The TED Saga Continues on the Sheldrake and Hancock Debates (and TEDxWestHollywood)

I’ve been following the latest TED saga since Day One. (See my post here, here, here, my EPIC thread on Facebook, and my posts on TED Conversations.) Readers of this blog and my Facebook friends are probably tired and nauseated by the attention I’ve given on this issue. I think it’s unfortunate that this issue didn’t catch the attention of mainstream news and popular tech blogs the way the Nick Hanauer’s TED controversy did. So far I’ve only seen a few fringe blogs and alternative news sites that jumped on this story. I actually submitted this story to Boing Boing but maybe my submission was buried in the avalanche of submissions or that the editors think that this story is not important or interesting enough to spread to the interwebs.

I’m disappointed that this latest TED fiasco didn’t go viral, but I’m hardly surprised. This issue is not for mainstream consumption. This issue is political but not the typical political issue that you’ll see in the mainstream media circus. This issue boils down to “War of the Worldviews” (to borrow the term from Mlodinow and Chopra’s book collaboration). A couple of bloggers who have been following this story calls it “The Psi wars Come to TED” (see Craig Weiler) and “Materialists vs. Idealists” (see Markus Anthony). I agree. In fact, that was the precisely the essence of Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks — Scientific (materialism) Dogmas and “War on Consciousness“. Knowingly or unknowingly, TED essentially proved Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s points when TED “censored” (ok, fine, “suppressed”) their talks. 

As of this writing there are only about 3 days left before the “debate” threads on TED Conversations close for good. So far I haven’t seen any convincing arguments from the TED staff, TED Curator (Chris Anderson), TED Science Board, or TED Brain Trust regarding a valid or persuasive justification for pulling out Sheldrake and Hancock’s TEDx talks from their official distribution channels.

Sheldrake and Hancock have issued a public challenge for a debate on this issue. But, so far, their challenge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in TED has the courtesy or integrity to respond. This leads me to speculate that:

1) The people at TED were not interested in a real debate. They just wanted a place holder for people to vent their frustrations until they get tired and move on.

2) The people at TED knew that they’ve made a mistake of pulling out Sheldrake and Hancock’s videos and framing it with poorly crafted justification, let alone the slanderous accusations that TED leveled at both Sheldrake and Hancock. However, TED cannot afford to explicitly admit this mistake in public. As a corollary, TED can’t issue a public apology to Sheldrake and Hancock for fear of backlash from the “skeptical” and scientific materialist communities.

3) The people at TED know that they are on the losing side of the debate if they accept Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s challenge.

4) Therefore, it is best  for TED to just stay mum on this issue and let this fiasco pass and die down.

Maybe Jerry Coyne was right all along when he said that Sheldrake and Hancock’s TEDx talks are now “relegated” to TED’s “website of shame.”

“Besides, TEDx did not remove their videos—they just relegated them to a “website of shame.” And that’s exactly where they belong.”

However, I just wish that if there are no takers from TED to accept Sheldrake’s debate challenge, maybe TED can arrange for a Sheldrake-Coyne debate. But of course, TED will not do it because it would only inflame the issue. The people at TED want this issue to go away and die down, as quietly as possible. TED will probably be forced to take Sheldrake’s debate challenge if this controversy goes viral. But without it going viral, TED has no reason to yield.

That said, IMHO, if given the opportunity of a fair public debate setting, Sheldrake will rip Coyne’s arguments apart. I’ve seen Jerry Coyne do a lecture and I read his blog wherein he regularly engages in name-calling people who don’t share his views. Compared to Sheldrake’s tempered demeanor, scientific knowledge, philosophical sophistication, and clear and concise articulation, Coyne lacks what it takes to make a convincing case against Sheldrake in the arena of a fair public debate. Don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself. Below are videos of Sheldrake and Coyne’s lectures. Watch them and draw your own conclusions.

Jerry Coyne On Why Evolution Is True

Rupert Sheldrake On The Science Delusion

UPDATE: (Jerry Coyne: 2; Woomeisters: 0)

As soon as I published this blog post I got the news that TED revoked the license of TEDxWestHollywood. The reason? TED has “rules about the presentation of science on the TEDx stage” and they “disallow speakers who use the language of science to claim they have proven the truth of ideas that are speculative and which have failed to gain significant scientific acceptance.” Craig Weiler broke this news on his blog:

“So what is the fuss all about?  (here is her lineup of speakers.)  Although TED refused to “name names” in their dismissal, whereby an argument could be made, it surely has to do with three of the speakers who are scientists, about whom they earlier had raised eyebrows asking for justification for their place on the program with the caution that if they weren’t pleased with the end results they would not post the talks on their YouTube page. Pulling the program was never brought up. The three are:  Russell Targ, who will talk on the reality of ESP and Larry Dossey, who will talk on the revolution in consciousness and Marilyn Schlitz, who is a social anthropologist and psi researcher, speaking on “How do we shift our paradigm.”  All three have the proper credentials along with ability to speak to the evidence and present their views using credible science.  They, more than the other speakers, represent the real threat to the Materialists/skeptics at TED.  However, in addition, TED also had objections to Marianne Williamson and Paul Nugent although neither was giving a science talk.”

