This article is based on my book: Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet
Note: For those interested in really digging into the issues- join me and my co-host, David Metcalfe, in the upcoming Evolver Learning Labs webinar – Every Body’s Psychic: Discovering your psychic potential and what to do with it were we will lead a vital discussion with some of the leading researchers in parapsychology and anomalistic science on the current state of psychical research and some of the social benefits that can be seen from more open lines of inquiry.
Every now and again some organization makes a really bad decision. It happens. But on rare occasions the original bad decision gets compounded by more bad decision and all of a sudden what started out as something fixable spirals way out of control and takes on a life of its own. That’s essentially what happened at TED, the non profit corporation responsible for the popular TED talks.
The fact that the controversy took place at all is remarkable because it’s a sign of rapid social and science changes that are occurring as a direct result of the Internet. It’s pretty interesting because the whole thing exposed an unresolved scientific controversy that dates back to the late 1800’s.
So here’s what happened. In early March of ‘13 TED removed one of their talks from their main video page for allegedly being pseudo scientific. This was chiefly due to the influence of professors Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers as well as blogger Kylie Sturgess. TED then put their decision up for discussion in a blog post.
In doing so they sparked a huge controversy over whether this was an act of censorship and they also sparked a debate over what was meant by pseudo science. It eventually ran to thousands of comments involving hundreds of people over several TED blog posts and who knows how many other people involved elsewhere on the web. Even though the story didn’t quite catch the full attention of the mainstream press it was certainly big. Anyone could participate. I managed a partial count of 25 blogs at one point discussing the story and that was only one side of it. It showed up on many prominent blogs by individuals and eventually spilled over onto articles in mainstream publications in the U.S. and Great Britain where these discussions continued.
There was plenty of drama. The scientist whose speech was first targeted, Rupert Sheldrake, is Mr. Controversy himself. He is a plant biologist and a biochemist, who researched the role of auxin, a plant hormone, in the cellular differentiation of a plant’s vascular system. With his colleague, Philip Rubery, he worked out the cellular mechanism of polar auxin transport, on which much subsequent research on plant polarity has been based. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honors degree, and was awarded the University Botany Prize. He then studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow, before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. With all these honors, why was his work being referred to as pseudo science?
It is because his work in parapsychology has caught everyone’s attention. He is perhaps best known for extending the idea of group consciousness affecting behavior, which he called morphic fields. and for his experiments with dogs that seemed to know when their owners were coming home. Those topics in addition to others in the same field make Sheldrake controversial.
While Sheldrake has many critics, some of whom have claimed that he indulges in pseudo science, there is no evidence to support that. Scientists who have examined his studies and published their findings in scientific journals do not make the pseudo science claim. There’s nothing in their critiques to indicate that what he does is anything other than ordinary science even if it is in such an unusual field.
Sheldrake’s speech, which was at an independently produced TED event in London, was only twenty minutes long and would better be classified as philosophy of science. He spoke directly to the nature of that controversy. The main focus of his speech had to do with questioning some of the underlying materialistic assumptions of modern science.
TED though, had a science board which decided that some scientific examples he provided were less than scientific.
They also targeted another speaker from the same conference in London, Graham Hancock, and gave a list of reasons why they thought his speech was unacceptable. Although Hancock is not a scientist, (he’s a controversial archeologist and writer) his speech also, briefly, addressed the same underlying assumptions of modern science.
Here’s where things started to get a little crazy. Once both speakers had specific charges to address, they wasted no time in demolishing them. TED’s science board, it turned out, had done a terrible job of coming up with specific reasons for removing both of the videos. They were forced to cross out all of their reasons for taking down both videos and admitted that those reasons were “less than convincing.” Others were less charitable. Greg Taylor at the popular blog “The Daily Grail” called the original accusations “pure fiction.”
After that point TED issued no new reasons for taking down the videos, yet kept them off the main page anyway. They posted this on their blog:
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.
The names of the TED science board were never disclosed and there were no longer had any specific charges to refute. The speakers did not know who was accusing them or what they were being accused of. Having no other options, both Sheldrake and Hancock offered to debate the issues with anyone that TED put forward, providing that it was fairly done.
The comment sections of TED’s blogs were filled with academics, writers, futurists, philosophers and even a Nobel Prize winning physicist. The vast majority of them were critical of TED.
