Mar 30, 2013

TED: So Cowardly, So Cultish -- UPDATED

Well. It's official. TED will not be putting anyone forward to debate Rupert Sheldrake or Graham Hancock, despite their generous offers. It does not appear that they told either of them directly. They did not respond on the threads where both of the censored TEDx speakers issued their challenge. They have done so through a spokeswoman when asked by a reporter.

A spokeswoman for TED told Positive News: “TED has opted for an open, online discussion, rather than a specific public debate with Sheldrake, Hancock and the science board. While the videos do not meet the stated TEDx guidelines, they will continue to be displayed on TED’s blog, with a lively ongoing debate.”

What the spokeswoman did not mention is that the "lively" debate will only be "ongoing" for a couple more days, because TED set a time limit of two weeks to allow discussion of the quarantined talks. (See above) So "ongoing" is rather a strong word for the discussion forum TED has provided in its back-pages.

It is also not a substitute for an actual debate between the relevant parties, the censored speakers and those who censored them. It would be an opportunity for TED to lay out its reasons for removing the talks, which they have thus far failed to do.

No one from TED has appeared on the discussion threads they've provided to explain their reasons. Instead we get inanities like this from Chris Anderson, in a response to a content-free eruption from a TED translator:

Krisztian, I understand your frustration with the talk. We've read a lot of such comments. They're what initiated this whole process. But I'd prefer you to make the case in more temperate language. I personally didn't think the talk was 'crap'. I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake a few days ago and I think he genuinely respects scientific thinking. He just disagrees with a lot of it. Some of his questions in the talk I found genuinely interesting. And I do think there's a place on TED to challenge the orthodox. Maybe I'm expecting too much for this forum, but I was hoping scientists who don't buy his ideas could indicate WHY they find them so implausible. [emphasis mine]

Thanks for being a TED Translator. You guys amaze me.

So the curator who made the decision to remove the talks doesn't understand that Sheldrake is a scientist, and not someone who "disagrees" with scientific thinking. And he would like some scientists to explain why they deserved to be pulled. He made the decision but he can't explain it. He refers to a science board who can't or won't show up even anonymously on the provided forum to explain the reasons and now we know for sure that TED won't put any of its brain trust forward to explain their reasoning in a debate.

After making a couple of comments of about that quality, Chris Anderson left the building. He has not been seen on either thread since March 20.

The discussions of both talks are informative and worth reading, just light on reasonable critique of either talk. What valid critiques have been offered have also been well debated by the many people who disagree with TED's decision. Such debate is healthy. I wish there were more of it presented but most of the criticism has come from trolls. And the bottom line for me is that, while I certainly think there are things to disagree with and debate in both talks, disagreement shouldn't lead to censorship or marginalization and that's what's happened.

The idea of actually debating these talks on their merits apparently terrifies TED. They'd rather hide the talks and provide a time limited forum to let Hancock and Sheldrake supporters vent their spleens, while they slink off and wait for the whole thing to die down.

If they did debate Sheldrake, they might have to grapple with the fact that one of the central points of his talk has been validated by two new studies. As discussed, Sheldrake raised a question about anomalous data regarding the speed of light. His statements were misrepresented by Jerry Coyne on his blog, who claimed that Sheldrake "argues that speed of light is dropping." Coyne consulted physicist Sean Carroll to refute Sheldrake's assertion that he never made, and Carroll accidentally confirmed Sheldrake's actual statements. Said Sheldrake in his refutation of TED's criticisms:

In my talk I suggest how a re-examination of existing data could resolve whether large continuing variations in the Universal Gravitational Constant, G, are merely errors, as usually assumed, or whether they show correlations between different labs that might have important scientific implications hitherto ignored. Jerry Coyne and TED’s Scientific Board regard this as an exercise in pseudoscience. I think their attitude reveals a remarkable lack of curiosity.

Now come two new studies showing variations in the speed of light as it moves through a vacuum.

