Mar 22, 2013

Will the DeleTED Debate TED?

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

 photo 575314_100732806788866_65154372_n_zps99f1aaa0.jpg

The offer's on the table. Both Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock have very publicly challenged TED to debates.

Said Sheldrake:

I appreciate the fact that TED published my response to the accusations levelled against me by their Scientific Board, and also crossed out the Board’s statement on the “Open for discussion” blog.

There are no longer any specific points to answer. I am all in favour of debate, but it is not possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”

I would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. This could take place online, or on Skype. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.

Therefore I ask Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself.

Said Hancock:

I previously commented that I would not post further on this Blog page because it is so clearly designed to distract public attention from the disastrous way TED have handled their attempt to censor my “War on Consciousness” talk and Rupert Sheldrake’s “Science Delusion” talk. That in my view is the important point, for it bears on the future of TED itself as a viable platform for “ideas worth spreading”. I am heartened that so many of the 400-plus concerned people who have now posted here (and the 1000-plus who posted on the original Blog page) have refused to fall for TED’s sleight of hand and continued to press the organization to rethink its policy.

Since TED have retracted and struck out all their justifications for the original deletion of my talk from the TEDx Youtube channel ( ) and since they have published my rebuttal, and done the same re Rupert Sheldrake’s talk, I agree with Rupert on a new post he has made on this page ( There are no more specific points surrounding TED’s misguided decision that he and I need to answer. Nor is it possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”

But I now make this one further post, simply to add my voice to Rupert’s and to put on record that I, too, would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.

Therefore I join Rupert in asking Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself. 

Said TED:

Well... so far... crickets.

So will TED put anyone forward to articulate and defend their reasons for deleting these talks from their main platform and putting them in quarantine? Their options for doing so are fairly limited. Chris Anderson is obviously ill-equipped to defend his decision as he doesn't appear to understand it. The only time he even attempted to lay out reasons for TED's decision, he made such a pudding of it he had to cross the whole thing out.

Putting forward someone from their Science Board is even trickier because TED refuses to reveal their super-secret identities. But they do have options as one Lewis Smart suggested:

Hell, let one of the anonymous science board members speak from behind a screen, with his voice vocoded to retain anonymity. It would be hilarious.

It would! And I like a bit of cabaret. It couldn't possibly be more farcical than TED's attempts to justify itself thus far.

The other problem for TED is that scientists who've attempted to debate Sheldrake in the past haven't fared well. He has many critics in the science world -- particularly of the New Atheist variety. They love to call him a "crackpot" but few of them would argue that he isn't wicked smart. When they take him on directly, he tends to pants them.

A comment posted by one Sebastian Penraeth brought up a very interesting discussion and analysis of how Sheldrake has been treated by the "scientific community" -- although, it's kind of hard to call them "scientific" after reading a record of their behavior. Community, yes. Scientific, no. What was revealed in a dissertation by Philip Stevens is something more like an entrenched group-mind -- high on knee-jerk rejection, low on dispassionate analysis. An interview with Stevens can be found here and the entire dissertation can be downloaded from that page.

It speaks badly of the state of modern science that the editor of the prestigious journal Nature joked about book burning. But John Maddox's review of Sheldrake's A New Science of Life was entitled "A Book for Burning?" He did not actually call for the book to be burned -- just ridiculed and marginalized with other "literature of intellectual aberrations."

Maddox clarified his thinking some years later.

Without any sense of irony, Maddox compared the condemnation of Dr Sheldrake by the scientific community to that of the Catholic Church’s criticism of Galileo, saying “[Sheldrake’s theory] can be condemned in exactly the language that the Popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.”

When editors of prominent science journals start throwing around ideas like "book burning" and "heresy," even in jest, we should become very concerned that the institutions of science look far more like arbiters of a religious orthodoxy.

But the other thing indicated by this ridiculing and ostracizing of Sheldrake by establishment scientists is that they're panicked. Maybe they should be, because Sheldrake is questioning some of the fundamental assumptions on which many people are basing their careers. And he does it well.

As per Stevens, there have only been a handful of debates between Sheldrake and his critics. Other such debates have been pointedly avoided and in one notable instance a debate with a certain very prominent atheist reportedly occurred and then slipped down the memory hole.

