Mar 19, 2013

The TED Censorship Saga Continues

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Graham Hancock posted last evening that there has been a small victory in the battle against TED's censorship of his and Rupert Sheldrake's lectures. 

I appreciate and respect the fact that TED have now bitten the bullet -- which cannot have been easy for them -- and fully retracted their original incorrect allegations against the content of my TEDx presentation "The War on Consciousness". They have done so by crossing out the original allegations and publishing my rebuttal here:

They have done the same as regards their original incorrect allegations against the content of the TEDx presentation "The Science Delusion" by my colleague Rupert Sheldrake.

Yes, if you look at the blog post set up to quarantine Hancock and Sheldrake's ideas, their original stated reasons for deleting the videos from YouTube have been crossed out and the rebuttals have been added. But the update at the top of the post doesn't really acknowledge their rebuttals. It refers the reader to their new page.

UPDATE: Please see our new blog post Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, a fresh take, which replaces the x-ed out text below.

So by all means, read their "fresh take," but if you're looking for an explanation of their reasons for deleting the videos from their standard platform you will be sorely disappointed. This is the extent of it.

Both Sheldrake and Hancock are compelling speakers, and some of the questions they raise are absolutely worth raising. For example, most thoughtful scientists and philosophers of science will agree it’s true that science has not moved very far yet in solving the riddle of consciousness. But the specific answers to that riddle proposed by Sheldrake and Hancock are so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking that we think it’s right for us to give these talks a clear health warning and to ask further questions of the speakers. 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. But we do think a calmer, reasoned conversation around these talks would be interesting, if only to help us define how far you can push an idea before it is no longer “worth spreading.”

How Hancock and Sheldrake are "so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking" they do not say. Their nameless, faceless Science Board says that it is so, therefore it is so.

So here is where TED stands to date. They've removed the videos from YouTube. They provided a litany of reasons for that removal. Hancock, Sheldrake and numerous commenters on that thread pressed them to explain how their critiques in any way applied to the talks in question. Hancock asked them repeatedly to show where in his talk he said any of the things they said he said. The best Chris Anderson could come up with was that they'd get back to him on that. They did not. Clearly, being unable to justify their list of reasons for removal, they crossed them all out. They then referred people to a new page justifying their reason for removing the videos, which does nothing of the kind.

Still missing in action: any explanation of their reasons for removing the videos.

I highly recommend reading the original blog post to which they consigned the matter. The comment section now stands at 25 pages and counting. I normally hate reading comments because they so rapidly degenerate into pointless name-calling and trollery, but despite TED's best efforts to make the commenters look like a deranged Hancock fan cabal, the thread is largely made up of very lucid comments. Many extremely knowledgeable people challenged TED to explain itself and, and as stated, TED has still avoided doing so. Instead they've dismissed the commenters as "hordes of supporters sent our way by Graham Hancock." Read the comments. You'll see that nothing of the kind is true. It's the most reasonable comment thread I've read in an open comment section in some time.

In addition to challenging TED to explain itself, there are numerous requests for TED to remove other lectures which resulted in credible critiques, such as this one. Those requests remain unacknowledged as of this writing.

The most risible comments in the thread come from TED people, and there aren't many of those. This one stood out. It's from one Al Meyers who runs TEDx Peachtree.

Let's unpack this, shall we?

I have not read all the comments, nor have I watched the talks in question. However, I'm going to support David and Stephen 100% here.

In other words, Meyers has no idea what's going on, but whatever it is, he's throwing his full support behind TED on whatever it is they're saying.

The brand equity is at risk if TED is spreading ideas claiming to be supported by scientific research, yet subsequently proven otherwise.

So Mr. Meyers has absolutely no idea how science works. That would mean that no scientific hypothesis could ever be discussed in a TED lecture because hypotheses are disproved all the time. So are theories. So much of what we accept as "fact" is just theory that could be disproved tomorrow. It's part of the process. Such are the dangers of scientific dogmatism -- this horribly warped idea that science produces unassailable facts, rather than a continuously revised body of research and knowledge. If no scientist could ever risk being wrong, science couldn't happen.