Where did the speed of light in a vacuum come from? Why is it 299,792,458 meters per second and not some other figure?

The simple answer is that, since 1983, science has defined a meter by the speed of light: one meter equals the distance light travels in one 299,792,458th of a second. But that doesn't really answer our question. It's just the physics equivalent of saying, "Because I said so."

Unfortunately, the deeper answer has been equally unsatisfying: The speed of light in a vacuum, according to physics textbooks, just is. It's a constant, one of those numbers that defines the universe. That's the physics equivalent of saying, "Because the cosmos said so."

Or did it? A pair of studies suggest that this universal constant might not be so constant after all. In the first study, Marcel Urban from the University of Paris-Sud and his team found that the speed of light in a vacuum varies ever so slightly.

TEDx Whitechapel has also come out with a full-throated call for the reinstatement of the two talks. They also explained a bit about their thinking and the reasons for inviting Hancock and Sheldrake to speak.

We have been genuinely transformed through many of the inspiring TEDTalks; they have profoundly challenged our perceptions of and assumptions about the world, opening us up to new perspectives outside of the established mainstream thinking. Moreover, we really believe TED to be an ingenious medium to spread ideas across the globe. As such, TED represents the free and open flow and exchange of ideas globally, enriching and empowering an increasingly connected global community.

And it is with this passion that we decided to host a TEDx event with the theme “Visions for Transition: Challenging Existing Paradigms and Redefining Values (for a more beautiful world)’. We believe that in order to deal with the diverse and complex crises converging on our planet, we need to challenge the dominant thought paradigms and radically reassess the values which govern our world. In line with Einsteins wisdom “problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them” we saw TED as a truly special platform.

You can understand therefore, how shocked and saddened we were when we were alerted to the news that you had decided to remove Graham and Rupert’s talk from the TEDx Youtube channel and furthermore the disrespectful way in which they were treated publicly on the TED blog where you moved them.

I can't speak to what may or may not be going on behind the scenes, but in public, where this was posted -- it was also posted on both of the TED discussion threads -- there has been no response from the parent organization.

Sadly, I think TEDx Whitechapel has been dissed. I say that, in part, because TEDx West Hollywood was just dissed. This time it was pre-emptive.

TED, the parent organization, is removing the license of TEDxWestHollywood only a couple of weeks before their planned event “Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?” after they had spent more than a year preparing.  Tickets are already on sale. After summarily dismissing the program with no recompense at all for monies that had been expended, they amended their stance to offer a fraction of the operating costs in compensation and all because they deem the program to be . . . wait for it . . . unscientific.  Does this sound familiar?  It does indeed.  This is the same charge that was leveled at Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock when TED first pulled their videos.

. . .

So what is the fuss all about? (here is her lineup of speakers.) Although TED refused to “name names” in their dismissal, whereby an argument could be made, it surely has to do with three of the speakers who are scientists, about whom they earlier had raised eyebrows asking for justification for their place on the program with the caution that if they weren’t pleased with the end results they would not post the talks on their YouTube page. Pulling the program was never brought up. The three are: Russell Targ, who will talk on the reality of ESP and Larry Dossey, who will talk on the revolution in consciousness and Marilyn Schlitz, who is a social anthropologist and psi researcher, speaking on “How do we shift our paradigm.” All three have the proper credentials along with ability to speak to the evidence and present their views using credible science. They, more than the other speakers, represent the real threat to the Materialists/skeptics at TED. However, in addition, TED also had objections to Marianne Williamson and Paul Nugent although neither was giving a science talk. This is the pertinent email to Suzanne Taylor:

We will be especially interested to hear about the ideas that Marianne Williamson, Russell Targ, Larry Dossey, Paul Nugent, and Marilyn Schlitz will be presenting.We feel that the pseudoscience struggle is an important one. TED and TEDx cannot be platforms that give undo legitimacy to false evidence and selective logic — regardless of brilliant packaging.

