Mar 30, 2013

TED: So Cowardly, So Cultish -- UPDATED

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Well. It's official. TED will not be putting anyone forward to debate Rupert Sheldrake or Graham Hancock, despite their generous offers. It does not appear that they told either of them directly. They did not respond on the threads where both of the censored TEDx speakers issued their challenge. They have done so through a spokeswoman when asked by a reporter.

A spokeswoman for TED told Positive News: “TED has opted for an open, online discussion, rather than a specific public debate with Sheldrake, Hancock and the science board. While the videos do not meet the stated TEDx guidelines, they will continue to be displayed on TED’s blog, with a lively ongoing debate.”

What the spokeswoman did not mention is that the "lively" debate will only be "ongoing" for a couple more days, because TED set a time limit of two weeks to allow discussion of the quarantined talks. (See above) So "ongoing" is rather a strong word for the discussion forum TED has provided in its back-pages.

It is also not a substitute for an actual debate between the relevant parties, the censored speakers and those who censored them. It would be an opportunity for TED to lay out its reasons for removing the talks, which they have thus far failed to do.

No one from TED has appeared on the discussion threads they've provided to explain their reasons. Instead we get inanities like this from Chris Anderson, in a response to a content-free eruption from a TED translator:

Krisztian, I understand your frustration with the talk. We've read a lot of such comments. They're what initiated this whole process. But I'd prefer you to make the case in more temperate language. I personally didn't think the talk was 'crap'. I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake a few days ago and I think he genuinely respects scientific thinking. He just disagrees with a lot of it. Some of his questions in the talk I found genuinely interesting. And I do think there's a place on TED to challenge the orthodox. Maybe I'm expecting too much for this forum, but I was hoping scientists who don't buy his ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible. [emphasis mine]

Thanks for being a TED Translator. You guys amaze me.

So the curator who made the decision to remove the talks doesn't understand that Sheldrake is a scientist, and not someone who "disagrees" with scientific thinking. And he would like some scientists to explain why they deserved to be pulled. He made the decision but he can't explain it. He refers to a science board who can't or won't show up even anonymously on the provided forum to explain the reasons and now we know for sure that TED won't put any of its brain trust forward to explain their reasoning in a debate.

After making a couple of comments of about that quality, Chris Anderson left the building. He has not been seen on either thread since March 20.

The discussions of both talks are informative and worth reading, just light on reasonable critique of either talk. What valid critiques have been offered have also been well debated by the many people who disagree with TED's decision. Such debate is healthy. I wish there were more of it presented but most of the criticism has come from trolls. And the bottom line for me is that, while I certainly think there are things to disagree with and debate in both talks, disagreement shouldn't lead to censorship or marginalization and that's what's happened.

The idea of actually debating these talks on their merits apparently terrifies TED. They'd rather hide the talks and provide a time limited forum to let Hancock and Sheldrake supporters vent their spleens, while they slink off and wait for the whole thing to die down.

If they did debate Sheldrake, they might have to grapple with the fact that one of the central points of his talk has been validated by two new studies. As discussed, Sheldrake raised a question about anomalous data regarding the speed of light. His statements were misrepresented by Jerry Coyne on his blog, who claimed that Sheldrake "argues that speed of light is dropping." Coyne consulted physicist Sean Carroll to refute Sheldrake's assertion that he never made, and Carroll accidentally confirmed Sheldrake's actual statements. Said Sheldrake in his refutation of TED's criticisms:

In my talk I suggest how a re-examination of existing data could resolve whether large continuing variations in the Universal Gravitational Constant, G, are merely errors, as usually assumed, or whether they show correlations between different labs that might have important scientific implications hitherto ignored. Jerry Coyne and TED’s Scientific Board regard this as an exercise in pseudoscience. I think their attitude reveals a remarkable lack of curiosity.

Now come two new studies showing variations in the speed of light as it moves through a vacuum.

Where did the speed of light in a vacuum come from? Why is it 299,792,458 meters per second and not some other figure?

The simple answer is that, since 1983, science has defined a meter by the speed of light: one meter equals the distance light travels in one 299,792,458th of a second. But that doesn't really answer our question. It's just the physics equivalent of saying, "Because I said so."

