The Importance of Reasoned Skepticism

Isn’t it weird that so many self-proclaimed “skeptics” and “freethinkers” seem so self-assured of everything they believe in, just like the “ignorant Christians” they spend so much time attacking? “Question authority,” they proclaim out one side of their mouth, while vomiting rigid and sometimes archaic scientific formulae out the other. “Think freely” they bark, only to chastise those who don’t live up to their (often contradictory) standards. In practical experience, very few atheists actually seem willing to question or think freely, when it really gets down to it. Just like true believers, atheists hold to plot points on a narrative–only their’s is backed up by evidence and reality (at least in their own minds). We’ve heard it all before, right?

Rather than rehash the obvious, let’s take a different approach.

Contrary to the cries of those who perpetuate the “belief and skepticism are incompatible” trope, reasoned skepticism is an essential piece in the believer’s toolset. Now, it’s important to note just what I mean by “skepticism” here, for I’m not referring to today’s knee-jerk postmodern scientism. I’m not talking about the “thoughtless doubt” or pseudo-skepticism reserved for teens and new atheists. By “skepticism” I mean genuine, reasoned doubting of one’s self and others.

To a certain degree, believers should be skeptical! After all, the Bible is (among other things) one giant recollection of human faultiness. The Bible doesn’t make any prohibition against healthy trust, but it definitely seems to prescribe against cocksureness.

“No matter how strong our convictions may be, we must learn to distrust ourselves, for we are all prone to err; and the more self-assured we are, the more liable we are to go astray.” —Watchman Nee

Preach on, Brother Nee! This is why I’m an equal-opportunity skeptic: because man is so often wrong, and this brings up an interesting point, one (a)theists can agree on. Like the Bible, science is also a recollection of human faultiness. Right? Right.

Since every human institution is, well, human, reasoned skepticism must extend itself equally in all directions. Don’t let any self-proclaimed defender of “reason” fool you. To say that belief and skepticism are compatible would be an understatement. One can’t have healthy beliefs—either scientific or religious—without reasoned skepticism.

50 Comments

  1. Stephen Gray says:

    Absolute rubbish. If you dared to apply real skepticism to the Bible, you would no longer believe any of it. For a start, what do you say to the daffy notion that God sacrificed God (JC himself) to pay a debt to God? Ridiculous. What to you say to the well-known fact that NO secular observers ever said anything about Jesus? (The 2 paragraphs in Josephus are obvious fakes, and Tacitus fares no better.) What do you say to Jesus’ failed prophecy that he would return within the lifetime of his audience? What about his wrong prophecy that he would be buried for 3 days and nights? What do you say to the fact that Paul said the OT no longer applied, but Jesus said the exact opposite? What do you say to the charge that the OT God was a psychopathic murderer?
    By attacking skeptics, you are attempting to divert attention from the fact that you cannot coherently answer charges like mine.
    r opinions are 100% wrong. Get real.

  2. Crude says:

    In practical experience, very few atheists actually seem willing to question or think freely, when it really gets down to it.

    Hell, just look at the reaction from that TED conference with Rupert Sheldrake. Skeptics love skepticism, so long as the skepticism is selective.

    But who doesn’t?

  3. Cormack says:

    Well keep in mind that real cranks exist. They typically fail to understand the fundamentals of the scientific method, especially the aspect of skepticism. As Feynman said, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    Rupert Sheldrake is a good example. I mean, it might be possible that dogs are telepathic, but actually demonstrating this would require several independent testers to successfully replicate the results of a given experiment under careful controls. On some level Sheldrake doesn’t seem to grasp this.

  4. Crude says:

    Rupert Sheldrake is a good example.

    Alright. Why is he an example?

    I mean, it might be possible that dogs are telepathic, but actually demonstrating this would require several independent testers to successfully replicate the results of a given experiment under careful controls.

    I’m skeptical of the conclusions Sheldrake draws from his research, and of his theories in general. But so what? Why does this make him a crank while Dan Dennett (whose views about the mind are, putting it very mildly, very controversial) is just a provocative thinker?

    It’s not like Sheldrake is going around yelling “I proved dogs are telepathic woohoo!” – he carried out experiments and reported his results. He invites people to replicate his research, and he seems entirely relaxed – even detached – about the results. Where did he go wrong in how he conducted himself?

    I’m sure real cranks exist. What also exists are people who are unjustly called cranks, or people who are very selective in their skepticism. With TED, it really seems like a small group of paranoid atheists couldn’t stand the existence of a TED lecture that questioned and criticized their views, and they demanded censorship.

  5. Cormack says:

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was withdrawn because there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls.

    This isn’t about dogmatic or close-minded scientists. On the contrary, scientists want nothing more than to discover a hitherto unknown phenomenon — a new fundamental force, a real demonstration of telepathy, a new model for the physical constants of the universe. Any one of these deserves a Nobel Prize, and its discoverer would be a hero immortalized in the annals of science and human history.

    Yes, there is censorship here — TED censors out pseudoscience.

  6. Crude says:

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was withdrawn because there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls.

    What complete baloney.

    TED will let Dan Dennett go up on stage and spin his utter cockamammy philosophical views about ‘the illusion of consciousness’, and the fact that he’s making metaphysical and philosophical claims that science cannot demonstrate by definition in no way leads to any censorship of him. Richard Dawkins can go up and basically editorialize about atheism.

    Sheldrake, meanwhile, goes up and talks about a variety of things – he wasn’t just censored over his ‘morphic resonance’ talk – and suddenly, he’s censored. Not only that, but the censorship comes hot on the heels of terrified atheists complaining loudly, and is referred to some anonymous panel. That’s quite a thing.

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was censored, not withdrawn. Censored. He had as much – even far more – evidence for a variety of the points he made as Dennett and others did. With people they agree with, TED’s standards become far looser and speakers are allowed to share their opinions and views. Even with scant evidence or bad arguments, it’s tolerated.

    TED censors ideas that scare the people running the show, and Sheldrake unwittingly exposed as much. Considering one of his points was to highlight the dogmatism of atheists who actually end up abusing science, it’s ironic.

  7. Cormack says:

    Dennett is a philosopher. Science and philosophy are different subjects. I haven’t seen a TED talk in which he promulgated pseudoscience. But even supposing he did, that would not imply that Sheldrake should be permitted to spread pseudoscience at TED’s expense.

    As I said, TED does censor — it censors out pseudoscience.

  8. Cormack says:

    Remember Pastor Rick Warren gave a TED talk, too. My understanding is that TED allows philosophy to be presented as philosophy and religion to be presented as religion, while it is not permitted to present non-science as science, aka pseudoscience.

  9. Crude says:

    Dennett is a philosopher. Science and philosophy are different subjects.

    Dennett’s views on science aren’t particularly inspiring either, and if you don’t think he presents his views as if they carried the authority of science, you aren’t very familiar with Dennett.

    TED censors out ideas that spook them. Sheldrake has performed experiments, and he properly qualifies his views. Do I think he’s right? No, I’m on the skeptical side when it comes to morphic resonance and the dog psychic stuff and the rest. But to his credit, he does experiments and researches. TED took an axe to his presentation because his comments – many of which, by the way, dealt more with philosophy and sociology of science than anything else – disturbed people who want science to be their exclusive dogmatic realm.

