Apr 12, 2013

TED: A Postmortem... of the Censorship Debacle

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The issue of TED's pulling the Hancock and Sheldrake lectures isn't dead. It's still proliferating through the mainstream press and the blogosphere. But as far as TED is concerned, it's a wrap. They allowed their two weeks of discussion on each lecture and now they'd like everyone to just move along. They declined the opportunity to debate Hancock and Sheldrake, explaining that the discussion pages would suffice. But they also refused to explain their reasoning in those discussions. TED's final summations on the deleted Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake talks a can be found here and here. If only they were satisfying.

Despite the fact that many people called on them to explain their reasons for disavowing the talks -- after crossing out their initial justification -- they never have. You can glean fairly quickly that neither summation addresses the reasons by the fact that they're virtually identical and the talks were on very different subject matter. They're perfunctory and span only a few full paragraphs addressing only two of the "questions raised" in the discussion. Of the vast number of substantive issues discussed, TED chose only to address a couple issues of policy: whether or not consigning the videos to an unembeddable format on its back pages constituted censorship and an explanation of who their science board is without revealing their super-secret identities. We're left to take their word for their number, five, and vaguely described credentials.

While TED is advised by this shadowy body of "working scientists or distinguished science journalists," it is claimed that Chris Anderson's "team" makes the final decision. None of them, however, have seen fit to make their reasoning public. Since the original debacle of Anderson's attempt at explanation which had to be  redacted, they seem to have given up on explanations entirely.

In their more recent cancellation of TEDx West Hollywood's license, no factual justification has been offered. Suzanne Taylor just got a lot of "we're not comfortable with it" and that there were complaints about some of the authors. They refused to specify which speakers and what those complaints were. They just poked around with questions about certain speakers because they were "interested to hear" what was planned. They claimed in their note to the TED community that their "decision was not based on any individual speaker, but our assessment of the overall curatorial direction of the program." How's that for vague?

In their haste to dispose of this matter, they cut short the discussion period on the license cancellation by a week, citing some sniping in the comments. There doesn't appear to have been much of a flame war. What it was specifically that made the discussion so untenable is hard to say as only a handful of comments appear to have been deleted. It is clear from what's left that a good bit of it had to do with an apparent plant -- a participant who seemed to have secret admin privileges and was inappropriately deleting comments.

As with the Sheldrake and Hancock threads, TED made no further effort to clarify its reasoning or address concerns.

A couple of the West Hollywood speakers made statements about having their credentials questioned.

Said Larry Dossey:

I’ve lectured at dozens of top-tier medical schools and hospitals all over the U.S. for two decades. Although my colleagues don’t always agree with my points of view, this is the first time my scientific credibility has ever been questioned.

My TEDx talk would have dealt with the correlations between spirituality, health, and longevity, for which there is immense evidence; and recent experimental findings that point toward a nonlocal view of consciousness for which, again, there is strong and abundant support. In view of our lack of understanding of the origins and destiny of consciousness, and considering the demographics of the TEDx followers, I thought this information would have been of considerable interest.

As a board-certified physician of internal medicine, former chief of staff of a major hospital, author of twelve books and scores of papers on these subjects published in peer-reviewed journals, a recipient of many awards, a frequent lecturer at medical schools and hospitals, and executive editor of the peer-reviewed journal, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, I’d be interested in knowing from TED where I came up short.

Said Russell Targ:

In cancelling the TEDx event in West Hollywood, it appears that I was accused of "using the guise of science" to further spooky claims, (or some such). People on this blog have asked what I was going to talk about. That's easily answered. I was co-founder of a 23 year research program investigating psychic abilities at Stanford Research Institute. We were doing research and applications for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Air Force and Army Intelligence, NASA, and others. In this $25 million program we used "remote viewing" to find a downed Russian bomber in North Africa, for which President Carter commended us. We found a kidnapped US general in Italy, and the kidnap car that snatched Patricia Hearst. We looked in on the US hostages in Iran, and predicted the immanent release of Richard Queen, who was soon sent to Germany. We described a Russian weapons factory in Siberia, leading to a US congressional investigation about weakness in US security, etc. We published our scientific findings in Nature, The Proc. IEEE, Proc, AAAS, and Proc. American Institute of Physics. I thought a TED audience would find this recently declassified material interesting. And no physics would be harmed in my presentation.

What TED has done in not singling out any particular speaker is clever in a slippery, smarmy kind of way. It means they never have to confront the impressive credentials of speakers like Targ and Dossey and explain how such accomplished scientists aren't good enough for TED. In other words, it's a dodge.