Unfortunately, the deeper answer has been equally unsatisfying: The speed of light in a vacuum, according to physics textbooks, just is. It's a constant, one of those numbers that defines the universe. That's the physics equivalent of saying, "Because the cosmos said so."

Or did it? A pair of studies suggest that this universal constant might not be so constant after all. In the first study, Marcel Urban from the University of Paris-Sud and his team found that the speed of light in a vacuum varies ever so slightly.

TEDx Whitechapel has also come out with a full-throated call for the reinstatement of the two talks. They also explained a bit about their thinking and the reasons for inviting Hancock and Sheldrake to speak.

We have been genuinely transformed through many of the inspiring TEDTalks; they have profoundly challenged our perceptions of and assumptions about the world, opening us up to new perspectives outside of the established mainstream thinking. Moreover, we really believe TED to be an ingenious medium to spread ideas across the globe. As such, TED represents the free and open flow and exchange of ideas globally, enriching and empowering an increasingly connected global community.

And it is with this passion that we decided to host a TEDx event with the theme “Visions for Transition: Challenging Existing Paradigms and Redefining Values (for a more beautiful world)’. We believe that in order to deal with the diverse and complex crises converging on our planet, we need to challenge the dominant thought paradigms and radically reassess the values which govern our world. In line with Einsteins wisdom “problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them” we saw TED as a truly special platform.

You can understand therefore, how shocked and saddened we were when we were alerted to the news that you had decided to remove Graham and Rupert’s talk from the TEDx Youtube channel and furthermore the disrespectful way in which they were treated publicly on the TED blog where you moved them.

I can't speak to what may or may not be going on behind the scenes, but in public, where this was posted -- it was also posted on both of the TED discussion threads -- there has been no response from the parent organization.

Sadly, I think TEDx Whitechapel has been dissed. I say that, in part, because TEDx West Hollywood was just dissed. This time it was pre-emptive.

TED, the parent organization, is removing the license of TEDxWestHollywood only a couple of weeks before their planned event “Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?” after they had spent more than a year preparing.  Tickets are already on sale. After summarily dismissing the program with no recompense at all for monies that had been expended, they amended their stance to offer a fraction of the operating costs in compensation and all because they deem the program to be . . . wait for it . . . unscientific.  Does this sound familiar?  It does indeed.  This is the same charge that was leveled at Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock when TED first pulled their videos.

. . .

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. This is the pertinent email to Suzanne Taylor:

We will be especially interested to hear about the ideas that Marianne Williamson, Russell Targ, Larry Dossey, Paul Nugent, and Marilyn Schlitz will be presenting.We feel that the pseudoscience struggle is an important one. TED and TEDx cannot be platforms that give undo legitimacy to false evidence and selective logic — regardless of brilliant packaging.

I'm sorry... the "pseudoscience struggle?" It's a struggle now? The phrasing is just so... odd. Wait. I had no idea Marianne Williamson had ever pretended to be a scientist. Oh, right. She didn't. Of course, neither did Graham Hancock. Has it ever been more plain that TED is way out of its depth on this issue? They seem to be badly parroting criticisms from their shadowy science board that they don't even understand. They appear to have been hijacked by militant atheists. I really wonder if something like this would make the cut in the current environment, and Jill Bolte Taylor gave one of their most popular talks, ever.

I will say this, though. I'm pretty sure TEDx Peachtree is safe. I say that because Al Meyers is a real team player. I mentioned Mr. Meyers, TEDx co-organizer and all-around TED sycophant, here. Meyers dropped by the Sheldrake and Hancock discussion threads long enough to drop the phrase "TED brand" ten or twenty times. He got really wrapped around the axle when he learned that Sheldrake had briefly mentioned his book at the beginning of his talk. So I learned something new about TED of which I was previously unaware. As a TED speaker you cannot self-promote at all. This is addressed in the, I kid you not, TED Commandments. There are ten of them. The sixth commandment reads:

No selling from the stage! Unless we have specifically asked you to, do not talk about your company or organization. And don’t even think about pitching your products or services or asking for funding from stage.

I didn't think there was anything pitchy at all in Sheldrake's talk. He referenced the book to provide a little context. It would seem the Whitechapel folks didn't see a problem either. But Meyer, who still hasn't watched the lectures, was very distressed that a book was mentioned at all.