    It backfired on them. As well it should have.

    Remember Pastor Rick Warren gave a TED talk, too.

    A very sterilized talk about broad feelgoodisms. If Plantinga went up there and explained the abuses of science Dawkins and company engage in while presenting evolutionary theory, he’d be censored just like Sheldrake was.

  10. Cormack says:

    I don’t know how to respond except to repeat what I said before: there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. This isn’t about dogmatic or close-minded scientists. On the contrary, scientists want nothing more than to discover a hitherto unknown phenomenon — a new fundamental force, a real demonstration of telepathy, a new model for the physical constants of the universe. Any one of these deserves a Nobel Prize, and its discoverer would be a hero immortalized in the annals of science and human history.

    We aren’t talking about “Look at this new species of octopus” or “I found some interesting behavior in rhesus monkeys” which may be interesting or even ground-breaking but they don’t rise to the level of Nobel-prize-winning discoveries. If what Sheldrake says is true about, say, morphic fields, then I would literally call it the greatest discovery of all time, and I would call him the greatest thinker of all time. However an extraordinary phenomenon that revolutionizes our understanding of the universe has to be independently confirmed before being promulgated as science. Nobody has been able to do that with Sheldrake’s extraordinary claims.

    Should TED ask psychic Sylvia Browne to give a talk? Why not? She’s absolutely certain that she’s psychic, and thousands (maybe even millions) of her fans believe so too. She can cite reams of evidence, and she has even agreed to take Randi’s million dollar challenge (though that was many years ago and she still hasn’t followed through). So why shouldn’t she give a talk? Otherwise TED is just censoring ideas that spook them, right?

    You might take exception to the Sheldrake/Browne comparison, but evidence-wise they are the same. The world is brimming with people making these kinds of extraordinary claims. They get plenty of exposure in the pseudoscience/paranormal subculture. I for one am glad that TED is not a part of it, and I would submit that you should be glad too.

  11. cl says:

    Hey Crude. Long time no hear. I’ve been out of the trenches for quite some time now.

    Howdy Cormack, welcome to TWIM. I tend to side with Crude here, for various reasons. For example (and these are taken out of order):

    Should TED ask psychic Sylvia Browne to give a talk? Why not?

    Because she doesn’t conduct scientific research. Sheldrake, on the other hand, does. You’re comparing apples to oranges.

    …evidence-wise they are the same.

    I don’t see how any intelligent person can make that claim. Can you produce even a single scientific experiment from Browne? Sheldrake has evidence. Has it been replicated? Not yet, but there is quite a bit of evidence for psi-phenomena like telepathy that has been replicated.

    As I said, TED does censor — it censors out pseudoscience.

    And precisely how do you define “pseudoscience”?

  12. Cormack says:

    Hi cl,

    Sure, Sheldrake “has evidence”. However that’s a very low bar. Anyone can “have evidence”. It was for a reason that I said “solid evidence” and gave its definition twice: Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. Neither Browne nor Sheldrake have solid evidence.

    You’re nibbling at a random example I gave which is tangential to the main point. If you like I’ll completely retract the Browne analogy since it doesn’t affect the point I was trying to convey.

    Let’s take a neutral example instead. Someone–call him Bob–says that he has evidence that the mass of an electron is actually half of the currently accepted value. What should his next step be? Should he treat this result skeptically and see if anyone can verify it? Or should he write books and give lectures about his amazing discovery that dogmatic scientists are unwilling to accept? If Bob takes the latter action then I would say that he’s engaging in pseudoscience. He is making an extraordinary claim without solid evidence to back it up; he is bypassing the peer review process; he is making a bid for acceptance to the general public instead of to the scientific community. All of these things are indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.

  13. cl says:

    Howdy again.

    You’re nibbling at a random example I gave which is tangential to the main point. If you like I’ll completely retract the Browne analogy since it doesn’t affect the point I was trying to convey.

    Well excuse me, but, how does your comparison of Sheldrake to Browne have anything to do with the main point of the OP? Also, it’s not nibbling: I was calling you out for comparing apples to oranges. You *should* retract that example, because it’s totally bunk. If you use those sorts of examples, people like me are going to think you just haven’t looked at all the data. Quite frankly, that was a Dawkins-esque example. But good on you for retracting it.

    Someone–call him Bob–says that he has evidence that the mass of an electron is actually half of the currently accepted value. What should his next step be? Should he treat this result skeptically and see if anyone can verify it? Or should he write books and give lectures about his amazing discovery that dogmatic scientists are unwilling to accept? If Bob takes the latter action then I would say that he’s engaging in pseudoscience.

    First, I agree with you in spirit here, although, I wouldn’t accuse Bob of dabbling in pseudoscience. I would just say that he’s conducting genuine science irresponsibly. I think we have differing definitions of pseudoscience. If you’d like to understand how I use the term, I suggest this post.

    Second, you’ve presented another unfair comparison: Bob didn’t say he had “solid evidence,” right? Is Sheldrake running around saying he has “solid evidence” for his claims? If so, can you present a quote from Sheldrake’s mouth to this effect? Or, as I suspect, is Sheldrake simply saying, “Hey, I’ve got some (preliminary) evidence for this, other people should check it out?” That matters greatly.

    All of these things are indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.

    Again, I disagree. These indicate the irresponsible use of genuine science. I use the term “pseudoscience” to denote things that are impervious to the scientific method, but are still presented as genuine science.

    I’m sympathetic to Sheldrake because he doesn’t make his claims in a vacuum. There is a *lot* of data on telepathy, and a non-trivial amount of it has been replicated. That’s why I cringe when I hear people just write it off as “pseudoscience,” because I don’t think it is. I think the people who make those types of statements are generally just expressing their own bias.

  14. Cormack says:

    The definition of pseudoscience involves the demarcation problem which has a long history and is nontrivial to explain. A recent book was devoted to it. It is also covered in classics such as The Demon-Haunted World by Sagan.

    With regard to suitability for a TED talk, how is Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” any different than Bob’s electron mass? In both cases we have someone making an extraordinary / revolutionary / greatest-discovery-in-the-history-of-mankind claim without independent verification. Whether we call it pseudoscience or irresponsible science, it’s not appropriate for TED.

  15. Nester says:

    @Cormack
    Nice dodge!

  16. Cormack says:

    Nester, I don’t understand your comment, so unless you were just trolling you need to explain it.

  17. Nester says:

    Cl asked some legit questions. You didn’t answer any. Seemed like a dodge to me.

  18. Cormack says:

    You’ll have to explain what I didn’t answer, then.

    The whole conversation is moot because Sheldrake does not have solid evidence for his extraordinary claims. He’s no different from Slyvia and Bob in this regard.

    I have to point out that it’s amazingly ironic that a post touting reasoned skepticism is followed by comments that are credulous of telepathy. For decades people have been doing experiments on telepathy and none have been reliably replicated. Historically these experiments have also been plagued by faulty design and controls. If ever a replicable experiment emerges, it would be a Nobel-prize winning discovery and would arguably be the greatest discovery of all time. Considering these factors in toto, reasoned skepticism suggests that we shouldn’t hold our breath.