I called this out a few days ago. Here’s what I wrote on my blog:

“Incidentally, Jerry Coyne has another target on his sights. He’s now ranting about the Woo Woo speakers on TEDx West Hollywood. He’s on a mission to rid the world of pseudoscience. God bless his heart.”

You read that right. Looks like Mr. Coyne is on a roll. He (and PZ Myers) were instrumental on getting Sheldrake and Hancock’s TEDx talks to be pulled out by TED, which makes me wonder: Is Jerry Coyne one of the “anonymous” members of the TED Science Board? The thought of it sends shivers down my spine.

In any case, it seems very clear to me that Coyne was once again the main driving force behind TEDxWestHollywood’s license getting axed by TED. Here are the series of posts by Coyne that culminated to this event:

Oy vey: TEDx continues the woo—now with more self help!

TEDx West Hollywood administrators planned to show Graham Hancock video

TEDx West Hollywood: Garbage in, garbage out

And, of course, Coyne’s self-congratulatory dance of joy:

“This is a nice victory for rationalism, and big plaudits go to TED and TEDx for making this decision. They’re gonna catch a lot of flak for this, and many accusations of “censorship”, but what they did was to stand up for science.

And don’t forget to keep an eye open for TEDx events in your area (there are hundreds worldwide), and report it to the TEDx organizers (and me) if you see anything really wonky, including pseudoscience or antiscience.”

So congratulations to Jerry Coyne for another stellar job. Once again, “real science” came out victorious, unscathed by the threats of woo and pseudoscience!

Having said that, I’m not surprised by TED’s decision to axe TEDxWestHollywood. I’ve seen the speaker line-up. If TED cracked down on Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock then it is to be expected that TED will do the same with the likes of Russell Targ, Marilyn Schlitz, and Larry Dossey.

This sends a clear message to all TEDx organizers. By revoking the TEDxWestHollywood license, TED has now made it official that they will not allow voices from the fringes to be on the TED/TEDx platform. TED has no interest in “spreading ideas” ideas that challenge the scientific establishment and the status quo. The TED platform is only big enough for “skeptics” and scientific materialists. Disappointing, yes but hardly unexpected. As I said before, TED ought to change its slogan to “Status Quo Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Speaking of Russell Targ… He is often lumped with New Age and “pseudoscience” by people who don’t know his background and history of his scientific work. Never mind the fact that Targ’s (and his colleague Hal Puthoff) research on remote-viewing was good enough to be funded by the CIA (see Project Stargate). Incidentally, Targ has just published a new book where he has divulged some declassified information from the CIA remote-viewing program. TED will never dare touch this material. So we’ll just have to rely on our own research and on other alternative news media to be informed.

Case in point: Here’s a good interview with Russell Targ on The Paracast.

“Gene and Chris present the ever-elusive Dr. Russell Targ. Dr. Targ and Hal Putoff led the team at Stanford Research Institute that created the “remote viewing” protocols in the early ’70s, about which many stories have been written. Targ’s latest book is The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities.”

In the meantime, TEDxWestHollywood is moving forward with their planned event.


And the TED saga continues… digging themselves deeper into the screaming abyss and mediocrity of the status quo.


UPDATE (04/02/13): Rupert Sheldrake Responds 

Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko interviewed Rupert Sheldrake to get his perspective on the TED controversy. Here’s what Sheldrake has to say. He speaks softly but his words pack a lot of punch.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I do see Chris Anderson’s point of view and indeed, I had a long conversation with Chris Anderson on the telephone. We got on perfectly well. I wasn’t particularly angry with him or anything like that. It was a reasonable conversation. They do have a point. There’s a lot of rubbish and there has to be some kind of filter. So I’m not against the idea of a filter but what I am against is the idea of applying the filter in a very partial kind of way.

There are lots of things up on the TEDx website which are controversial. For example, there are a lot of talks by militant Atheists which a lot of people find controversial. A lot of people disagree with what they say and think they’re actually wrong in a variety of ways. But those haven’t been flagged up or put in the Naughty Corner. Those have been allowed absolutely free run on the Internet. They’re put up on the main website, talks by people like Richard Dawkins, for example.

The difference here is that my talk was flagged up as being pseudo-scientific because Jerry Coyne didn’t like it. Well, Jerry Coyne is a very bigoted man who writes very loud-mouthed things on his website. I don’t take him very seriously. I mean, he’s a polemicist, a kind of Dawkins-type polemicist. So they pay a lot of attention to what Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyers said on their websites. If there had been a similar attack by, for example, Christian Fundamentalists on Dawkins they would have ignored it. But if it’s by scientific fundamentalists then they pay attention, and what’s more don’t just pay attention but dig themselves into a hole trying to justify this.