For all TED's apparent squeamishness about what the most vocal TED defenders call "pseudoscience" -- psi research, remote viewing, spiritually tinged research -- sorting out their reasons is ironically a bit like reading tea leaves.

Their own broadly stated justifications paint a dreary picture for the future of TED as they would eliminate some of their best TED lectures past. Either this is just pure hypocrisy or this marks a tightening of TED curation that will make the product awfully dull.

There won't be much in the way of cutting edge science discussed on TED because there can be no controversy. They explain in their letter on "bad science" -- which appears to have come out last December in response to a Reddit drama much like the one that got Hancock and Sheldrake pulled -- that, basically, only established science that has reached broad consensus is to be discussed in TED talks. Here are some of their bullet points:

  • It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field
  • It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy
  • Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation
  • It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge

And the lecturers cannot have "failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth" or speak "dismissively of mainstream science." Never mind that some of the most important scientific theories and breakthroughs upset the establishment and are initially met a great deal of resistance.

An acceptable speaker on a science subject "works for a university and/or has a phD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification." As Rupert Sheldrake points out in the interview posted above, at about the 17 minute mark, this criteria would have eliminated Albert Einstein just as he was publishing some of his most important papers. He was only a clerk in a patent office at the time.

TED just comes off looking overly cautious and incredibly scared. The connotation of its motto "ideas worth spreading" is that the ideas would be at least a little original. But you can't do much of that without challenging the establishment. Perhaps it should change its motto to something like "ideas that have already been beaten to death."

Other criteria clearly eliminates some of TED's best lectures. For instance their warning against speakers fusing "science and spirituality" would eliminate, as I suggested before, Jill Bolte Taylor's "stroke of insight" talk. It's one of TED's most viewed lectures of all time.

As many have pointed out Elizabeth Gilbert's much viewed talk on creativity and "muses" should also be in TED's crosshairs.

TED's new-found concern over talks involving hallucinogens would remove a number of existing talks including this one by renowned artist Alex Grey. Wrote TED:

TED and TEDx are brands that are trusted in schools and in homes. We don’t want to hear from a parent whose kid went off to South America to drink ayahuasca because TED said it was OK.

We all know how easy it is for the average kid to hop a plane to South America without their parents noticing. But where Hancock emphasizes that an ayahuasca journey is a painful ordeal that no on would undertake recreationally, Grey had his life changing experience after dropping acid at a party. So obviously it's the Hancock lecture that has to go.

An open letter to Chris Anderson from Reality Sandwich's Ken Jordan offers as good a theory as any to explain TED's actions. Surmises Jordan, for TED, investigation into the non-locality of consciousness is a third rail issue.

The five people identified as problematic by TED work in different fields. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist. Graham Hancock is a journalist who has written about archeological ruins. Larry Dossey is a doctor. Russell Targ is a physicist. Marylin Schlitz is a social anthropologist and consciousness researcher. The one subject they all have in common is a shared interest in the non-locality of consciousness, the possibility that consciousness extends beyond the brain. Each speaker has devoted many years to the rigorous study of consciousness through the lens of their respective disciplines, and they have come up with provocative results.

Through its actions, TED appears to be drawing a line around this area of investigation and marking it as forbidden territory. Is this true? In the absence of any detailed reasoning in TED's public statements, it's hard to avoid this conclusion. It would seem that, despite your statement that "TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking," that enquiry appears to not include any exploration of consciousness as a non-local phenomenon, no matter how it may be approached.

The other thing I can't help noticing is that the two TEDx conferences that invited TED's abysmally handled crack-down both had to do with challenging the existing paradigm. The TEDx Whitechapel conference that produced the Hancock and Sheldrake talks was called "Visions for Transition: Challenging existing paradigms and redefining values (for a more beautiful world)." The TEDx West Hollywood program that caused TED to pull its license is called "Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?" (As stated, the show will go on and a livestream will be run on April 14 for those who can't attend. More of the deets can be found here and here.)

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Of course the most obvious explanation for all of this is that TED is making a business decision. It needs to satisfy its wealthy donors and many of them are large corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

TEDx was clever but risky. It allowed TED to spread its brand name without paying anybody. Not paying anyone while it collects huge amounts of money seems to be what TED actually does best.

But in recent months, a series of controversies dogged the not-for-profit organisation and whose acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, leading many to question the integrity of the organisation which charges audiences several thousands of pounds to watch a speech, yet pays its speakers nothing. In 2009, TED decided to license its brand allowing anyone, around the world to stage ‘TEDx’ events.

Some of those very popular lectures I pointed out above were TEDx talks, not TED talks proper. And it's lectures like those that TED will have to eliminate in future -- exactly the ones that made TED look interesting. In the end, TED is proving itself just another establishment shill. 

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