TED’s Censorship of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock

Rupert_Sheldrake_TEDx_Talk

It’s unbelievable that TED, which claims a “radical openness” to novel ideas, has censored Rupert Sheldrake‘s and Graham Hancock’s fascinating and popular talks by removing them from its Youtube account, relegating them instead to an apparently unsearchable blog. TED’s claim that the two talks contain “serious factual errors that undermine TED’s commitment to good science” is simply not supportable if one takes the time to watch the talks (which are eighteen minutes each). I don’t know much about Hancock, but I enjoyed his presentation and I applaud his “call for . . . a new right to be recognized . . . the right of adult sovereignty over consciousness.” And Sheldrake’s ideas, while certainly unconventional, are far from unscientific unless we take science as fixed dogma, which is precisely what Sheldrake argues against. In fact, I’m struck by how careful both Sheldrake and Hancock are to frame their ideas as hypothetical, as speculative possibility about which more empirical inquiry should be done, and how blatantly TED ignores these rhetorical nuances.

According to Hancock, Sheldrake “is presently in India and hard to reach,” but Hancock has given a detailed and eloquent defense of his talk in the comments to the TED blog (while Kent Bye has traced a detailed history of how this censorship came about, also in the blog’s comments), so I won’t go into specifics here. What I will say is that this act of blatant censorship and then the “sleight-of-hand” denial of that censorship looks to me very much like one of many last desperate acts of a disenchanted (or “misenchanted” to use Matt Segall’s neologism) world view as the vast house of cards of rationality privileging scientific materialism begins to fall around us. Censorship doesn’t occur unless the ideas censored pose a real threat to the predominant belief system, so in a roundabout way, this incident seems to be an indication that discourse is heading in the right direction, that we’re perhaps even undergoing a collective “identity crisis” that may mediate a transition between world views. As Whitehead writes: “New epochs emerge with comparative suddenness” (Science and the Modern World, 1).

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14 responses to “TED’s Censorship of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock

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  6. I think TED is doing a good job of proving his point about science being a dogmatic priesthood. Honestly I don’t like Rupert Sheldrake any more than I give everybody a chance: he’s too associated with certain things that have led to suffering in my life. However his talk (and subsequently his book) filled a niche dug by the questions I’ve had about how dogmatically scientists cling to certain hypotheses as truths. I thought the book spent too much time on his own theories, but it raises hugely important questions in the intro, prologue and first chapter about the mechanistic worldview. And he does all this without actually undermining the science itself (i.e. he doesn’t say it’s wrong, or try to poke holes like a creationist). I’d call that fairly generous to science.

    • silvertant

      “However his talk (and subsequently his book) filled a niche dug by the questions I’ve had about how dogmatically scientists cling to certain hypotheses as truths.”
      To me that’s an indication of not fully understanding science. What troubles me is that Sheldrake starts his lecture by completely undermining and misrepresenting science, and then he continues with his pseudo-scientific ideas. He would have a point if he argued science tends to be too stuck in their ways and this restricts progress somewhat, but he goes way too far by mentioning scientific dogmas.

      These are not dogmas. Science tests certain hypotheses and upon validation it becomes part of scientific theory. Scientific theories are questioned consistently, and often updated and complimented with frequency. How can you speak of a scientific dogma when one of the core principles of science is to question everything? How can you speak of a dogma when it’s being superseded with such frequency? I’m somewhat generalizing here, but many scientific theories don’t last more than 100 years in the exact state in which they were initially proposed. Sheldrake gravely seems to misunderstand science.

      Not only does he undermine science, but he communicates a lot of ideas in such a way as to imply it’s part of science while there is actually no clear evidence for a lot of these ideas. I admire the notion of thinking of new ideas and being at the forefront of discovery, but the very principle of science is not to assert anything to be true without evidence for it. He ignores that, which is why his ideas are often considered to be anti-scientific. That is not an indication that it will never become part of science, but it is a clear indication of how Sheldrake is communicating philosophy rather than science.

      All these reasons I mentioned is exactly why his lecture has partially been censored by TED. It’s simply unjust to completely undermine science itself, and then make a weak attempt at communicating pseudo-scientific theories.

