Cuddly Humanism
Psychic Detectives

Rupert Sheldrake at TED

Rupert Sheldrake is in trouble with sceptics again, this time having given a provocative TEDx talk. It enrages some scientists to hear unfamiliar new ideas in a high-profile public forum. Sceptic bloggers including Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers got in touch with the TED organisers to try to get them to withdraw the video. That's under review; let's hope they do the sensible thing and take no notice. In the meantime they have set up a comments thread so that critics can vent.

The talk is quite short: Sheldrake just has time to run through the 'ten dogmas' he lists in his book The Science Delusion, and then expand on a couple of ideas. These are his theory of morphic resonance and, a more recent interest, his theory that the so-called constants of nature like gravity and the speed of light actually aren't constant at all, but fluctuate - which predictably has caused a stir.

Sheldrake says his investigation into records of measurements all over the world show that the speed of light dipped between 1928-1945 by 20 kilometres per second. A senior metrologist he talked to agreed, but insisted the speed couldn't actually have dropped because it was a constant, so they just 'fudged' it (Sheldrake's word, the metrologist preferred them term 'intellectual phase locking'.) The problem was 'solved' in 1972, the metrologist said, when they fixed it by definition - after which no disagreement was possible.

The same is also true of gravity: the frequent variations that Sheldrake finds in the records are just 'errors', according to metrologists. The results are all averaged out, apparently. Sheldrake says he has been trying to persuade them to publish the figures online. He thinks that one day magazines like Nature will publish them weekly, just like stockmarket tables.

This is funny, possibly true, and also deeply provoking to mainstream opinion. No one likes having the foundations of their worldview shaken. For scientists who accept all the dogmas it must seem intolerable to hear these sorts of things declared on a respected public forum. So naturally that was the sceptic's first thought: why is TED giving credence to this claptrap? Can we stop them doing it in future? It really bothers them when a maverick escapes from his cage and contaminates mainstream thinking.

Thankfully a lot of people think that's what TED is all about: to present challenging new ideas and innovative thinking. If it doesn't take risks and rile the establishment sometimes, what's it for? As Craig Weiler notes, it's encouraging that so many people in the comments thread defended Sheldrake's right to speak, and TED's right to give him a platform.

It's also striking how polite the thread is. It seems Sheldrake has plenty of respect, even from people who don't fully agree with his ideas, or understand them. If Coyne and Myers hoped he'd be put in his place they must be feeling rather disappointed.


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So when considering fluctuations in the physical constants, there are three possibilities:

1) The constants themselves aren't constant but we don't notice because of dogma.
2) Scientists are somwhow fudging results to match their colleagues.
3) The systematic error bars on the measured data points are complete fiction.

Each one of these possibilities would represent a failure of the scientific method. As someone who's worked in physics, I'd guess #2 is going to be an issue. Unlike in parapsychology, there is no organized "skeptic" movement attacking the integrity of every publication so physicists have often gotten quite sloppy about non-blinded analyses and throwing "bad" results into the file drawer. What I think the skeptic movement really should do to stay relevant in the future is, rather than focus on parapsychology for ideological reasons, spread out to become a general watchdog for ALL science. Then, even when the current anti-psi paradigm collapses, they'll still have something to do. And it will be something useful.

Hi Robert,
Thanks for the link! I think that the reason the discussion stayed polite is that the JREF types either weren't informed or didn't get behind the skeptical push to oust Sheldrake's speech. There were a few skeptical comments of the insulting variety and they drew a lot of fire.

This censorship thing is also pushing to the fringes of skepticism where not all of them are going to be on board with it. Outright censorship if off-putting to some skeptics. It's a very hard core position to take.

It seems as though the pro psi crowd has done enough tangling with the skeptics to start pulling pages from their playbook. I got that impression.

Agree. If I was a JREFer I'd be leery of tangling with these commentators, some of whom are quite well informed and no pushovers.

Funny how calls for censorship so often backfire. You'd think sceptics would know that by now. That's how Sheldrake first came to public attention, with the Nature 'book fit for burning' business.

It's been my observation (and Alex Tsarkiris mentions this in one of his podcasts) that skeptics are kind of insular. They tend to shield themselves from the crowd and the evidence that contradicts their worldview.

