This letter is in response to the recent letter to all the TEDx organizers, posted by Chris Anderson, the head of TED. The letter proposed certain “red flag” topics, among them health hoaxes and the medicinal value of food but also the general area of pseudoscience.
Thank you for clearing up some issues, particularly the confusion surrounding TEDx’s decision to take down or shift the talks by Sheldrake and Hancock. Actions speak louder than words, and the talks were removed from the website, followed by your letter warning TEDx organizers essentially not to repeat the same mistake again by inviting similar talks. To underline the point, TEDx withdrew its brand name from a West Hollywood event that was by no means filled with “goofballs” or “questionable” figures.
TED has invited religious leaders to speak, but that’s not at issue. The “fusion of science and spirituality” that you warned against in your guidelines is the issue. The animosity of militant atheists against consciousness studies and their stubborn defense of conservative mainstream science seem to be the background noise, at the very least, that colored your warnings. It’s easy to envision that someone along the line at TED, seeing a talk entitled “The Science Delusion,” recognized an attack on Dawkins and chopped the limb off the tree.
I’m grateful for the even-handedness that you say TED displays in matters of atheism, religion, and science. In 2002 I spoke directly after Dawkins, mounted a vigorous riposte to his main points, and received a standing ovation. His talk appears in full at TED’s website. Mine doesn’t, nor can it be found with a Google search. I’d be grateful to see it restored as a gesture of TED’s lack of censorship.
TED is reacting to the widespread objections to your warnings/guidelines. This takes us halfway. An open forum without an anonymous science board giving thumbs up or thumbs down would go all the way. I recognize that TED is a privately held non-profit (Sapling Foundation). I’m only making a suggestion.
Please read the following responses from accredited scientists and others in the consciousness communities, who have their own responses to the issues at hand.
Dear Chris and TED:
I am actually thankful to TED for in some way what happened with this whole incident is bringing out some long-simmering issues in the scientific community, what is legitimate science at least as science is practiced today, how science may evolve, and other related issues; and also, and this is relevant to TED’s apparent policies (I say apparent because it is not clear to me how the decision to remove the talks was reached and who was involved) how groups of self-appointed zealots are taking upon themselves to use labels and aggressive language to discredit what may after all turn out to be legitimate science. I won’t repeat what many others already pointed out but science is evolving because of the change of the paradigms not by defending existing views. The latter, belongs to the realm of dogmatic belief systems.
Using terms like “goofballs” and “pseudo-science” doesn’t really address the real issues at hand. There are so called “scientists” who use these terms to promote their own cherished views and I am afraid, dogmas. Who is pseudo-scientist after all? Someone who is trying to expand the horizons of science and is doing research at the intersection of different fields? If that is the case, then anyone doing research in consciousness, its relationship with fields like physics and psychology, and yes, neuroscience, should be labeled pseudo-scientist. Or someone who has other agendas and using anonymity and labeling others, promotes his or her agenda? If that is the case, I submit to you, this is not science. Such attacks by so-called skeptics have been used at some universities to weed out unwelcome views (in the minds of the skeptics) and in the process adversely impact the careers of colleagues. We scientists are skeptics by the nature of inquiry but we should not use the methods of the self-labeled “skeptics”. Such methods belong to the history of some religious past to shut up “heretic” views. Today “defenders of the faith” don’t burn heretics at the stake; they label them and try to exclude their views.
Science advances by dialogue, inquiry and exchange of ideas. Today dialogue is even more important than in the past, the community problems and issues that science is facing need the best of minds, and hearts, to come together. Science and philosophy, science and metaphysics, are complementary activities. Fields like global climate, neuroscience and consciousness and even quantum field theory, advance through intersection of ideas and methodologies, not by censorship.
I am a quantum physicist, cosmologist and Earth scientist, so I know these issues. We are now facing a grand revolution in scientific thought, through the dialogue between quantum theory, consciousness work, biology, and philosophy and psychology. TED has a great opportunity to help advance this transformation. I hope you do.
Menas C. Kafatos
Fletcher Jones Professor of Computational Physics
TED apparently allows science, and religion, but not science which may be compatible with religion, e.g. quantum brain biology giving rise to the possibility of non-local entanglement among living beings, and the structure of the universe (Sheldrake’s banned topic of ‘morphic resonance’ was an early, courageous attempt at such a bridge). How would the TED mavens explain quantum entanglement?
Regarding the disposition against pseudoscience and commercialization, what about the TED talk by Ray Kurzweil which makes outlandish (ridiculous, really) claims that brain equivalence including consciousness will soon be reached in computers by his Singularity approach. Total unscientific self-promotion. Whoever showed that neurons were simple bit-like states? What about a single cell organism like paramecium which swims around, finds food and mates, has sex and can learn, without any synapses? Kurzweil should simulate a paramecium before worrying about a brain. Where are the pseudoscience police on this one?
Stuart Hameroff MD
Professor, Anesthesiology and Psychology
Director, Center for Consciousness Studies
The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
For centuries, intransigent voices argued that the following kind of question is meaningless: Can an ape think? What does an elephant feel? The reasons actually had nothing to do with whether these were “scientific” propositions in principle. They had to do with the philosophical and psychological prejudices held by the guardians of traditional science in biology, psychology and philosophy. The parallel to the TED debate is obvious.
In evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, the last 25 years have witnessed a revolution in the philosophy of science for those fields. Given what we know about the operations of the minds of primates, corvids, cetaceans, octopi and other animals, no serious ethnologist would any longer suggest that it is non-scientific to ask the kinds of questions introduced above. In fact, the burden of proof has shifted dramatically so that those who question whether animals other than humans can be consciousness have more to explain if they disagree with those conclusions.
Censorship almost always arises from some political agenda. Let’s do our best to keep it out of the study of consciousness.
Robert E. Sweeney, DA, MS
University of Memphis
Member Board of Directors
Foundation for Mind-Brain Sciences