Scientific Heresy at TEDx

Curator's Note

In January 2013, the Cambridge-trained biologist Rupert Sheldrake gave a talk at TEDx Whitechapel titled “The Science Delusion,” based on his book of the same name. The title is an implicit rejoinder to The God Delusion by the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins. (In the US, Sheldrake’s book was given the less inflammatory title Science Set Free.)  In his book and talk, Sheldrake argues that contemporary attempts to understand how the universe works are hamstrung by the unacknowledged philosophical assumptions of materialism, which presumes that nature operates like a cold, dead machine. Sheldrake’s argument echoes the critiques of scientific modernity developed by thinkers such as Thomas Nagel and Bruno Latour.

After Sheldrake’s talk, a group of vocal “skeptics” launched a protest, arguing that Sheldrake’s work was pernicious pseudo-science. Under their pressure, TED head Chris Anderson, consulting with the organization’s anonymous Science Board, concluded that Sheldrake’s talk contained “several major factual errors,” and removed the talk (along with a talk at the same event by journalist Graham Hancock on ayuhuasca) from the TEDx channel. After a second uproar in defense of Sheldrake by figures such as Deepak Chopra, along with Sheldrake’s own lucid responses to each of the Science Board’s complaints, Anderson backtracked from the accusations of factual errors  and agreed to repost the talks on the TED blog, where he claimed the debate could be fully contextualized. (Anderson stated the plan all along had been to repost the talks on the blog, rather than to delete them entirely, although this distinction was not originally made clear.) Sheldrake is no stranger to this kind of pushback. His 1981 break with scientific orthodoxy, A New Science of Life, inspired Nature to conclude, “His book is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years” - a reaction that seems to prove his point about scientific dogmatism. 

 

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