  19. Nester says:

    I already know your opinions. I want to hear the process. Start with these two: Second, you’ve presented another unfair comparison: Bob didn’t say he had “solid evidence,” right? Is Sheldrake running around saying he has “solid evidence” for his claims? If so, can you present a quote from Sheldrake’s mouth to this effect? Or, as I suspect, is Sheldrake simply saying, “Hey, I’ve got some (preliminary) evidence for this, other people should check it out?”

  20. Cormack says:

    Your thinking that that is relevant suggests to me that you’re missing my point in a big way.

    Bob has an extraordinary claim which, if true, would shake the foundations of science, win him the Nobel Prize, and guarantee him a place among the greatest scientists of all time. He should exercise some skepticism. He should ask around to see if anyone can replicate his experiment. He should actively try to find a mistake in his experiment instead of accepting it at face value. But Bob isn’t doing that. Instead of presenting his work to scientists, he presents it to the general public. Bob is being irresponsible.

    Sheldrake has an extraordinary claim which, if true, would shake the foundations of science, win him the Nobel Prize, and guarantee him a place among the greatest scientists of all time. He should exercise some skepticism. He should ask around to see if anyone can replicate his experiment. He should actively try to find a mistake in his experiment instead of accepting it at face value. But Sheldrake isn’t doing that. Instead of presenting his work to scientists, he presents it to the general public. Sheldrake is being irresponsible.

    Niggling about semantics of the phrase “solid evidence” is completely beside point. That is just more of missing the forest for the trees, the same as what happened with the Browne comparison. Whether Bob claims he has “solid evidence” or not, whether Sheldrake claims he has “solid evidence” or not — none of that has any bearing on the fact that neither should be touting their results to the public in the first place.

    My response cuts away the fluff and gets to heart of the matter: With regard to suitability for a TED talk, how is Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” any different than Bob’s electron mass? The answer to that question should resolve the matter.

  21. Nester says:

    My response cuts away the fluff and gets to heart of the matter: With regard to suitability for a TED talk, how is Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” any different than Bob’s electron mass? The answer to that question should resolve the matter.

    Ok, so this basically all boils down to your opinion that nobody should promote scientific ideas on TED unless those ideas have been replicated?

  22. cl says:

    Howdy all. Just wanted to let you know I’m still listening. I find that searching for facts is much more interesting and amusing than dealing with Cormack’s dogmatic skepticism :)

    Here are some handy links:

    Sheldrake’s talk / response to TED

    Discussion of whether or not Sheldrake should have been censored

    This critical Scientific American article shows that other scientists and researchers are attempting to replicate Sheldrake’s “staring” experiments

    Cormack,

    Again, I am not any wholesale Sheldrake supporter, but your continued usage of the “Bob” example is purely disingenuous, and I find some of your claims appalling. Quit spreading disinformation on my blog, please. For example:

    He should actively try to find a mistake in his experiment instead of accepting it at face value. But Sheldrake isn’t doing that. Instead of presenting his work to scientists, he presents it to the general public. Sheldrake is being irresponsible.

    Huh? You’re the one being irresponsible here. Sheldrake has presented his work to other scientists. He’s debated and discussed it with others. Others have attempted to replicate his work. That’s exactly how the arduous process of science works. Sheldrake’s nowhere near this cockamanny “Bob” thing you cooked up.

    Play fair.

    And let’s not forget the context under which Sheldrake was asked to give this talk: “I was invited to give my talk as part of a TEDx event in Whitechapel, London, called “Challenging Existing Paradigms.” In other words, this talk is on equal footing as any other talk centered on philosophy of science. In other words, this is an at least as equal footing as any of Dennett’s rants, as Crude already pointed out.

    Your attempt to place a higher burden on Sheldrake because his talk is “scientific” whereas Dennett’s or Warren’s talks are “philosophical” and “religious” is purely misguided. Sheldrake was invited to talk on an issue that is philosophical at heart.

  23. Cormack says:

    Nester:

    Ok, so this basically all boils down to your opinion that nobody should promote scientific ideas on TED unless those ideas have been replicated?

    Almost. An extraordinary scientific claim that, if true, would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee the claimant a place among the greatest scientists of all time should not be promoted at TED unless it has been replicated. As I mentioned earlier, we’re not talking about “Look at this new species of octopus” or “I found some interesting behavior in rhesus monkeys” which are findings that don’t carry such implications.

    Revolutions do happen in science, but there have only been a handful of them throughout history. A finding which contradicts current scientific knowledge or introduces a new fundamental force of the universe is extraordinary/revolutionary and requires replicable evidence, since it is so unlikely to pan out. Again, revolutions do happen, and the higher bar for extraordinary claims is because it’s important to get things right when they do.

    Another adjustment to your quote: what I’ve said is not just my “opinion” but a basic principle in dealing with scientific claims. See Pigliucci’s book I linked to above for an introduction to the demarcation problem.

    cl,

    The quote you cited was in the context of my question

    With regard to suitability for a TED talk, how is Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” any different than Bob’s electron mass?

    which appears both before and after the quote. “Instead of presenting his work to scientists, he presents it to the general public” is referring to the talk being a TED talk and not a talk at a scientific conference, where scientists would be able to pepper him with questions and generally try to figure out what is happening. What I said doesn’t imply that Sheldrake hasn’t interacted with scientists.

    Others have attempted to replicate his work.

    Attempted and failed. Until success comes, he is in the same position as Bob: lacking solid evidence. They are the same “with regard to suitability for a TED talk”.

    In other words, this talk is on equal footing as any other talk centered on philosophy of science. In other words, this is an at least as equal footing as any of Dennett’s rants, as Crude already pointed out.

    No it’s not, because Sheldrake is making extraordinary scientific claims: morphic resonance, variable speed of light, etc. If just one of those were true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time. Contrariwise, nothing Dennett has said could impact the field of physics, win him a Nobel Prize, etc.

  24. cl says:

    Cormack,

    I asked you to quote Sheldrake way upthread, and Nester asked you to respond as well. Yet, you haven’t produced evidence for your claim that Sheldrake made an irresponsible extraordinary claim in this particular TED talk. In your next comment, I want you to cite—verbatim, with a corresponding minute-mark—what and when Sheldrake claimed that was so extraordinary. Go watch the talk, transcribe the extraordinary claims, note the time, and report back.

  25. Cormack says:

    cl,

    Again, it doesn’t matter whether Sheldrake uses the phrase “solid evidence” or not, the point is that he doesn’t actually have solid evidence, meaning reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. In my previous comment I explained why this is important for extraordinary claims, in contradistinction to “check out this new species” kinds of talks.

    Take the example I mentioned, morphic resonance. At 9:15 he says, “There is in fact good evidence that new compounds get easier to crystallize all around the world” by virtue of the fact that other similar crystals exist. If that turns out to be true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time.

    Maybe here you would say, “But Sheldrake isn’t claiming that he has solid evidence.” Right, and an extraordinary claim without solid evidence is not suitable for TED.

  26. cl says:

    Cool, thanks for finally upholding your responsibilities as a positive claimant. Took long enough! Anywho, is that it? Do you allege that Sheldrake made any other extraordinary claims in this TED talk? Or is this claim the sole grounds for your hardline stance that his talk should be banned??

  27. Cormack says:

    Before getting into other parts of the talk I’d like to know if you’ve changed your mind about the talk’s suitability for TED, and why or why not. I think I’ve adequately laid out the reasons for its demise.

