4/13/2013

TED's Silent Revolution



Since its inception in 1984, TED has become synonymous with its unique platform, wherein "convention-breaking mavericks, icons, and geniuses" and "inspired thinkers" give, in 18 minutes or less, the "talk of their lives" billed under the heading "ideas worth spreading".  The TED network boasts views in the billions, and thousands of licensed TEDx events are held around the world each year.

In December of 2012, however, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) posted this letter to the TEDx community, in which expanded standards targeting "bad science" were revealed.

The gesture was in part inspired by mounting outcry from the organized skeptical community over a handful of controversial talks.  One talk, given by Jim Vieira, was taken down after it provoked criticism for advancing a "well-known and widely discredited fringe theory" that deviated from mainstream archaeological consensus.  Another, by Randy Powell, drew comparisons to the infamous 1996 Sokal hoax.

Earlier, in May, TED's curatorial policy came under fire when a talk on income inequality by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer was refused publishing for being "explicitly partisan" (despite other partisan talks, some even more extreme, being made available on the TED main site).

TED again courted controversy, last month, when it initiated a conversation about potential "factual errors" regarding Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk.  TED cited popular polemicist bloggers Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers as influencing their decision to flag the presentation, in which ten common philosophical dogmas endemic to modern science were identified.

Despite widespread support for Sheldrake from community members, TED decided to proceed in withdrawing the talk to the "naughty corner" of its blog, along with another talk titled "The War on Consciousness" by Graham Hancock, from the same TEDxWhiteChapel event.

As the debate continued, TED grew increasingly mum.  It became apparent that the mollifying approach taken with Hanauer was the exception rather than the rule, when, prior to the discussion's end, TED revoked the license for TEDxWestHollywood a mere two weeks before it was to be held.  TED cited concerns over "pseudoscience" and the event's "overall curatorial direction" as reasons for the decision.

Several commentators observed that TED seemed to be aligning itself with the ideology of philosophical materialism, and expressed concerns that, given TED's extensive list of corporate sponsors, critical alternatives might be suppressed for political or economic reasons.

Others pointed out that TED is perfectly entitled to do whatever it wants with its brand, whether that be making its content freely accessible through the web, or taking an active role in curation and ensuring said content aligns with its core values.

This, however, begs the question: What are the values TED uses to determine if an idea is worth spreading?

Despite TED's recent infatuation with "radical openness" (in a revealing move, TED redacted the familiar preamble in one of several later edits to the "open for discussion" blog entry), the organization has not been especially forthcoming about the rationale behind its curatorial process.  It's not clear, for instance, why comparable talks are not similarly removed: Elaine Morgan, like Sheldrake, also protests established doctrine in academia, and Roland Griffiths, like Hancock, also references the immense healing potential of psychedelics, to cite just two examples.

After detailed refutals from both Sheldrake and Hancock, TED struck its initial complaints, but, in a classic example of backfire effect, maintained its verdict despite an unwillingness, or inability, to venture valid replacement criticisms.  In addition, TED revealed that it defers to a secret science advisory board and, in the spirit of radical openness, divulged it's in everyone's interest that the board remain anonymous.  Inasmuch as TED is dedicated to the transformative power of transparency, how does one interpret such a profound disparity?

On the one hand, TED is committed to showcasing innovative ideas for the benefit of humanity; but if TED is the emissary that heralds a humanistic new age, how are these recent decisions upending its aims?

One Quora commenter expressed this tension well:
At some point, ... a communal aspiration can become a civic habit.  When I've seen this civic amnesia happen, it's usually when the community forgets.  Forgets why they're talking about it, why it's important, or why they started doing it.  Then, the ritual itself becomes the catechism.  One goes to TED....well, because it's TED.
-∞-


Watch the live stream of the independent West Hollywood event April 14, 11am-7pm PDT.

After nearly a year of preparation, the West Hollywood license was axed with two weeks to go.  The event is slated to go forward without TED's imprimatur.

Two invited guest speakers have spoken out about the revocation of the TEDxWestHollywood license.

In cancelling the TEDx event in West Hollywood, it appears that I was accused of "using the guise of science" to further spooky claims (or some such). People on this blog have asked what I was going to talk about. That's easily answered. I was co-founder of a 23 year research program investigating psychic abilities at Stanford Research Institute. We were doing research and applications for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Air Force and Army Intelligence, NASA, and others. In this $25 million program we used "remote viewing" to find a downed Russian bomber in North Africa, for which President Carter commended us. We found a kidnapped US general in Italy, and the kidnap car that snatched Patricia Hearst. We looked in on the US hostages in Iran, and predicted the immanent release of Richard Queen, who was soon sent to Germany. We described a Russian weapons factory in Siberia, leading to a US congressional investigation about weakness in US security, etc. We published our scientific findings in Nature, The Proc. IEEE, Proc. AAAS, and Proc. American Institute of Physics. I thought a TED audience would find this recently declassified material interesting. And no physics would be harmed in my presentation.
I can add my name to those of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock as speakers who find themselves in TEDx’s crosshairs.

I was scheduled to speak at the West Hollywood event. But my scientific credibility was questioned by TED's science advisory board in their decision to withdraw support and revoke the license of TEDxWestHollywood.

I’ve lectured at dozens of top-tier medical schools and hospitals all over the U.S. for two decades. Although my colleagues don’t always agree with my points of view, this is the first time my scientific credibility has ever been questioned. 
My TEDx talk would have dealt with the correlations between spirituality, health, and longevity, for which there is immense evidence; and recent experimental findings that point toward a nonlocal view of consciousness for which, again, there is strong and abundant support. In view of our lack of understanding of the origins and destiny of consciousness, and considering the demographics of the TEDx followers, I thought this information would have been of considerable interest.

As a board-certified physician of internal medicine, former chief of staff of a major hospital, author of twelve books and scores of papers on these subjects published in peer-reviewed journals, a recipient of many awards, a frequent lecturer at medical schools and hospitals, and executive editor of the peer-reviewed journal, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, I’d be interested in knowing from TED where I came up short. 
“A clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity,” Whitehead said. It should not be a reason for censorship.

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