The upshot of this is that when something like this comes along, they have no idea what they're up against. The skeptics who cooked up this idea of censoring Sheldrake probably see their opponents as a tiny minority of irrational woomeisters who are easily dismissed.

This leaves them at an immense disadvantage when this proves to not be true at all.

I think it was also a perfect example of how pseudoskeptics/debunkers work.

Note that their entire reason for wanting the talk removed was because of "factual inaccuracies" which I believe were to do with one statement Sheldrake made in regards to funding for medicine.

The pseudoskeptics rather than look at all of the data, try and find that one nugget of information that they can use used to discredit somebody and their entire work... all so that they can convince the world there is "nothing to see here".

That is true of just about anything considered paranormal whether it be PSI, UFO's, Mediumship etc. Forget about what we can't explain (which is what we should be looking at), focus on what we can come up with a reasonable sounding hypothesis for (like cold reading) and push that down people's throats until they believe it is fact!

In regards to Sheldrake's one factual inaccuracy, I have listened to his talk several times and from what I could ascertain it was made when describing one of the "10 Dogmas within science". Well aren't those dogmas exactly what Sheldrake is saying. They are hypothesis and opinions that whilst they sound good in theory, when you look deeper into them factually may be wrong.

Sheldrake could argue (and rightfully so) that the dogma about medicine funding was what the science community continually regurgitate about why natural and alternative medicine is not taken seriously... I don't think he ever claimed it was a FACT that medical funding is done that way. On that basis I am not sure then why they would even think of removing the talk based on people misinterpreting the point of the talk.

Myers and Coyne! Could have seen it coming a mile off. Myers in particular is something else, bullying, personal attacks, intimidation, misrepresentation of anybody (no matter how reputable, qualified and knowledgeable) daring to criticize - with science - the paradigm of scientific materialism in all and any of its aspects.

Coyne didn't come off at all well in a recent spat via Alex Tsakiris's skeptiko podcasts with scholar (notable for his contribution to the history of medicine) Michael Flannery re the legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace.

I found Rupert's talk delightfully refreshing and highly entertaining. (Not least because, in my mind's eye, I could see Coyne and Myers lying on their backs screaming and drumming their little pink heels on the carpet.)

thanks for another great blog post, robert, and thanks for the links to weiler. great stuff all around !

i very much enjoyed that talk by rupert. i find his delivery generally quite saucy, he always seems to have a twinkle going on somewhere.

i don't know enough about the history of science or the consensus enjoyed today so i do not know how to react to the debunkers except with near utter confusion, because, as i see it, if something is utterly unscientific it should be utterly ignored by any reasonable person who thinks they know exactly what's going on.

why would anyone be threatened, annoyed or get angry at so-called woo? you would think they would have better things to do. at least, you would think that defending reason by going all screamy would be something smart, self aware folks would avoid doing.

these topics may be old hat for some of you but i've only recently started getting into the online debates. and have slowly been noticing how many of my friends are athiests, randi fans, materialists. i've learnt, again, to keep my mouth shut, stop sharing links, etc. because i figure, if there is a tipping point and it is nearing, it is only a matter of time before this psi stuff gets the public relations campaign it so rightfully deserves.

on that note, what will it take to take folk knowledge, bolster it with irrefutable science and deliver it to a receptive mass media ??

my chakras tingle in anticipation.

"No-one expects the Spanish Inquision!" Thus said Monty Python.

And nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition when it hides behind the disguise of "science". Yet, here they are - Cardinal Coyne and Cardinal Myers, the Grand Inquisitors of Scientism, trying to have heresy forcibly suppressed. (I'm surprised they haven't called for Sheldrake's excommunication, to be followed by burning him at the stake in the courtyard of the Royal Society!)

Sheldrake's ideas are certainly off-the-wall. As a non-scientist, I don't know whether there is merit it them or not. But the proper procedure is to allow the man to state his case, and then present opposing viewpoints in the debating chamber. That is the way of true scientific inquiry.

If these "skeptics" had their way, scientific knowledge would have come to a full stop in the late 19th century. They certainly don't seem comfortable with anything beyond the time of Newton, Maxwell and Darwin. (And I believe that Coyne is a promoter of the "end of science" doctrine - i.e. the quite ludicrous notion that contemporary science has pretty much got the universe all sussed out. These guys just can't close off their narrow reality tunnel fast enough! I wonder what they're so afraid of?)