  28. cl says:

    No, I haven’t changed my mind at all. You haven’t made your case, and you’re still ignoring the context of this particular TED talk. You’re presenting and evaluating Sheldrake’s passing reference to his own hypothesis out-of-context. You’re trying to tell me that Sheldrake *should* be banned but you’ve given no reason whatsoever, other than that you don’t like him describing his own hypothesis as having “good evidence,” and that’s not good reason to ban his talk.

    That you compare this to Sylvia Browne and some random cockamanny “Bob” just shows how disingenuous you’re being. Like him or not, Sheldrake is an educated, accomplished researcher, and here I thought he gave a fine, provocative, respectful talk—especially given the context under which he was invited to speak. It doesn’t bother me that he made a passing reference to his own hypothesis as having “good evidence.” That’s not grounds to censor people. This isn’t Communist China or Nazi Germany.

    So, now that I explained why I reject that, is there anything else that might justify your attacks of Sheldrake as a “crank?”

  29. cl says:

    One other thing Cormack:

    At 9:15 he says, “There is in fact good evidence that new compounds get easier to crystallize all around the world” by virtue of the fact that other similar crystals exist. If that turns out to be true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time.

    I wholeheartedly agree. That’s exactly why all these little piss-ant whiny “skeptics” need to chill out and let the man speak, UNTIL he actually crosses the line and does something unethical. THEN – and only then – is anyone justified in whipping up an intellectual lynch mob.

  30. Cormack says:

    I don’t care that he said “good evidence” or not; I don’t see why you thought I was focusing on that phrase. What matters is whether he has actual solid evidence, regardless of what he says.

    I happened to cite morphic resonance because I mentioned it earlier. I don’t know why you needed me to point it out for you in the video. I could have picked any number of claims; I’m just keeping it simple. I don’t have time to deconstruct the whole video and then discuss it all.

    It doesn’t make sense to have TED speakers making extraordinary claims without solid evidence, otherwise we really get cockamamie things. This guideline prevents Sylvia Browne and Bob from being speakers, which I think is a good thing.

    You said that Bob was being irresponsible. By the same reasoning why isn’t Sheldrake being irresponsible?

  31. cl says:

    I don’t know why you needed me to point it out for you in the video.

    Because it’s irresponsible of you to just launch a bunch of vague attacks without specific supporting evidence. That’s why I asked you to actually root your criticisms in the real world. That, and your case is so vapid, I was actually questioning whether you’d watched the talk at all.

    It doesn’t make sense to have TED speakers making extraordinary claims without solid evidence, otherwise we really get cockamamie things.

    I agree. Problem is, you haven’t shown the Sheldrake made an extraordinary claim. At absolute worst, he’s guilty of making a passing remark referring to his own hypothesis as having “good evidence.” Big freaking whoop! Morphic resonance wasn’t even the subject matter of the talk. This is so far off from Sylvia and Bob that it’s laughable.

    You said that Bob was being irresponsible. By the same reasoning why isn’t Sheldrake being irresponsible?

    For the last time, context. It’s not like Sheldrake gave a talk titled “New Facts in Molecular Biology” then proceeded to tout his hypothesis as established. If he had done that I would line up with you in a heartbeat, but, he didn’t. He gave an excellent talk, then just happened to refer to his own hypothesis as having “good evidence” and all these so-called “skeptics” and “rational thinkers” freak out and call for censorship.

    Y’all are the ones acting irresponsibly here, not Sheldrake. If you disagree, then… make your case. Show me this alleged “extraordinary claim.”

  32. Cormack says:

    As I said in the first paragraph, the “good evidence” part doesn’t matter here. I still don’t understand why you think I’m focusing on that phrase. I’m not. What matters is whether he has actual solid evidence, regardless of what he says.

    Claim: Crystals form easier when similar crystals exist on the other side of the world.

    If this claim is true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time. I thought you just agreed with that? (“I wholeheartedly agree.”) That’s what an extraordinary claim is.

    I cited just the crystal claim because it’s sufficient to make the point. I could have mentioned other claims, but we’re having enough trouble discussing just this one.

    You agree that it doesn’t make sense to have TED speakers making extraordinary claims without solid evidence, otherwise we really get cockamamie things. Good, because that guideline is all that is being invoked here. The guideline helps maintain a level of scientific integrity and helps prevent the spread of misinformation to the public. Failure to live up to the guideline is just that. It’s not censorship or a lynching or Nazism or Communist China. It’s failing to meet the requirements of a TED talk.

    This brouhaha may be TEDx Whitechapel’s fault for not making the guidelines clear. If the plan was for Sheldrake to get up and make extraordinary claims without solid evidence then it was a plan that contradicted the guidelines.

    A talk about the metaphors we use to describe the universe (Sheldrake’s item 1) or the nature of consciousness (item 2) might be suitable because they are philosophical and don’t seem to reach into science. All TEDx had to do was advise Sheldrake to stick with those. Not that I think conscious stars are likely, but that seems outside experiment.

    Sheldrake’s talk isn’t qualified with anything like “but don’t take this seriously”. It’s quite clear that he is being serious. About the ten items mentioned at the outset he says, “None of them stand up very well,” and, “But I think every one of these dogmas is very, very questionable, and when you look at it they fall apart.” He mentions evidence several times. He’s making the case that what he’s saying may be true, and not just fun, quirky ideas to challenge our attitudes.

  33. cl says:

    Look, if you say a scientist should have his talk censored because of certain claims he made, then cite the time the claim(s) occur in the video so any interested party can easily fact-check without having to watch the entire 18-minute video. If you don’t care enough to do that, I don’t care enough to go any further.

    This scatter-shot, half-baked approach is irresponsible. It’s actually a perfect example of less-than-reasoned skepticism!

  34. cl says:

    Ah, nevermind… I had a half-hour so I watched the talk again. I figured that’d be safer and more responsible than relying on you to get it right ;)

    I still don’t understand why you think I’m focusing on that phrase. I’m not.

    I still don’t understand why you think I think you’re focusing on that phrase. I don’t. You kept yammering about these “extraordinary claims” Sheldrake was making, and after I asked 2 or 3 times for you to present them, that was the only one you supplied (the one where Sheldrake says ‘good evidence’). Problem is, that’s not an extraordinary claim. So now you’ve brought another…

    Claim: Crystals form easier when similar crystals exist on the other side of the world.

    If this claim is true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time. I thought you just agreed with that?

    I *do* agree with that such a discovery would be ground-breaking. The problem is, Sheldrake didn’t just walk up there and say, “Crystals form easier when similar crystals exist on the other side of the world.” That’s an out-of-context paraphrase you came up with. Here’s what he actually said, with the crucial context: First, he launches into his morphic resonance talk after suggesting that we might want to refer to natural processes as “habits” that can evolve over time, rather than rigid “laws” which are eternally fixed. Nothing wrong there, just a suggestion, take it or leave it. Next, at 8:07 and in the context of morphic resonance, Sheldrake carefully qualifies: “According to this hypothesis everything in nature has a kind of collective memory…” Then, at 8:50 Sheldrake continues, “This theory predicts that if you make a new kind of crystal for the first time, the very first time you make it, it won’t have an existing habit, but once it crystallizes, then the next time you make it, there’ll be an inference (influence?) to the first crystals and second crystals all over the world, and by morphic resonance it will crystallize a little easier… there is in fact good evidence that new compounds get easier to crystallize all around the world, just as this theory would predict… that’s my own hypothesis in a nutshell…”

    So, unlike the picture you paint, we *DON’T* have a scientist misleading or misinforming anybody. Contrary, we have a scientist explaining the predictions that we would expect if his hypothesis were correct, and that is perfectly reasonable. I suspect you just don’t like it because you align yourself with neo-materialists like Coyne and Myers.