The reason that the controversy struck such a nerve among intellectuals was that this dust up between TED, Sheldrake and Hancock was functioning as a proxy for a much larger controversy that’s been steadily pushing itself into the hallowed halls of science: the role of consciousness in physics. The mainstream view is that consciousness is a product of the brain, and the minority view is that consciousness is probably fundamental to our universe.
There are three reasons that this controversy has been growing. One is that neither quantum physics nor neurology rule out the possibility that consciousness is fundamental. The second is that both scientific fields have experimental results that are better explained with consciousness based theories than any other way and the third is simply that the Internet is providing a way for the minority view to get more attention. In any case, this is not settled science despite what anyone claims.
Stuff like Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Fields or his parapsychology experiments can be easily explained with universal consciousness theories and make perfect sense, but can seem like the work of a crackpot if your views are strictly mainstream materialism. The side of the controversy that you sit on has everything to do with how you’re going to perceive someone like Sheldrake.
Over at TED, the controversy, which was now into late March of 2013, fairly exploded at the end of the month when TED took down one their independent programs two weeks before it was supposed to take place. TEDxWestHollywood, whose event producer was Suzanne Taylor, who is also affectionately known as the Crop Circle Queen because of two documentary films that she did on that subject was thrown into complete disarray.
There were four speakers who TED singled out. Dr. Larry Dossey, who has written several books on alternative medicine and has a long and distinguished career, physicist Russell Targ, also author of many books on extra sensory perception who helped found the Strategic Research institute in Menlo Park, CA and was a pioneer in early laser development, anthropologist Marilyn Schlitz, author of many books and former president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and Marianne Williamson, an internationally acclaimed spiritual author and lecturer who has just announced her candidacy for the 33rd congressional district in California.
It was pretty obvious at this point that TED had a very specific idea of what they would not allow. In a blog post the TED staff wrote:
“When we looked at the program as a whole, our assessment was that it didn’t meet the TEDx guidelines for solid science.”
It was an awfully vague reason for such a drastic action. It put Suzanne Taylor in an awful place as she scrambled to put together her event without TED at the last possible minute at great personal expense.
There were basically two different avenues of thought about this latest development. On the one hand, people supporting TED’s actions argued that they could do whatever they please. It’s their non profit corporation and they are entitled to run it as they see fit.
On the other hand it was argued that TED has hosted many speeches that did not meet the standard that they expected of TEDxWestHollywood. Furthermore, removing a talk on the basis of science means that you are required to explain what it is that you object to and why. That is, after all, how science works.
At this point, it was fairly clear how the controversy would end. When the commenting on the controversy at TED had run its course in early April, TED issued an identical statement for both speakers:
Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we’re also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That’s why we invited this debate. The process hasn’t been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.
Critics of TED, including myself at the time, found plenty of fodder. It was argued that TED did not appear to have engaged in open inquiry because they never gave any real reasons for what they were doing. They were also lacking in either skepticism or critical thinking and had instead taken a very ideologically based position that had nothing to do with science.
What became of the offer by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock to debate? Nothing. This certainly would have been an opportunity for TED to put together a case for its actions after the fact, but they did not respond. For that matter, neither did professors Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, whose complaints got the whole controversy started.
And that was the end of the controversy. Many critics felt that what TED did was censorship, but that is not an easy claim to make in the age of the Internet. Both Graham Hancock’s and Rupert Sheldrake’s speeches were spread far and wide on the Internet and they arguably achieved far more fame from their notoriety than they otherwise would have.
Likewise, the TEDx program became ExTEDxWestHollywood, the speeches were filmed and are available on the Internet for free. Really, the only thing these participants in the controversy appeared to lose in terms of visibility was the TED prestige. (Suzanne was also out $30,000, but that is another matter.)
What the TED controversy demonstrated was that support for “fringe” topics long considered to be outside of the realm of acceptable science has been growing exponentially and is starting to become a force to be reckoned with. Since neither TED, its science board nor its allies could provide any evidence to back up the pseudo science claims, perhaps it’s time for the mainstream to start taking Sheldrake, Hancock, the other banned speakers and their supporters a bit more seriously.
It’s a fairly safe bet that this controversy is not going to go away.