I'm sorry... the "pseudoscience struggle?" It's a struggle now? The phrasing is just so... odd. Wait. I had no idea Marianne Williamson had ever pretended to be a scientist. Oh, right. She didn't. Of course, neither did Graham Hancock. Has it ever been more plain that TED is way out of its depth on this issue? They seem to be badly parroting criticisms from their shadowy science board that they don't even understand. They appear to have been hijacked by militant atheists. I really wonder if something like this would make the cut in the current environment, and Jill Bolte Taylor gave one of their most popular talks, ever.

I will say this, though. I'm pretty sure TEDx Peachtree is safe. I say that because Al Meyers is a real team player. I mentioned Mr. Meyers, TEDx co-organizer and all-around TED sycophant, here. Meyers dropped by the Sheldrake and Hancock discussion threads long enough to drop the phrase "TED brand" ten or twenty times. He got really wrapped around the axle when he learned that Sheldrake had briefly mentioned his book at the beginning of his talk. So I learned something new about TED of which I was previously unaware. As a TED speaker you cannot self-promote at all. This is addressed in the, I kid you not, TED Commandments. There are ten of them. The sixth commandment reads:

No selling from the stage! Unless we have specifically asked you to, do not talk about your company or organization. And don’t even think about pitching your products or services or asking for funding from stage.

I didn't think there was anything pitchy at all in Sheldrake's talk. He referenced the book to provide a little context. It would seem the Whitechapel folks didn't see a problem either. But Meyer, who still hasn't watched the lectures, was very distressed that a book was mentioned at all.

If Sheldrake did, in fact, open his talk by promoting his book, then the talk should have never been uploaded because it is ABSOLUTELY a violation of the TEDx rules. That puts the TEDx organizer in a difficult spot - if they had seen an advance copy of his slides and this was an "ad lib" addition by Sheldrake, then that is pretty sleezy but as an organizer, nothing you can do about it.

Whitechapel may have been asleep at switch if Sheldrake didn't know his TED Commandments and it all reflects badly on the brand.

Every TEDx speaker is given the rules on how to give a TED Talk. If they did not receive them, then the TEDx organizer did not do his/her job. Anyone who knows about TED knows that you NEVER self-promote on the stage. The "TED Commandments" are all over the web. So if Sheldrake used the stage to plug his book, that is a huge red flag and should have been edited from the version uploaded to the web. Steve, if you don't like the rules, you are under no obligation to participate in the TED community. My TEDx event has declined to invite speakers who do not respect the brand.

In retrospect, Meyers felt bad about calling Sheldrake "sleazy." But he's very much on his guard about hucksters pitching their wares at TED conferences.

Last night I used an inappropriate word ("sleazy") to describe Sheldrake pitching his book in one part of his talk, which I deeply regret. It is unfortunate that using this word has riled up this already "spirited" group, including that of an alleged "TED Fellow," on here, and that someone would flag that comment as inappropriate. While I believe that folks are a bit "insensitive" in their responses to using that word, I apologize for using it.

I didn't have to read the deluge of comments I received when I woke up this morning to realize that there are some folks who believe VERY STRONGLY that TED has "wronged" these two presenters. What I can tell you is this:
1. It appears that a vast majority (not all) of the talks that TED has "flagged" in the past are related to a speaker who has a book published. When last year's talk by Nick Hanauer caused a stir for crossing the political line, his PR agent caused a stir. When these things happen, as a TEDx organizer, I have found that a speaker's true motives for taking the TED stage come out. I question those motives to some degree here. I don't need the "marketers" who responded to my comment to chime in. TED is NOT a trade conference, so speakers who are doing this or business development reasons should rethink their approach for this type of forum.
2. TED's guidelines are VERY specific about what speakers can/can't do onstage. A speaker can talk about the substance and not even mention the book onstage.
3. I suspect that TED will work with its staff and TEDx organizers to improve its curation practices and how it can prevent this situation from repeating itself. TEDx organizers had been issued rules about pseudoscience and must share the responsibility in how they select speakers. They are stewards of the brand, and they must do better in this area, or else the TEDx program could be at risk. [ All emphases mine]

Hanauer was discussed here. I don't think it was about selling the book he didn't mention in the talk. That's chump change to a billionaire, venture capitalist. He probably paid more to his flacks to get the talk reinstated than he could ever hope to make in whatever book sales might have been generated. His talk was in many ways working against his own economic self-interest. He wants his own taxes to go up, so...