    Good, because that guideline is all that is being invoked here.

    Well, yeah, but by ignoring context, sloppily paraphrasing and omission, you’re invoking the guideline carelessly and unreasonably.

    This brouhaha may be TEDx Whitechapel’s fault for not making the guidelines clear.

    Maybe, but it could also be PZ and Coyne’s fault for whipping up their normal frenzy any time a professional challenges their beloved materialist / atheist paradigm.

    Sheldrake’s talk isn’t qualified with anything like “but don’t take this seriously”.

    No, but the parts you’re whining about *ARE* qualified with “according to this HYPOTHESIS” and “that’s MY OWN HYPOTHESIS in a nutshell.” So, what? A scientist should be banned for explaining the tenets of his hypothesis on TEDx?

  35. Cormack says:

    I was referring to morphic resonance from the beginning. When you asked for an extraordinary claim I said, “Take the example I mentioned, morphic resonance. At 9:15 he says…” Morphic resonance is the same thing: If morphic resonance turns out to be true then it would shake the foundations of science, be worthy of a Nobel Prize, and guarantee Sheldrake a place among the greatest scientists of all time.

    The context of “according to this HYPOTHESIS” doesn’t make a difference. If I make the extraordinary claim that I have telekinetic powers, it doesn’t matter that I preface the claim with, “According to my Cormackerific Field hypothesis…” and end it with, “That is my own hypothesis.” Bookending an extraordinary claim in this manner does not remove the extraordinary nature of the claim. In fact I now have two extraordinary things: telekinesis and the existence of Cormackerific Fields.

    You agreed that Bob was irresponsible. He doesn’t suddenly become responsible if he couches his extraordinary findings within an hypothesis of Bobtastic Fields, even if he repeats that it’s an hypothesis. He’s irresponsible because he’s touting his results to the public before they have been replicated. He needs to convince scientists, not the public.

    This idea that morphic fields is “just a suggestion, take it or leave it” does not comport with the message of the talk. Nowhere is a disclaimer of that nature made. On the contrary, at the beginning he says of the “dogmas”: “when you look at it they fall apart.” He is most obviously advocating for his hypothesis. He tells us about the evidence he has, not just evidence from crystals but evidence from rat behavior. He’s making a case. Moreover, “just a suggestion, take it or leave it” does not comport with Sheldrake’s own view. He’s been touting his morphic resonance for decades! — in books, lectures, radio, and other medium.

    At this point you might say, “But he says it’s an hypothesis!” Right, and an hypothesis which, if true, would confer a Nobel Prize, introduce a new fundamental force of the universe, etc., is not appropriate for TED if there is no solid evidence to back it up (solid evidence meaning independent reproducible results).

    We don’t want Steven Hawking sharing a stage with Slyvia Browne and Bob. I’ve simply been explaining what I think is a pretty common sense guideline for an organization like TED, and I think you’re getting caught up in shooting the messenger here.

    The more I think about it, the more it seems the blame falls on TEDx Whitechapel. They should have been aware of the guidelines. There would have been no problem if Sheldrake stuck to philosophy, e.g. the problems with the mechanistic metaphor in describing the universe, which I see as a problem myself.

  36. Crude says:

    Cormack,

    I have to ask. Considering the primary outrage over Sheldrake’s appearance came from Myers, Coyne, etc – and keeping in mind that Myers, Coyne, etc also were outraged to the point of protest that Francis Collins was named as head of the NIH – don’t you think a healthy dose of skepticism is in order regarding your claim that Sheldrake’s talk was squashed purely because of concerns about blurring the lines between philosophy and science?

    And saying that by attacking the ‘dogmas’ he is advocating for his hypothesis is just baloney. You can reject Sheldrake’s morphic resonance talk and still recognize most or all of the dogmas he discusses. In fact, it seems like it’s the dogmas – not his morphic resonance – that drove some people bonkers.

  37. Cormack says:

    As I’ve been saying, the presentation of extraordinary claims without solid evidence was in violation of the guidelines. That criterion describes all sorts of things: healing crystals, homeopathy, telekinesis, and so forth. TED does not want that stuff to be presented alongside real science, and I would suggest that neither should you. The problem should have been caught by TEDx Whitechapel, and failing that it is no surprise that science & skepticism blogs would take notice and raise a flag. (And what in the world could Francis Collins have to do with it?)

    This isn’t a case of “blurring the lines between philosophy and science”. I said that some topics seemed philosophical while others were definitely not. There’s no blur in saying that good evidence exists for some proposed observable phenomenon. That’s not philosophy.

    I don’t understand your point about morphic resonance being unrelated to the ‘dogmas’. It corresponds to at least ‘dogma’ #6, heredity is material, and ‘dogma’ #7, memories are stored inside brain. But even if the ‘dogmas’ were unrelated to morphic resonance, I don’t see how that would provide an exception to the guidelines. And incidentally those two ‘dogmas’ are not actually dogmas but empirically grounded observations that have been confirmed thousands of times over. If Sheldrake had a replicable experiment proving otherwise then he would get a Nobel Prize, be among the greatest discoverers of all time, etc. Saying those two things are “very, very questionable, and when you look at it they fall apart” is indeed an extraordinary claim.

    In this thread I’ve explained the issue as well as I can, and I’ve answered the misunderstandings and objections raised. Bad science is bad for everyone. Promoting good science and weeding out the cruft benefits everyone. This is a good thing for TED to do. This is a big tent principle. Valuing good science is a universal, no matter what your philosophical or religious persuasion is.

  38. Crude says:

    I’ll have a fuller response later, Cormack. But let’s take a sample of Jerry Coyne’s complaint about Sheldrake’s talk:

    Those, too, reached their nadir with a TEDx talk at Whitechapel by Rupert Sheldrake, who gives Deepak Chopra a run for the title of World’s Biggest Woomeister. I’ve written about Sheldrake before—about his antimaterialistic views; his ideas that dogs finding their way home, or people knowing that others are watching them behind their backs, proves Jesus; his weakness for telepathy and other bizarre mental phenomena; and his general attitude that science is DOING IT RONG by hewing to materialism and avoiding the numinous and spiritual (you can find some of my posts here, here, and here)

    This is an example of a complaint you consider to be well-founded and all about ‘doing good science’?

  39. Cormack says:

    I was using the term “good science” as shorthand for “not presenting extraordinary claims which lack solid evidence and which, if true, would instantly confer a Nobel prize, fundamentally change our understanding of the universe, be counted among the most incredible scientific discoveries of all time, and so forth.” I think I’ve sufficiently explained why TED aims to promote good science, in this sense.

    It doesn’t matter who raised a flag about the talk. The talk quite clearly violated the TED guidelines, for the reasons I’ve laid out. Coyne doesn’t factor into it. You don’t like Coyne? That’s cool, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is still able to agree on the guidelines.