In 2007, Dr Sheldrake was contacted by Channel 4 who asked if he would be willing to take part in an interview for a television programme presented by Richard Dawkins. The programme was called ‘Enemies of Reason’ (although Dr Sheldrake claims he wasn’t told that when he agreed to take part).

According to Dr Sheldrake, in the subsequent debate (which was not included in the resulting series) Prof. Dawkins accused Sheldrake of “trying to turn the tables on him” and refused to discuss any research on telepathy, instead saying that Sheldrake was “prepared to believe almost anything”. Dr Sheldrake claims he accused Prof. Dawkins of being dogmatic and attempting a ‘low grade debunking exercise’. To which Prof. Dawkins reportedly said “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise”. Prof. Dawkins has never publicly talked about the interview.

It seems Dawkins, like many of those who've gone up against Sheldrake, had not felt it necessary to familiarize himself with his work. This leaves them at something of a disadvantage in their attempts to discredit it.

Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology at University College London, apparently lobbed ad hominem attacks and disparaged the subject matter for 15 minutes of his allotted 30, and gave up the rest of his time. “The blunt fact is that there's no persuasive evidence for [telepathy],” Wolpert summed up. Then he sat, looking bored, tapping a pencil, and pointedly ignoring Sheldrake who methodically laid out his evidence for telepathy.

Such self-satisfaction may play well to other self-satisfied skeptics but it didn't play well to audience members whose reaction was described in Nature: “Many in the audience... variously accused Wolpert of not knowing the evidence and being unscientific.”

Other debates have gone similarly. Of a debate with Jan Willem Nienhuys, botanist Richard Hardwick said:

[Sheldrake] comes well prepared, and he speaks fluently and clearly, as if he really wants to communicate. He marshals his arguments with precision, he provides (so far as I can judge) evidence for his statements, and he brings his nul hypotheses out into the open, ready to be shot down by the force of disproof.

. . .

In my judgement, Nienhuys’ counterattack failed... it seems Dr Nienhuys had not done his homework. He did not have any data or analysis to hand, and his attack fizzled out.

In a debate with Peter Atkins, Sheldrake asked him pointedly if he'd read the research he was dismissing.

Sheldrake: Well I’d like to ask him if he’s actually read the evidence? May I ask you Professor Atkins if you’ve actually studied any of this evidence or any other evidence?

Atkins: No, but I would be very suspicious of it.

Sheldrake: Of course, being suspicious of it in advance of seeing it is normally called prejudice.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, who was caught giving critiques of  Sheldrake's work without reading it, agreed to debate Sheldrake... if only he could find the time.

In March 2003, Dr Sheldrake challenged Shermer to a debate, which he accepted, and several times and venues were suggested, but all were rejected by Shermer. As of 2009, the debate has still not taken place.

What Stevens found in researching Sheldrake's relationship to the scientific community is that they badly depart from the rules and norms of science in their dealings with him. They dismiss his research without reading it. They make demonstrably false claims about the results and methodology. In one case, a colleague of Sheldrake's replicated his research but, shall we say, selectively reported his own results.

Sheldrake had set an experiment into pet-owner telepathy, finding that even with controls for any possible cuing and patterns, the dog in the study went to the window more than 3 times more often when her owner was headed home.

Jaytee spent 18% of the time at the window before Smart was told to return home, 33% of the time when she had been told to go home but had not yet started off in the car, and 65% of the time when she was travelling home.

His colleague Richard Wiseman replicated the study and pronounced it a failure. He got much press for disproving pet-owner telepathy. But when Sheldrake requested the data from the study, he found that, in fact, Wiseman's results were much like Sheldrake's, with the dog going to the window substantially more often when the owner was headed home. This, Wiseman did not bother to report in his research paper.

In 2007, nine years after the original paper was published and over eleven years after the completion of the research, during an interview with Alex Tsakiris on Skeptiko, Richard Wiseman said “I don't think there’s any debate that the patterning in my studies is the same as the patterning in Rupert’s’s how it’s interpreted.

Well, no, it isn't. Hiding data is hiding data, and data can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Who's to say that his interpretation of that data is correct and Sheldrake's isn't?