I can absolutely understand why TED wants to keep its conferences focused on ideas rather than pitching products. It could get very obnoxious if they didn't have some rules where that's concerned. But as Meyers lays it out here, it seems a little extreme. For one thing, books and other accomplishments speak to a speaker's credentials. I'd want to know. But what really disturbs me is this idea that speakers can't be there to promote their own careers at all. They can't have "a brand." They are enlisted only to support the "TED brand."

TED speakers aren't paid. They just get to rub shoulders with wealthy benefactors but they receive strict guidelines which are transparently to ensure the comfort of those wealthy benefactors. Eddie Huang's deeply disturbing story of cultish weirdness describes an organization requiring total fealty from its presenters.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you're doing a TED Talk, you are their product.

UPDATE: The disaffiliated TEDx West Hollywood will be presenting on its own and is calling for help in getting its message out.  The Live Stream of the event can be viewed on April 14 here.

I also just noticed this comment from the organizer on how TED addressed its concerns before it formally pulled the plug.

They want to cancel my program. Reason: “We are not comfortable with it.” I kid you not. That’s all. Repeated over and over on the phone as to why. No more, except there are objections to some speakers, but, “We’re not naming names.” I must be joking, right?

Once again, I think TED would be a lot more credible if it had some idea as to why it's making these decisions.

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Mar 28, 2013

A West Memphis Courtroom and a Wild Story

Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, & Christopher Byers

Pam Hicks (formerly Hobbs) would like to see the evidence pertaining to her son Stevie Branch's murder.

Pam Hicks, the mother of Stevie Branch, wants to examine some of the items that belonged to her son and were found at the murder scene.

Hicks previously told us, “I do want to know that it has not been contaminated if they need it, if something [were] to come out of this,” said Hicks. “I definitely don’t want to touch it. I just want to have a peace of mind and ease of knowing that they still have it.”

Police Chief Donald Oakes says they still have it, all of it, and most of it is sealed.

Hicks's attorney Ken Swindle put forward four new possible suspects in the murders for which the West Memphis Three spent their youths in an Arkansas prison. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were released in August of 2011 on an Alford Plea but are still considered convicted murderers by the state of Arkansas.

Two of the suspects have been discussed previously due to hairs consistent with their DNA being found at the crime scene: Terry Hobbs and his friend David Jacoby. Inconsistencies in Hobbs's story have also raised enough concern that even his former wife, Hicks, has previously raised suspicions.

The two additional suspects are Buddy Lucas and L.G. Hollingsworth and this is where the story starts to become surreal. According to sworn affidavits from Bennie Guy and Billy Stewart, Lucas confessed to them that he and the other three men murdered Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. Lucas and Hollingsworth were teens at the time and involved in a drug-fueled, homoerotic escapade with the older men when they noticed the three children observing them.

According to Guy, he convinced Hollingsworth to admit his guilt and share details. Guy said that Hollingsworth told him that he and Lucas had been walking in Lakeshore Trailer Park when Hobbs and Jacoby drove up, asking where to buy marijuana.

Lucas and Hollingsworth directed them to Stewart, then went along for the ride. At that point, Stewart tells a similar story, but says that when they drove up to buy weed, he saw Hobbs kiss Jacoby. Stewart added that his son also saw them kissing on a later occasion. He said that a few days after the murders, he also delivered pot, cocaine and crystal meth to Hobbs at a Memphis gay bar called J-Wags.

. . .