    Let’s go one step further. Suppose the Ku Klux Klan had pointed out the problem instead. Would it make sense to say, “TED censored the talk because the KKK didn’t like it!” That’s ultimately an insult to the TED directors because it implies that they were unable to judge the talk on its own merits and arrive at their own conclusions. Instead, they blindly followed what the KKK says.

    Sheldrake had presented extraordinary claims without solid evidence, in violation of the guidelines. That’s it. TEDx Whitechapel made a mistake by airing it the first place, and they deserve the blame, not Sheldrake himself.

  40. Crude says:

    I think I’ve sufficiently explained why TED aims to promote good science, in this sense.

    Not at all, since TED demonstrably enjoys promoting things that have nothing to do with science. The best you can say is that when TED discusses science, they aim to promote it responsibly – but ‘responsibly’ is a nice grey area, as are ‘extraordinary claims’. More about that later.

    It doesn’t matter who raised a flag about the talk. The talk quite clearly violated the TED guidelines, for the reasons I’ve laid out. Coyne doesn’t factor into it.

    Considering part of the claim here is that Sheldrake’s censorship at TEDx was motivated less by any concerns about science and more about dogmatic clinging, then yes, Coyne and company do factor into it. No one is denying – are YOU denying? – that TEDx censorship Sheldrake after an uproar from certain quarters. Are you going to deny that those quarters were largely represented by Coyne, Myers, etc?

    So yes, it does matter. In fact, you accidentally bring up a situation that unwittingly supports my contention.

    Let’s go one step further. Suppose the Ku Klux Klan had pointed out the problem instead.

    Sure, let’s bring up the KKK. Or at least, let’s bring up racists, because in the recent history of the US, they’re actually a great and relatively non-controversial example of a situation where people claimed ‘we’re just enforcing fair rules’ when in reality they weren’t. See: poll taxes.

    Let’s say a business has a policy of firing lazy workers. In the past year, most workers fired were black. A year ago, a klansman became the head of HR.

    Is the HR’s head status as a klansman relevant to the discussion?

    That’s ultimately an insult to the TED directors because it implies that they were unable to judge the talk on its own merits and arrive at their own conclusions. Instead, they blindly followed what the KKK says.

    Yes, I’m insulting the TED directors. I think they bowed to pressure from Cult of Gnu sources and largely scrapped the talk on flimsy grounds. Are they insulted? So what?

    Sheldrake had presented extraordinary claims without solid evidence, in violation of the guidelines.

    Wonderful. First, I’d like a link to the TEDx guidelines showing the ‘extraordinary claims’ rule.

    Second, I’d like a rapt definition of what counts as ‘extraordinary claims’ and ‘extraordinary evidence’. Because until I see something solid, objective, and reasonable, all you’re arguing is that TED has the equivalent of a loosely worded poll tax. They’ll get rid of ‘lazy’ speakers. They get to decide what’s lazy. And if it happens to be dark-skinned gents, well – maybe dark-skinned gents shouldn’t be so lazy, eh?

  41. Crude says:

    Some added context. Here’s a Dan Dennett talk about consciousness.

    And here’s the summary: Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a compelling argument that not only don’t we understand our own consciousness, but that half the time our brains are actively fooling us.

    Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. His 2003 book “Freedom Evolves” explores how our brains evolved to give us — and only us — the kind of freedom that matters, while 2006’s “Breaking the Spell” examines belief through the lens of biology.

    Alright. Dennett claims human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. Extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence?

    Oh, how about Ray Kurzweil?

    Inventor, entrepreneur and visionary Ray Kurzweil explains in abundant, grounded detail why, by the 2020s, we will have reverse-engineered the human brain and nanobots will be operating your consciousness.

    Wow! Extraordinary claim. He must have REAL good evidence for ‘nanobots operating our consciousness’!

    But I keep hitting on consciousness. Maybe that’s an anomaly.

    How about a talk by Brian Greene?

    Superstring theorist and physicist and the co-founder of the World Science Festival, Brian Greene splits his visually rich, action-packed talk into three distinct sections, all in the name of convincing us of the existence of the multiverse, the possibility that way beyond the earth, the milky way, we’ll find that our universe is part of a vast complex of universes we call the multiverse.

    Well, since Greene’s up there selling string theory, I’m sure he has some great extraordinary evidence to back up his claim.

    Because TED really, really cares about that.

  42. Cormack says:

    I had been writing “extraordinary claims without solid evidence” as longhand for “pseudoscience”, since there seems to be some kind of negative reaction to the word. Nonetheless pseudoscience is the central issue here, and when I say “extraordinary claims without solid evidence” I am referring to pseudoscience.

    I really recommend reading Pigliucci’s book about the demarcation problem, and/or Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World”. There is a basic background needed here in distinguishing science from non-science. And while some blur does exist, there are nonetheless definite cases of bad science no matter how you look at them.

    Dennett is not saying anything that would affect physicists or instantly win him a Nobel Prize. Kurzweil is a crazy nut that likes to make wild predictions, but nonetheless he does not stand in opposition to science as we know it. Superstring theory does not contradict existing knowledge and evidence, rather it extends and unifies current knowledge in a rigorous and consistent mathematical framework. It’s fringe science, but it’s not pseudoscience. As I explained earlier, existing scientific models can be proven wrong — and revolutions do happen — but none of your examples are claiming this mantle. String theory aims to generalize the Standard Model, not prove it wrong, so it doesn’t need evidence proving it wrong.

    By contrast, the claims that Sheldrake makes either flatly contradict established facts, or are confused, or cite results which cannot be replicated. Sheldrake has been at this for decades, and has not contributed to science for a while now. I would recommend researching for example how we know his claims of heredity are wrong, how he is confused about the speed of light, and how scientists failed to replicate his results and found flaws in his experiments. There is a long history here, but what I’ve mentioned earlier in this thread alone meets the bar of pseudoscience.

    Pseudoscience has been problem with TEDx in the past, with at least four TEDx locations being involved with it: TEDxHollywood, TEDxValencia, TEDxCharlotte, and TEDxWhitechapel. I say “at least”, because I only went as far as the first google hit for ‘TEDx pseudoscience’. Other talks have been pulled, and TEDxHollywood even got their license revoked, all of which happened without Coyne et al being involved. I recommend checking every link in that article, in particular the guidelines issued by TED in “A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science” which came out last year (long before the Sheldrake debacle). The guidelines are quite clear. This should retire the idea that TEDx is somehow treating Sheldrake specially because of Coyne and friends.

  43. Crude says:

    I had been writing “extraordinary claims without solid evidence” as longhand for “pseudoscience”, since there seems to be some kind of negative reaction to the word. Nonetheless pseudoscience is the central issue here, and when I say “extraordinary claims without solid evidence” I am referring to pseudoscience.

    Wow. Just wow.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! AD. NAUSEUM. And the moment a variety of extraordinary claims with next to no evidence are brought up – but which happen to be popular in some quarters – well, no, it’s not really about that at all. That was just longhand for something else.

    Extraordinary claims don’t really require extraordinary evidence. In fact, they don’t require evidence – certainly not scientific evidence – at all, it turns out.

    There is a basic background needed here in distinguishing science from non-science. And while some blur does exist, there are nonetheless definite cases of bad science no matter how you look at them.

