There’s a quiet revolution going on that the average person on the street probably hasn’t noticed. It bubbled up to the surface last month, and has continued to bubble in the form of a couple of talks banned by TED.
TED, which stands for Technology Entertainment Design, is a non-profit organisation devoted to the concept of “ideas worth spreading”. Since 1990, speakers from a range of disciplines have gathered annually in California to present 20-minute talks on a wide range of topics. In 2005, the project went global, with conferences held outside the US (in addition to the American conference) and prizes were awarded to speakers with “a wish to change the world”. Recipients have included the likes of Bill Clinton, Jamie Oliver, and religious leader Karen Armstrong. In 2007, TED.com was launched, and by 2012 well over 1000 TED talks had been posted on the internet for free viewing. In 2009, TED began granting licenses to third parties wanting to organize their own TED-like events, and these became known at TEDx. Over 20,000 TEDx talks have been posted online.
Now what has just happened is interesting and important. In January (2013), British biologist Rupert Sheldrake and author Graham Hancock spoke at the Whitechapel TEDx conference under the umbrella “Challenging Existing Paradigms”, and when the TED corporation viewed the videos, they decided to pull them off the TED channel, claiming that both talks had “crossed the line into pseudoscience.”
Sheldrake’s talk focussed around the thesis of his latest book The Science Delusion, in which he examines 10 fundamental assumptions made by the traditional scientific community that do not necessarily stand up to close scrutiny. Briefly, these are:
- Nature (the universe, our planet, living things, humans) operate as machines.
- Matter is unconscious
- The laws of nature are fixed (e.g., the speed of light)
- The total amount of matter and energy in the universe is forever unchanging
- Nature has no purpose
- Inheritance is material and genetic
- Memories are stored in the brain
- Consciousness is a brain activity, nothing more
- Psychic phenomenon is impossible
- Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works
His (in my opinion excellent) 20-minute talk is here:
In his talk (below), Hancock spoke about consciousness, the drug ayahuasca, and the role of shamanic dreaming in personal transformation.
Now the TED folks are free, of course, to publish or not publish whatever they want on their channel, but to say that these talks are inappropriate (especially given the TED vision of “ideas worth spreading”—I guess these ones aren’t!—and the conference topic “Challenging Existing Paradigms”) because they are PSEUDO science highlights a really interesting paradigm shift. (Pseudo, incidentally, comes from the Greek meaning false or fraudulent).
Maybe it’s because I’m already familiar with Sheldrake’s work with morphic resonance, and I’ve read several of Hancock’s books including Supernatural, which spans the gamut from prehistoric cave art to UFOs, to the shamanic use of ayahuasca, to DNA and DMT (dimethltryptamine), but I don’t find any of the ideas presented in these two talks uncomfortable, let alone PSEUDO: fraudulent. And I suspect a good many other folk don’t find them all that alarming either. For example, even as we acknowledge the general scientific belief that there’s no such thing as a “sixth sense” or ghosts, virtually all of us have experienced the former, and most have experience the latter or know someone whose experience we trust who has.
Well. The banning of these two TED talks has raised a furore. On 19 April (2013) Dr Deepak Chopra (whose own TED talk in 2002 received a standing ovation but has not seen the light of day since) and a host of other RSPs (Really Significant People) wrote an open letter to the Huffington Post about the decision to remove the talks. TED responded almost immediately with “in our guidance to the thousands of TEDx organizers around the world, we ask that they steer clear of talks that bear hallmarks of unsubstantiated science.” Chopra and colleagues then offered their rebuttal to points raised by TED. One of these, physics professor Menas Kafatos, points out that science evolves because of changing paradigms, not because of defence of existing views, and goes on to say that by TED’s definition, “anyone doing research in consciousness, its relationship with fields like physics and psychology, and yes, neuroscience, should be labelled pseudo-scientist.”
Here’s why I think this controversy is so significant. You know what Mahatma Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” It’s sort of like that. And we’re at the “fight” stage. Traditional science, founded on rational, observable, measurable scientific principles (see Sheldrake’s list for 10 of them, above), is a dinosaur. In its time, it has been a world view that has given us many gifts. But some of those old guard scientists still stuck in that mindset are struggling to make the transition to the new world order. Those that don’t transform, like dinosaurs, will die out. Are dying out even now. (Okay, there are still a few tuataras around, so maybe some will linger as tuataras.)
There IS more to consciousness than a tangle of neurons firing some chemicals in our individual brains. We are part of a vast web of consciousness, and it affects everything we perceive, everything we think, everything we do. It goes beyond here and now. Sheldrake and Hancock and Chopra are part of the new order that sees beyond the old ways. I’m glad there are folks like these willing to step outside of “rational science” with an open mind to explore and try to make sense of this marvellous universe that we live in, and who are brave enough to stand up and tell us what they’re thinking. Even if that thinking doesn't align with the scientific, rational beliefs we've grown up to regard as "truth".