According to the affidavits, Lucas said that the quartet drank whiskey, smoked pot and drove around, eventually ending up in the wooded area where the murders took place. Lucas told Stewart that Hobbs and Jacoby made the two teenagers wrestle after they got to the woods.

At that point, both Guy and Stewart say that the boys surprised them by riding up on their bikes. Hobbs ordered them to chase down the boys. Lucas then told Stewart that he and Hollingsworth were forced to hold the boys while Jacoby and Hobbs beat them. They then stripped the bodies, dumped them in the water and hid the bicycles. The bodies were found the next day.

Hollingsworth died in a car accident in 2001 and Lucas has been described as "slow" which might make all of that a little hard to prove.

Judge Victor Hill says he will deliver a verdict on the availability of the evidence on Monday.

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Mar 26, 2013

Galaxy Quest Through the Wormhole

In keeping with my new hobby -- identifying obscure archetypes and esoterica in pop culture -- I noticed a sequence in Galaxy Quest the other day depicting wormhole travel. It's really intriguing. Galaxy Quest is a riot, and an old favorite, but I've never really thought of it as a metaphysical film. The relevance of the scene clicked for me, though, when I was listening to William Henry's most recent edition of Revelations.

At about the 19 minute mark Robert Perala relays a life altering experience he'd had that involved contact with some sort of alien or other-dimensional beings. He describes being pulled through a wormhole and finding himself covered with some sort of sticky, oily substance. He was left shaken and nauseated by the experience.

Henry has been talking and writing about this "oil" for some time and theorizes that it's a kind "cosmic condom" that protects the body during stargate travel. He provides references to Enoch being taken up by the Archangel Michael and Jesus who had his feet anointed by Mary previous to his resurrection.

It occurs to me that this is pretty much exactly what happens in Galaxy Quest when Tim Allen, and later the rest of the cast, are transported by aliens to and from their space dock. It's shown in painful detail when a very hungover Jason Nesmith (Allen) -- a William Shatneresque star of an historic sci-fi series and frequent convention guest -- tries to return home from what he thinks is a guest appearance with hard-core fans. Having slept through his limousine-like spaceship ride, and having no idea he's  in outer space, he's shown to a platform to wait for his limo. Instead, he is covered in an unctuous substance -- which first anoints his feet. A portal opens onto the vastness of space and he is shot through a wormhole, and deposited next to his swimming pool. He stands for several moments trembling with shock.

It's a very funny scene in a very funny, quirky, little movie, but there are nods to something much deeper. It's well-shot and it's the little details that cinch it. Below are some stills, showing the sequence of events.

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Mar 24, 2013

The Taybor and the Rainbow Body


I've been rewatching Space 1999, mostly as an exercise in nostalgia and to amuse my inner child. My inner child loves her some Space 1999. It's not a terribly deep or esoteric show, particularly by the second season. But every so often it wanders into an intriguing archetype.

The other night I was watching "The Taybor." Taybor is "an inter-galactic merchant [who] arrives from hyperspace on his ship the 'Emporium.'" He is a silly character and the episode is largely quite silly but I was taken with their depiction of the hyperdrive that allowed him to move anywhere in space.

The drive itself is an oculus, aka., circumpunct, aka., stargate:

But where it really gets interesting is when the ship beging to shift into hyperspace:

What immediately came to mind for me was some of the Tibetan art showing the rainbow body as explained by William Henry here.

A few key images illustrate my thinking. First is the Tibetan image of the Rainbow Body. In the Tibetan Great Perfection tradition, the mortal coil  can be spun into a higher frequency, ultimately dissolving and manifesting as five colored rainbow light. The resulting ‘Rainbow Body’ is considered the highest form of human spiritual attainment. 


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Mar 22, 2013

Will the DeleTED Debate TED?

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The offer's on the table. Both Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock have very publicly challenged TED to debates.

Said Sheldrake:

I appreciate the fact that TED published my response to the accusations levelled against me by their Scientific Board, and also crossed out the Board’s statement on the “Open for discussion” blog.