    No, there are some definite cases of bad science no matter how YOU look at them – as in you personally. You’ll judge what is or is not an ‘extraordinary claim’ worth silencing someone over, thank you very much, and all of us should simply accept it. So not only was ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ almost entirely a load, but what is and is not an ‘extraordinary claim’ is ginned from the start.

    It’s fringe science, but it’s not pseudoscience.

    See, what is and is not “pseudoscience” as opposed to “fringe science” is tied up with that demarcation problem. The fact that you talk about “established facts” in science – and then squirmingly admit that these “established facts” can in fact be overturned (so much for their factual nature) – helps drive home the point, not to mention your angle.

    This should retire the idea that TEDx is somehow treating Sheldrake specially because of Coyne and friends.

    No, it shouldn’t. Because your successive defenses of TEDx have all been transparently rotten – you’ve tried to turn a blind eye to the mau-mauing antics of the Cult of Gnu leadership, you’ve attempted BS sleight of hand on what qualifies as an ‘extraordinary claim’, and you’ve thrown out the requirement that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ in favor of subjective fluff.

    You’ve carefully sliced the guidelines so Dennett can say ‘consciousness is an illusion’, that Kurzweil can talk about ‘nanomachines’ controlling our consciousness, and Greene can hard sell everything from multiverses to string theory, and they don’t need a damn lick of evidence because you’ve decided their claims aren’t extraordinary by your personal preference. Oh, but the extraordinary claim issue (Oh you only meant ‘pseudoscience’ not, you know, actual extraordinary claims) kicks in for Sheldrake. After all, he’d win a Nobel Prize if he was shown to be correct! (As if Greene, Dennett and Kurzweil wouldn’t?)

    You’re a bad apologist for both TED and the Cult of Gnu, Cormack. Leave it to better communicators – you just wiped out here.

  44. Cormack says:

    Crude, my overall impression is that this is mostly out of left field.

    You seem determined to frame this as some kind of culture war issue. The fact that other TED talks have been pulled due to pseudoscience prior to Sheldrake’s talk, with those incidents having nothing to do with “Gnus”, shows that TED is simply interested in promoting good science. They’re not in the culture war business.

    It doesn’t take a “Gnu” to recognize the pseudoscience in Sheldrake’s talk. He’s been promoting his brand of pseudoscience for decades, and he has been criticized for it long before “Gnus” appeared — we’re talking early 80s here.

    “Consciousness is an illusion” is not a scientific statement. There isn’t an experiment that could prove or disprove it. The statement is subjective, and in this context there is subjectivity in the very words “consciousness” and “illusion”.

    Even if we grant that Kurzweil (who I think is nuts) and Greene should not have been allowed to speak at TED, that would not imply that Sheldrake should have been allowed.

    I have not said “extraordinary evidence”. I also have no connection to “Gnus”, and based on what little I know of them, I oppose them. I’ve only been discussing the universal value of good science, which everyone should hold. Don’t attack the messenger.

    I have said “solid evidence”, meaning reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. I used the neutral example of Bob, who claims he has a new value for the mass of an electron, as a case where there is clearly good reason to require solid evidence. Giving Bob a speaking platform would be promoting bad science. If Bob additionally claims the mass change is due to a newly discovered Boberific field, then it’s especially bad science and would certainly qualify as pseudoscience.

    At this juncture I wonder what isn’t out of bounds in your view. Should Bob speak at TED? Don’t censor Bob, let him talk! Should TED be promoting healing crystals, dowsing, ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids? Rats teaching tricks to other rats on the other side of the globe via a magic field? Where do you draw the line?

  45. cl says:

    Hey guys. Sorry, I didn’t realize this discussion was still progressing.

    Cormack,

    The more I think about it, the more it seems the blame falls on TEDx Whitechapel. They should have been aware of the guidelines.

    Is there a guideline that says a TED speaker can’t explain the tenets of a scientific hypothesis? If not, then please reproduce the specific guidelines that you feel were violated.

  46. cl says:

    Crude,

    I think you’re right-on. This *IS* a culture-war issue, it’s just that most people don’t realize they’re in the trenches. I mean, here’s Cormack saying Sheldrake should be CENSORED simply because he explained the tenets of his own scientific hypothesis in a talk about challenging paradigms.

    It scares and depresses me to hear those kinds of reactions from the self-described arbiters of rationality and reason.

  47. Cormack says:

    cl, call me an inveterate optimist but it seemed possible that your earlier withdrawal was a sign of reconsideration after I addressed the last of a series of goalpost moves in comment #35.

    No matter, let’s examine this next goalpost. I’ve already laid out the situation pretty well, but to make things extra clear here is a timeline:

    October 2012: A talk from TEDxCharlotte is pulled due to pseudoscience.

    December 2012: An outbreak of pseudoscience occurs in TEDxValencia: “crystal therapy, Egyptian psychoaromatherapy, healing through the Earth, homeopathy”. TED responds with a mass email to the TEDx community (re)explaining the guidelines for science, titled “A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science”.

    March 2013: TED pulls the entire TEDxWestHollywood license over pseudoscience, i.e. violation of the guidelines. TED pulls Sheldrake’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, citing pseudoscience.

    The claim is that TED nixed Sheldrake’s talk because, for some reason, TED wanted to kowtow to atheists, or TED is fighting a culture war, or something along those lines. But neither Coyne nor Myers, nor any atheist-leaning blogs of which I am aware, played a role in the other pulled talks. The guidelines existed and were enforced long before Sheldrake came along. In all cases of pulled talks there were people calling out pseudoscience, it just happened that Coyne and Myers were on the scene for the TEDxWhitechapel case.

    The claim that TED is just kowtowing to atheists is also bogus for another, independent reason. Here is another timeline:

    1960s-1970s: Sheldrake gets a Ph.D. in biochemistry and publishes a number of scientific papers.

    1980s-present: Save for a few articles on pigeonpeas in the 80s, Sheldrake effectively drops his scientific career to pursue parapsychology and vague notions like the unseen, unmeasured, nondescript “morphic field”. He is harshly criticized for poorly designed experiments, lack of controls, and generally trying to introduce magic into science. His advocacy of these ideas continues to the present day, as do the criticisms.

    Now, during one particular week in 2013, because a couple atheists — who are scientists — criticize him, suddenly it all revolves around atheism and culture wars. Let’s forget about all the criticism spanning the past thirty years, during most of which “New Atheism” didn’t even exist. And never mind that atheism has logically nothing to do with it in the first place; theists are just as able to oppose pseudoscience as atheists.

    In comment #35 I addressed your argument that prefacing extraordinary claims with “According to this hypothesis…” makes everything OK.

    Re the guidelines, http://storage.ted.com/tedx/manuals/tedx_content_guidelines.pdf

    ===

    Guideline 4: Only good science

    Science is a big part of the TED universe, and it’s important that TEDx organizers sustain our reputation as a credible forum for sharing ideas that matter. It’s not always easy to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience, and purveyors of false wisdom typically share their theories with as much sincerity and earnestness as legitimate researchers. Indeed, the more willing a speaker is to abandon scientific underpinning, the easier it is for them to make attention-grabbing claims. So beware being seduced by “wow.” We want talks to be interesting. But before that, they must be credible. Here are some things to look for — and to avoid.

    Claims made using scientific language should:

    * Be testable experimentally.