      “And he does all this without actually undermining the science itself”
      Perhaps not in the book, though I’m severely skeptical of that notion based on everything I’ve heard from him so far. I’m currently watching ‘Rediscovering God with Ruper Sheldrake’, and in it he communicates some fascinating philosophical and very few scientific ideas, but I’m not going to deny a lot of the things he says are simply not true or not proven. He doesn’t communicate that, which I find intellectually dishonest. It gives people the idea he’s practicing science while there is so little actual science in his lectures.

      • Hi Silvertant, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sheldrake is in fact a rigorous scientist if you read his books, but I think it’s crucially important to differentiate between science and scientism. The practice of science is often conflated with scientism, which generally takes certain unprovable premises for granted, particularly the rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causation in favor of material and efficient causation, which is the domain of applicability for science as it is usually conceived. This rejection looks very much like a scientistic dogma, whereas the scientific ideal you’re articulating is more like William James’ “radical empiricism,” an ideal that is rarely attained in the actual practice of science. Some great books about this subject include James’ “Pragmatism” and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World.”

      • I haven’t read Sheldrake’s other books. In The Science Delusion he only briefly discusses his parapsychological theories. How human minds work trumps how science is supposed to work. Falsification of hypotheses happens over a much longer timespan than textbook interpretations of science will admit. I have never seen a scientist get results that contradict his ideas and have him just roll over and say “I guess I was wrong then.” That would be at odds, in my experience, with the way people operate.

        If you think as flexibly as the textbooks depict scientists to think, all I would have to do is take you to a lab at a large university and show you how the people work (or you could read Bruno Latour). Then you would agree with me about dogmatism. Too much flexibility in thinking doesn’t work for science. Where that leaves me is that science is a far too simplistic and slow way of dealing with the world. Sadly, scientists want people to think that they can handle all their problems with science. That’s bad advice at best.

    • silvertant

      “I think TED is doing a good job of proving his point about science being a dogmatic priesthood.”
      Even just the mention of a “priesthood” in regard to the scientific method is simply a gross misrepresentation. For one, it implies science can be equated to religion in terms of their truth value, which couldn’t be further from the truth. One adheres to dogmas while the other is a protocol to statistically verify truths. Making such fallacious associations is simply intellectually dishonest, because he very well knows or should know as a scientist that the two are not to be equated.

      • Yes, except that as a scientist he does know how scientists behave on a daily basis, as do I. Most scientists I know are just as dogmatic and narrow-minded as the clergymen I know, some scientists even more so. The religious people I know will let people finish a sentence.

  7. Hi Joel, thanks for your response. My curiosity is piqued about “certain things that have led to suffering.” I’d be interested to hear about them if you feel moved to share. I haven’t read “The Science Delusion,” but I loved Sheldrake’s “A New Science of Life” and “The Presence of the Past,” as well as his trialogues with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham. I remain undecided about his inquiries into “The Sense of Being Stared At” and the like, but I’m open to them and I definitely think more empirical work should be done in these areas. It seems to me that Sheldrake, as a scientist, loves science enough to want to help mediate its transformation and expansion of scope, which I think is an important, even necessary endeavor.

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  9. silvertant

    “TED’s claim that the two talks contain “serious factual errors that undermine TED’s commitment to good science” is simply not supportable if one takes the time to watch the talks (which are eighteen minutes each).”
    Not supportable? You have no idea how frustrated I was while watching his lecture. He starts the TED lecture by completely undermining science and misrepresenting it and then goes on to communicate his own philosophical ideas which lack scientific evidence. Most of his ideas are not new. He has been communicating some of these ideas for 20 years and the science is still lacking. Speaking of dogmas…

    As much as I appreciate new ideas and Sheldrake’s courage for researching topics most scientists wouldn’t risk their career on, I absolutely don’t appreciate how he undermines science and communicates his philosophical ideas as if it’s part of science. His TED lecture was wholly inconsistent. To me it was VERY obvious why one might censor such a lecture, not for presenting new ideas, but for presenting those ideas within the context of science despite a complete lack of scientific evidence.

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