TED's brand... brand equity is at risk... built a brand... best for the brand... not letting social media wreck havoc on the brand...

Meyers uses the word "brand" five times in that one, brief paragraph. In other words, this was a marketing decision and Meyers fully and unequivocally supports TED's commitment to market-based science.

Meyers is a good soldier and, as near as I can tell, a good representative of the TED  ethos. I have no idea what's going on or why we're doing what we're doing but the people I've vested with authority say it's so, so it is so.

The people TED has vested with authority is those who must not be named, aka., their Science Board.

They are (deliberately) anonymous, for obvious reasons, but they are respected working scientists, and writers about science, from a range of fields, with no brief other than to help us make these judgements. If a talk gets flagged they will advise on whether we should act or not.

So this star chamber shall heretofore decide what lectures are allowed to see the light of day. Their reasons don't matter. TED won't even bother to try to explain them anymore because when they do they just bungle them and have to cross the whole thing out.

Am I alone in thinking that if TED is going to make a decision to censor something they should at least be able to articulate their reasons, rather than pointing to an anonymous panel? By their own admission, they could not. The result was in their words "clumsy" and "less than convincing," but it's also the closest we're ever going to get to an explanation.

We do, however, have some indication of just who it was put pressure on TED to silence Hancock and Sheldrake. We know because TED's Emily McManus took the time to thank them personally.

And we're grateful to those who've written about this talk in other forums, including but not limited to Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Kylie Sturgess and some thoughtful Redditors.

In other words, it's the New Atheist brigade, once again, making the world safe for scientism. McManus, by the way, also identifies as an atheist. I have no problem with atheism. I do have a problem with fundamentalists who set out to crush any view that does not comport with this very particular stripe of atheist world view, and that is exactly what's happened here. A comment by Kent Bye even identifies a timeline. It's actually quite clear what happened, as Rupert Sheldrake acknowledges in his rebuttal to be found here.

As I've said more than once, the New Atheists make me nervous for the same reason the Christian Right makes me nervous. They're bullies and if you want to see that bullying in action, just roll up your trousers and wade into the chain of events that led to the censorship of Hancock and Sheldrake's talks.

As I noted the other day, atheists make up 3 percent of the population of the United States. There's nothing wrong with being a minority population and I will always fight for the right of the minority to have their views respected. I wish the even tinier minority of New Atheists had the same kind of respect for everybody else. But if you're an evangelical minority, determined to spread the good news that there is no God, it helps if you're a really loud, aggressive, and self-satisfied, minority.

What it makes me think of is the early days of the Moral Majority -- which was neither -- who codified the now well-worn method of targeting advertisers on shows that did not comport with their views. This trend was rather brilliantly satirized, I thought, by WKRP in Cincinnati, at the height of the furor.

The most dangerous thing about ideologues is that they never think they're ideologues. They just think they're right.

TED, of course, didn't fight back like our fictional heroes at WKRP. They folded like a cheap tent.

The TEDx Whitechapel program Hancock and Sheldrake were invited to speak at was subtitled "Challenging existing paradigms and redefining values (for a more beautiful world)." But it would seem the parent organization has absolutely no interest in doing that.

The conundrum was summed up brilliantly by a commenter named Geoff Fitch.

If Sheldrake’s criticism are valid, they cannot simply consult their “Scientific Board” for an opinion, since, in all likelihood they would be subject to very cultural blinders that Sheldrake exposes. Is there anyone in the TED leadership that understands what Sheldrake is pointing to and can identify it in your own thinking and assumptions? Will you speak up?

I wouldn't hold my breath. TED's willingness to accept the judgement of Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and their ilk seems all too clear. They won't let these "heretical" ideas be debated fairly, in an open forum. There apparently was a vigorous debate well under way on YouTube which was deleted with Graham Hancock's video. It's all gone down the memory hole in favor of an unexplained, unjustified decision by a shadowy Science Board.

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