If Sheldrake did, in fact, open his talk by promoting his book, then the talk should have never been uploaded because it is ABSOLUTELY a violation of the TEDx rules. That puts the TEDx organizer in a difficult spot - if they had seen an advance copy of his slides and this was an "ad lib" addition by Sheldrake, then that is pretty sleezy but as an organizer, nothing you can do about it.

Whitechapel may have been asleep at switch if Sheldrake didn't know his TED Commandments and it all reflects badly on the brand.

Every TEDx speaker is given the rules on how to give a TED Talk. If they did not receive them, then the TEDx organizer did not do his/her job. Anyone who knows about TED knows that you NEVER self-promote on the stage. The "TED Commandments" are all over the web. So if Sheldrake used the stage to plug his book, that is a huge red flag and should have been edited from the version uploaded to the web. Steve, if you don't like the rules, you are under no obligation to participate in the TED community. My TEDx event has declined to invite speakers who do not respect the brand.

In retrospect, Meyers felt bad about calling Sheldrake "sleazy." But he's very much on his guard about hucksters pitching their wares at TED conferences.

Last night I used an inappropriate word ("sleazy") to describe Sheldrake pitching his book in one part of his talk, which I deeply regret. It is unfortunate that using this word has riled up this already "spirited" group, including that of an alleged "TED Fellow," on here, and that someone would flag that comment as inappropriate. While I believe that folks are a bit "insensitive" in their responses to using that word, I apologize for using it.

I didn't have to read the deluge of comments I received when I woke up this morning to realize that there are some folks who believe VERY STRONGLY that TED has "wronged" these two presenters. What I can tell you is this:
1. It appears that a vast majority (not all) of the talks that TED has "flagged" in the past are related to a speaker who has a book published. When last year's talk by Nick Hanauer caused a stir for crossing the political line, his PR agent caused a stir. When these things happen, as a TEDx organizer, I have found that a speaker's true motives for taking the TED stage come out. I question those motives to some degree here. I don't need the "marketers" who responded to my comment to chime in. TED is NOT a trade conference, so speakers who are doing this or business development reasons should rethink their approach for this type of forum.
2. TED's guidelines are VERY specific about what speakers can/can't do onstage. A speaker can talk about the substance and not even mention the book onstage.
3. I suspect that TED will work with its staff and TEDx organizers to improve its curation practices and how it can prevent this situation from repeating itself. TEDx organizers had been issued rules about pseudoscience and must share the responsibility in how they select speakers. They are stewards of the brand, and they must do better in this area, or else the TEDx program could be at risk. [All emphases mine]

Hanauer was discussed here. I don't think it was about selling the book he didn't mention in the talk. That's chump change to a billionaire, venture capitalist. He probably paid more to his flacks to get the talk reinstated than he could ever hope to make in whatever book sales might have been generated. His talk was in many ways working against his own economic self-interest. He wants his own taxes to go up, so...

I can absolutely understand why TED wants to keep its conferences focused on ideas rather than pitching products. It could get very obnoxious if they didn't have some rules where that's concerned. But as Meyers lays it out here, it seems a little extreme. For one thing, books and other accomplishments speak to a speaker's credentials. I'd want to know. But what really disturbs me is this idea that speakers can't be there to promote their own careers at all. They can't have "a brand." They are enlisted only to support the "TED brand."

TED speakers aren't paid. They just get to rub shoulders with wealthy benefactors but they receive strict guidelines which are transparently to ensure the comfort of those wealthy benefactors. Eddie Huang's deeply disturbing story of cultish weirdness describes an organization requiring total fealty from its presenters.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you're doing a TED Talk, you are their product.

UPDATE: The disaffiliated TEDx West Hollywood will be presenting on its own and is calling for help in getting its message out.  The Live Stream of the event can be viewed on April 14 here.

I also just noticed this comment from the organizer on how TED addressed its concerns before it formally pulled the plug.

They want to cancel my program. Reason: “We are not comfortable with it.” I kid you not. That’s all. Repeated over and over on the phone as to why. No more, except there are objections to some speakers, but, “We’re not naming names.” I must be joking, right?

Once again, I think TED would be a lot more credible if it had some idea as to why it's making these decisions.

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