It's very easy to dismiss as "pseudoscience" research into things classified as "paranormal." Many people won't even question that assessment. But one hopes that establishment scientists wouldn't approach the subject matter in a manner so sloppy, so lazy, and even misleading, that it borders on misconduct.

The problem for establishment sciences is that some of the results in this outre research are very compelling. It's marginalized by applying very different standards of evidence for status quo science and that which challenges it.

I have long hated the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I reads to me like an admission of bias. Just what constitutes "extraordinary" is extremely subjective. Stevens provides a little history of this now well-worn phrase.

The French mathematician and astronomer, Pierre-Simon Laplace said that “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”9 This idea was later expanded upon by the sociologist Marcello Truzzi who said “In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded... and when such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalisations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.”10 This was later popularised by Carl Sagan who created the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

This would seem to fly in the face of science as a dispassionate practice, and as Stevens explains, pretty much throws the Mertonian norms out the window.

Stevens quotes Wiseman in another context as saying:

I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do... Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions.

Again, it's a clear admission of bias. Screw any concept of equity and dispassionate, results-based science -- and torture the English language in the process.

The talk by Sheldrake that was deleted by TED didn't get into any of his research into telepathy or other phenomena. If anything, it was more threatening to the status quo. It was on philosophy of science and questioned the willingness of establishment scientists to challenge the assumptions of materialist science.

Thus far, TED has been unable to explain its specific problems with the speech. As stated, what reasons it initially laid out were thoroughly refuted, and had to be crossed out. One hopes that if they are sticking by their decision to hide his and Hancock's lectures in increasingly obscure locations, they could at least put someone forward in a debate to explain it. And one hopes they would do a better job of it than their efforts so far.

In their original criticism of Sheldrake's talk -- that would be the crossed out part -- they took issue with his statements about natural constants. They referred the reader to a "careful rebuttal" of his statements by physicist Sean Carroll, as quoted by Jerry Coyne. But even though that rebuttal included a table omitting the data from the time period Sheldrake referred to, it not only didn't disprove his statements, it validated them. Carroll's other table showed exactly what Sheldrake claimed.

In my talk I said that the published values of the speed of light dropped by about 20 km/sec between 1928 and 1945. Carroll’s “careful rebuttal” consisted of a table copied from Wikipedia showing the speed of light at different dates, with a gap between 1926 and 1950, omitting the very period I referred to. His other reference ( does indeed give two values for the speed of light in this period, in 1928 and 1932-35, and sure enough, they were 20 and 24km/sec lower than the previous value, and 14 and 18 km/sec lower than the value from 1947 onwards.

Coyne's post is premised on a straw man -- that Sheldrake claimed the speed of light was dropping. His point of course was that the recorded speed varied for a period time and that this anomaly might merit further investigation. And as one Conor O' Higgins points out, in the discussion thread, Carroll also restated another of Sheldrake's more eyebrow-raising claims.

Seán Carroll also backed up Sheldrake's claim about the speed of light being fixed by convention rather than empirical measurement:

Rupert Sheldrake: "How can we be so sure it's not going on today and that the present values are not produced by intellectual phase-locking? He said, 'We know that's not the case'. I said, 'How do we know?' He said, 'Well,' he said, 'We've solved the problem.' I said, 'How?' He said 'We fixed the speed of light by definition in 1972.' " (

Seán Carroll: "Indeed, today the speed of light is fixed by definition, not by measurement." (

So, if say, Sean Carroll is put forward by TED to debate Sheldrake, he might want to stop agreeing with him so much.

I will actually be pleasantly surprised if TED accepts the challenge by their censored speakers to debate. I expect they will demur. They will either continue to ignore the offers or beg off with some excuse for not putting anyone forward. They'll say they want their Science Board to remain anonymous and reject the suggestion of putting them behind a screen -- which is too bad because that's my favorite suggestion thus far. They'll pull a Michael Shermer and agree to a debate but refuse to schedule a time for years on end. Or they'll go for the tried and true method. They'll say it would be terribly bad science to give these ideas even a modicum of respectability by debating them. But I doubt they'll go through with a debate. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Opinions and ideas expressed in the comments on this page
belong the people who stated them. Management takes no
editorial responsibility for the content of public comments.