"wonder what they're so afraid of?)" erm, at a guess I'd say they don't much fancy the idea of finding out that they've spent their lives digging a hole in the wrong place.

Rupert McWiseman wrote: "(I'm surprised they haven't called for Sheldrake's excommunication, to be followed by burning him at the stake in the courtyard of the Royal Society!)"

Well the late John Maddox, senior editor of Nature called Sheldrake's breakthrough book 'A new science of life' “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years..."

Maddox followed this up years later by saying that Sheldrake ought to be excommunicated from the Science academy,
"Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy."

!!???!!! I kid you not, Maddox actually said that. And with a straight face.

Rupert Sheldrake is to be commended for maintaining his sanity in an intellectual environment like that. I feel for him. Really, I do.

Apparently the Rupert Sheldrake Nd Graham Hancock talks have bee removed from thevTED YouTube site. I hope the following link works:

My apologies for the fact that the above looks as if it was typed by a chimpanzee. It's just that my gast is completely flabbered! What a band of Lillipudlians - if that's not a tad unkind to Lillipudlians. :(

Ps. Lilliputians. ;)

BTW, I feel a storm brewing.

Rupert gets removed by Tedx, but (as Bernardo Kastrup first pointed out), they left this one up:

I'm not slamming Rick Warren, but this just underscores the back door politicking behind the decision to pull the Hancock and Shedrake vid's.

Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail makes the case as well. See the addendum links for more. (Note that the Joe Rogan Experience video has NSFW language).
This might actually go somewhere.

This seems to be reminiscent of the letter writing campaigns by skeptics that have been encouraged by CSICOP (sorry, CSI) since its inception. You know the sort of thing – a university campus that’s had the nerve to invite an academic parapsychologist to speak suddenly gets inundated by lots of angry letters demanding that the invitation be withdrawn etc. etc. etc.

The habit, naturally, appears to have been carried onto the online media. Witness even Rob’s book being targeted by ‘reviewers’ who obviously have not read it (one even got Rob’s occupation wrong) giving it a one star review and (as if by magic) getting a relatively large number of approvals suspiciously quickly. The same thing has happened to other books e.g. Chris Carters efforts and probably (I’ve not checked), Sheldrake’s too for all I know.

Of course, people like the TED lot (or college administrators, newspaper editors, TV companies), even if they do not have their own prejudices, often just cave in for an easy life.

I think it's a great shame that TED have let themselves be pressured into removing these videos. I didn't see Hancock's, but I saw Sheldrake's before it was removed and really enjoyed it.

If the videos were that "unscientific", why didn't TED simply remove them from the "Science" section and place them under a different heading like "Philosophy" or something else? As others have pointed out, there have been other talk about mysticism and spiritualism that nobody's had a problem with. I can accept that maybe "Science" was an inappropriate group under which to place these talks, but why didn't they simply move them to a more appropriate group?

Instead, they've banished them to a far corner of their website, making it extremely difficult for anyone interested to find them. Effectively suppressing these talks.

What's worse is that TED have apparently *lied* about the reasons for removing Hancock's talk. I could perhaps accept that there *may* have been legitimate reasons to pull Sheldrake's talk - although, in which case, I think TED's rules are too strict - but in the case of Hancock, they've attributed words to him that he did not even say.

I'm beginning to think the greater issue is the removal of Hancock's talk. If TED have lied about the reasons for removing his video, then they either need to come up with some honest reasons or reinstate his talk.

There's a facebook group set up this weekend to organize petitions against the TED censorship of Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake. Anyone who feels they would like to offer their help in the form of a signature please follow the link below:

Thanks Julie - done it!

“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
― Heinrich Heine

And I'm sure that there're some who would get away with that if they could!

Apparently Sheldrake has published a rebuttal on Facebook: -

TED have kindly(?) allowed me to reopen the Rupert Sheldrake conversation on their forum. I see it as a last ditch opportunity to try to get a change of heart from them. We're not allowed very long - just 24 hours and there are only eleven of them left as I type. If anyone here feels they would like to make a contribution (and we're unlikely to be offered another chance there) the link is as follows:

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