TED's Timidity


A year on, and it’s still as embarrassing as ever. TED sponsored a TEDx talk in Whitechapel, London, in Jan 2013, with the theme “CHALLENGING EXISTING PARADIGMS” to then censor two of the evening’s best talks. Rupert Sheldrake on science’s materialistic paradigm, and Graham Hancock on opening our consciousness to new levels, through the responsible use of Ayahuasca, in a call for a return to spirit.

The two hit the nail on the head, but TED’s sponsors, or their ‘Scientific Board’ thought otherwise:

TED respects and supports the exploration of unorthodox ideas, but the many misleading statements in both Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s talks, whether made deliberately or in error, had led our scientific advisors to conclude that our name and platform should not be associated with these talks.

Not only do Sheldrake and Hancock reply to each of the allegations made against them (‘credit’ to TED for posting them on their blog?) but TED is shockingly hypocritical. It’s bad enough to censor an idea from a talk that is supposed to be challenging to begin with, but to then pretend that “TED respects and supports the exploration of unorthodox ideas” directly after taking a jibe at Hancock’s career:

He seems to offer a one note explanation for how culture arises (drugs), it’s no surprise his work is often characterised as pseudo-archaology.

Is that TED talking or some fanatic blogger with a chip on his shoulder?! No, best to presume it’s TED’s ‘scientific board’, of which Richard Dawkins is no doubt the chair.

In a pithy remark on Hancock’s talk, TED says that he “makes statements about psychotropic drugs that seem both nonscientific and reckless.” What kind of scientific board could produce such a vague remark, I have no clue. But what the statement is insinuating, is that naive listeners will take Hancock’s advice and go get high on DMT thinking that they will “connect directly with an ancient mother culture” (in TED’s words).

I wonder what would happen if someone (perhaps those “militant atheist bloggers Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers [who] denounced me [Sheldrake]”) bombarded Jill Bolte’s TED talk on consciousness. Perhaps then TED’s scientific board would deem her talk to be reckless too, that naive listeners would all seek out a stroke to inhibit their brain’s left hemisphere. “I found Nirvana” Bolte says.

And if I have found Nirvana, and I’m still alive, then everyone who’s alive can find Nirvana. And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposefully chose to step to the right of their left hemispheres, and find this peace […] So. Who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to chose moment by moment who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where We are - I am - the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power, the fifty trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is.

Filmed and posted in 2008, less than a year after TED’s site went live, Bolte’s talk might have benefited from the bold attitude characteristic of start-ups (it certainly worked - Bolte’s talk is the fourth most viewed TED talk of all time). Maybe if this talk had been released a little later it would have been banned too.

TED respects and supports the exploration of unorthodox ideas, but the many misleading statements in Bolte’s talk, whether made deliberately or in error, had led our scientific advisors to conclude that our name and platform should not be associated with these talks. Science lays no claims to empowering humans to be “the life-force power of the universe” and Bolte, under the veil of her scientific credentials, falsely assumes that we can achieve peace in the world through the connection to our “deep-inner-peace circuitry of our right hemisphere”.

That TED decided to leave Bolte but censor Hancock and Sheldrake is nothing less than embarassing and entirely presumptuous. Since when has TED become the judge of what does and doesn't qualify as science? Worse still - since when has TED's anonymous 'scientific board' become the standard bearer of all things scientific?!

What is the difference between Bolte’s talk and Hancock’s? Their final messages are identical: achieve a purer state of consciousness. Hancock talks of an outdated world view which values productivity:

[that] alert, problem-solving state of consciousness […] But I think everybody realises that the promise of a society over-monopolistically based on this state of consciousness has proved hollow […] and that urgently we need to find something to replace it.

Is this not, in Bolte’s terms, nothing more than an over-reliance on the left hemisphere? The two differ solely in how to achieve this better state of being. Hancock proposes a return to consciousness-altering substances whereas Bolte doesn’t in fact propose anything concrete because we don’t find ourselves in the midst of a stroke. For Bolte, we are perpetually presented with a choice: to use our left or our right hemispheres. Presumably we might train ourselves to use one or the other. Hancock’s proposal is interesting insofar as it might be a key to doing so - maybe that’s why it was banned.

To top it all off - having censored Sheldrake and Hancock on 'scientific grounds', which TED was unable to back up with any evidence whatsoever (rendering their judgement un-scientific, which goes to show their beliefs are based on something else altogether) - TED then went on to revoke a license they had given for a TEDxWestHollywood program, just two weeks before the event, on the basis that it too, was pseudoscience - this, without TED having even read the speakers' talks!

That TED is adjudicating what counts as science and censoring perfectly good science makes a mockery of it's self-professed passionate belief "in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world." This poses a wider threat to us - interested as we are in challenging existing paradigms - because we naively believe TED to be benevolent and righteous when, as this entire episode has demonstrated, it clearly and regrettably isn't.

What challenge - if any - does TED pose to the existing paradigm?

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