So I think the problem here is an attempt to filter out content was done in an extremely biased way. If every TED talk which is controversial was flagged up by somebody who didn’t like it and put in the Naughty Corner, all the most interesting talks would be in the Naughty Corner. Only the dullest would be on the main website.

What’s more, TED in their instructions to the organizers of the TEDx events told them they wanted controversial talks. They said controversy energizes. When it’s in a particular area, one that upsets the dogmatic materialists, then they back down and say it’s not the right thing to have. So I think that it’s been inconsistent. They’ve paid far too much attention to these very biased and I think minority and strident voices.

Oh, snap! TED, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, you’ve been served!

And finally, the “debate” threads on Sheldrake and Hancock’s TEDx talks are now closed. But before it closed for good, one of the participants in TED Conversations made this astute observation. He summed it up very well.

Ian Morris: 

With little time to go, this “Conversations” thread is showing about 2000 comments, about 20% more comments than the next highest thread (the one discussing Graham Hancock’s talk with about 1655 comments), and nearly six times as many comments as the next highest thread with around 339 comments (on an unrelated discussion). The issue has definitely interested TED participants. Note that many individuals made multiple posts.

The three most popular TED talks of all time, have (1) 15,480,019 veiws with 2937 comments (2) 10,741,137 views with 2425 comments (3) 10,311,697 views and 1287 comments. Two have been online for over fives years, the other for 18 months.

Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s talks have been online for less than 4 months. There were also 1677 + 325 + 483 comments from previous combined discussions, making the average comment count (2000 + 1655 + 1677 + 235 + 483) / 2 = 3025 comments per talk.

By this calculation, it makes both talks the post popular of all time by comment count. Popularity does not imply support or endorsement of their ideas.

My personal estimate is that people oppose TED’s actions by around 10-to-1 (I think it is actually more than this, as I found it difficult to find people who support TED, but wanted to be conservative). This does not necessarily translate into support for Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s ideas, only their right to be treated reasonably.

Having read through the vast proportion of posts, my personal assessment is that the issue is not as clear cut as the science board and advisors would suggest, from which I hope that the necessarily actions will be taken.

As I said in my very first post on this TED controversy: When all is said and done, I’d like to thank TED, PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne for making Sheldrake and Hancock’s TEDx talks more popular than ever. Congratulations on a job well-done, science boys! I hope you learned your lessons on The Streisand Effect.


UPDATE (04/05/13) : Chris Anderson’s Closing Statement

TED Curator, Chris Anderson, posted his closing statements on the Sheldrake-Hancock “debates.” Read it and weep.

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED’s decision to move Rupert Sheldrake’s talk from YouTube to It was scheduled as a 2-week conversation, and has now closed. But the archive will remain visible here.

We’d like to respond here to some of the questions raised in the course of the discussion.

Some asked whether this was “censorship.” Now, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google. But it raises an interesting question about curation. Should TED play *any* curatorial role in the content it allows its TEDx organizers to promote? We believe we should. And once you accept a role for curatorial limits, you have to accept there will be times when disputes arise.

A number of questions were raised about TED’s science board: How it works and why the member list isn’t public. Our science board has 5 members — all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.

Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we’re also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That’s why we invited this debate. The process hasn’t been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.

The talk, and this conversation, will remain here, and all are invited to make their own reasoned judgement.

Thanks for listening.

Chris Anderson, TED Curator

Never mind that TED have not responded to Sheldrake’s rebuttal to their justification of “censoring” (oh, sure, let’s call it *suppression* instead) Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks. Never mind that TED never apologized for their inflammatory statements against Sheldrake and Hancock. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the people who participated in the TED Conversations did not agree with TED’s decision to pull out the talks and have asked TED to reconsider and reinstate the videos in their rightful distribution channels. There was not much of a debate coming from the TED staff or Chris Anderson. It’s just a re-statement of TED’s knee-jerk and intellectually indefensible decision. In short, Chris Anderson’s closing statement is a classic cop out.

Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko accurately described Chris Anderson’s response as “tone deaf.” Craig Weiler described it as “It’s a complete non answer. But given how it was all going down, I can’t say that I expected anything different.” And finally, Craig Weiler also summed it up on his blog with his recap.

What open enquiry?  What critical thinking?  Where is the appropriate skepticism?  Is it a secret?  An endeavor can hardly be called an open enquiry or even a debate if none of the important questions are ever answered.  So what are we left with?  Nothing much.  It has all the content of a BP press release right after the oil spill.  I suppose I could go on criticizing them, but what’s the point?  The fact that they’re not even trying to defend themselves pretty much says it all.

Exactly. I couldn’t agree more.

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