obvious that he has proposed no measurable mechanism whereby this resonance can take place.”

            Kinda proves my point

            1. If you want to prove your point, tell us the measurable mechanism that Sheldrake proposes. From what I can tell he does no such thing. If he does not, then there is nothing to research.

              Otherwise what he is doing is no different than conceptual speculation, as is done for example in movies such as Inception or The Matrix. Nobody seems to be researching the phenomena portrayed in those films either, and there should be no need to wonder why. They are really just flights of fancy. There is no point of purchase for research to be done, as is the case with Sheldrake’s speculation about “morphic resonance”.

  19. If religion was replaced by science how do you know that science won’t be replaced by something else? If knowledge is improved through time how can you say everything you know won’t one day be proven wrong?

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