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.