    * Have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (beware… there are some dodgy
    journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t. For further reading, here’s an article on the topic.)

    * Be based on theories that are also considered credible by experts in the field.

    * Be backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.

    * Have proponents who are secure enough to acknowledge areas of doubt and need for further investigation.

    * Not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.

    * Be presented by a speaker who works for a university and/or has a phD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification.

    * Show clear respect for the scientific method and scientific thinking generally.

    Claims made using scientific language should not:

    * Be so obscure or mysterious as to be untestable

    * Be considered ridiculous by credible scientists in the field

    * Be based on experiments that can not be reproduced by others.

    * Be based on data that do not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims.

    * Come from overconfident fringe experts.

    * Use over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies

    * Include imprecise new age vocabulary. (Phrases like “quantum consciousness”,
    personal “energy fields”, “crystal healing”, and the like, should be considered
    major red flags.).

    * Abandon evidence-based thinking or be dismissive of the scientific method.

    ===

    I see a bunch of bullseyes vis-a-vis Sheldrake’s talk.

    As I review this comment I am thinking, “Surely that should settle it this time?” But the history of this thread indicates otherwise. So at this point I would inquire about motivations. My motivation comes from recognizing the real-world damage of bad science: kids not getting vaccinated, people throwing away money on homeopathy who can’t afford it, bogus cancer “cures” leading to death where mainstream medical practices were likely to have succeeded (Steve Jobs is arguably an example).

    So why the clinging to Sheldrake? What do rats learning tricks from other rats on the other side of the world via a magic field have to do with anything? Why connect it theism? Or atheism? It’s just bad science (until there is solid evidence for it).

  48. cl says:

    cl, call me an inveterate optimist but it seemed possible that your earlier withdrawal was a sign of reconsideration after I addressed the last of a series of goalpost moves in comment #35.

    There were no goalpost moves. I’ve been asking you to do the same thing this whole time: give me one good reason why Sheldrake censorship is justified.

    October 2012: A talk from TEDxCharlotte is pulled due to pseudoscience.
    December 2012: An outbreak of pseudoscience occurs in TEDxValencia: “crystal therapy, Egyptian psychoaromatherapy, healing through the Earth, homeopathy”. TED responds with a mass email to the TEDx community (re)explaining the guidelines for science, titled “A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science”.
    March 2013: TED pulls the entire TEDxWestHollywood license over pseudoscience, i.e. violation of the guidelines. TED pulls Sheldrake’s talk at TEDxWhitechapel, citing pseudoscience.

    Those don’t do anything for me, and are irrelevant here. Those cases just mean that some (possibly trigger-happy materialist) sounded the “pseudoscience” horn. Big deal. It happens all the time. Besides, we’re not talking about past cases, we’re talking about this case. You need to give one good reason why this talk of Sheldrake’s should have been pulled. You haven’t yet. Again – all he did in this talk was delineate his own hypothesis. That is NOT pseudoscience by any stretch of the word. And I reject your claim that he “couched” a pseudoscientific claim in the language of hypothesis.

    The claim is that TED nixed Sheldrake’s talk because, for some reason, TED wanted to kowtow to atheists, or TED is fighting a culture war, or something along those lines.

    That is *A* claim, it is not *THE* claim, and I’m not making it. I have no idea why whoever at TED pulled Sheldrake’s talk. I do suspect that whining from the atheist community played a part, but I don’t know.

    AND FINALLY, 40+ comments later, we get to it:

    I see a bunch of bullseyes vis-a-vis Sheldrake’s talk.

    I don’t think he violated any of those guidelines, and some of those guidelines are pseudoscientific BS in my opinion. For example, “Be considered ridiculous by credible scientists in the field.”

    Ah, yes, what a great scientific criteria, cuz, you know… no credible scientist considered QM ridiculous, right? Total joke. And the popularity of any given idea is SUCH a reliable indicator of whether or not one should be allowed to speak on it, right?

    As I review this comment I am thinking, “Surely that should settle it this time?” But the history of this thread indicates otherwise.

    You CAN’T settle this, if by “settle” you mean win me over to your “anti-Sheldrake” camp. It’s just not going to happen. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the talk he gave. It seems to me that you’re just one of those people bent against things “non-materialistic” or whatever. That’s all there is to it.

    My motivation comes from recognizing the real-world damage of bad science: kids not getting vaccinated, people throwing away money on homeopathy who can’t afford it, bogus cancer “cures” leading to death where mainstream medical practices were likely to have succeeded (Steve Jobs is arguably an example).

    Understood, and with that I sympathize. My motivation comes from recognizing the real-world damage of censorship and bias within the scientific community, and I’m sure you don’t need a lesson there :)

  49. Cormack says:

    Science, by definition, seeks natural explanations: well-defined theories which generate predictions that are specific and testable. I don’t know what a “non-materialistic” explanation is supposed to mean, or whether the idea can even be coherent. If it just means vague notions that fail to produce reliable results then it sounds like pseudoscience.

    More than ever I urge you to pick up a book that deals with the fundamentals of science, such as Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” or Pigliucci’s “Nonsense on stilts”.

    As explained several times, Sheldrake’s talk was pulled because it violated the guidelines, and I’ve given a number of examples throughout. The last re-explanation came in #35, but you haven’t really responded to that except to say you reject it. You have to explain why you reject it.

    There is solid evidence for quantum mechanics, which is why it became accepted. Even before it was accepted, it was already known that the contemporaneous theories were inadequate, see e.g. the ultraviolet catastrophe. A scientist confers with other scientists over newfound theories and evidence in order to check that he’s gotten it right. He doesn’t parade his theories around to the public after others have failed to reproduce the evidence.

    Understood, and with that I sympathize.

    Sheldrake advocates alternative medicine in the talk (dogma #10).

  50. Dhay says:

    Sorry to chip in so late. First of all, a criticism of Sheldrake’s ‘morphic resonance’ idea: when I first came across it, he claimed that sheep had started rolling across cattle grids in one place, they had started doing so in distant places – so no direct learning – and he claimed that sheep would be rolling across cattle grids in ever-increasing numbers. I live in an area where sheep are common, but despite the now several decades in which the behaviour could have spread, it plainly hasn’t. Woolly thinking?

    Cormack: “Let’s take a neutral example instead. Someone – call him Bob – says that he has evidence that the mass of an electron is actually half of the currently accepted value. What should his next step be? Should he treat this result skeptically and see if anyone can verify it?
    Or should he write books and give lectures about his amazing discovery
    that dogmatic scientists are unwilling to accept?
    If Bob takes the latter action then I would say that he’s engaging in pseudoscience.
    He is making an extraordinary claim without solid evidence to back it up;
    he is bypassing the peer review process;
    he is making a bid for acceptance to the general public instead of to the scientific community
    .
    All of these things are indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.”

    I note that Victor Stenger, in the foreword of his book, “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us”, said that he “will present detailed new information not previously published in any book or scientific article.”

    (Source: Luke Barnes’ extended and very very critical post-publication review of that book, at P.66, Section A.3, of http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.4647v1.pdf)

    Stenger is one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist Apocalypse, and as committed to science (and also to scientism) as you can get. But Stenger is there boasting of behaving in a manner which, as you say, is indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.

    Is Victor Stenger a pseudoscientist?

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