There are no longer any specific points to answer. I am all in favour of debate, but it is not possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”

I would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. This could take place online, or on Skype. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.

Therefore I ask Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself.

Said Hancock:

I previously commented that I would not post further on this Blog page because it is so clearly designed to distract public attention from the disastrous way TED have handled their attempt to censor my “War on Consciousness” talk and Rupert Sheldrake’s “Science Delusion” talk. That in my view is the important point, for it bears on the future of TED itself as a viable platform for “ideas worth spreading”. I am heartened that so many of the 400-plus concerned people who have now posted here (and the 1000-plus who posted on the original Blog page) have refused to fall for TED’s sleight of hand and continued to press the organization to rethink its policy.

Since TED have retracted and struck out all their justifications for the original deletion of my talk from the TEDx Youtube channel ( ) and since they have published my rebuttal, and done the same re Rupert Sheldrake’s talk, I agree with Rupert on a new post he has made on this page ( There are no more specific points surrounding TED’s misguided decision that he and I need to answer. Nor is it possible to make much progress through short responses to nebulous questions like “Is this an idea worth spreading, or misinformation?”

But I now make this one further post, simply to add my voice to Rupert’s and to put on record that I, too, would be happy to take part in a public debate with a scientist who disagrees with the issues I raise in my talk. My only condition is that it be conducted fairly, with equal time for both sides to present their arguments, and with an impartial moderator, agreed by both parties.

Therefore I join Rupert in asking Chris Anderson to invite a scientist from TED’s Scientific Board or TED’s Brain Trust to have a real debate with me about my talk, or if none will agree to take part, to do so himself. 

Said TED:

Well... so far... crickets.

So will TED put anyone forward to articulate and defend their reasons for deleting these talks from their main platform and putting them in quarantine? Their options for doing so are fairly limited. Chris Anderson is obviously ill-equipped to defend his decision as he doesn't appear to understand it. The only time he even attempted to lay out reasons for TED's decision, he made such a pudding of it he had to cross the whole thing out.

Putting forward someone from their Science Board is even trickier because TED refuses to reveal their super-secret identities. But they do have options as one Lewis Smart suggested:

Hell, let one of the anonymous science board members speak from behind a screen, with his voice vocoded to retain anonymity. It would be hilarious.

It would! And I like a bit of cabaret. It couldn't possibly be more farcical than TED's attempts to justify itself thus far.

The other problem for TED is that scientists who've attempted to debate Sheldrake in the past haven't fared well. He has many critics in the science world -- particularly of the New Atheist variety. They love to call him a "crackpot" but few of them would argue that he isn't wicked smart. When they take him on directly, he tends to pants them.

A comment posted by one Sebastian Penraeth brought up a very interesting discussion and analysis of how Sheldrake has been treated by the "scientific community" -- although, it's kind of hard to call them "scientific" after reading a record of their behavior. Community, yes. Scientific, no. What was revealed in a dissertation by Philip Stevens is something more like an entrenched group-mind -- high on knee-jerk rejection, low on dispassionate analysis. An interview with Stevens can be found here and the entire dissertation can be downloaded from that page.

It speaks badly of the state of modern science that the editor of the prestigious journal Nature joked about book burning. But John Maddox's review of Sheldrake's A New Science of Life was entitled "A Book for Burning?" He did not actually call for the book to be burned -- just ridiculed and marginalized with other "literature of intellectual aberrations."

Maddox clarified his thinking some years later.

Without any sense of irony, Maddox compared the condemnation of Dr Sheldrake by the scientific community to that of the Catholic Church’s criticism of Galileo, saying “[Sheldrake’s theory] can be condemned in exactly the language that the Popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.”

When editors of prominent science journals start throwing around ideas like "book burning" and "heresy," even in jest, we should become very concerned that the institutions of science look far more like arbiters of a religious orthodoxy.

But the other thing indicated by this ridiculing and ostracizing of Sheldrake by establishment scientists is that they're panicked. Maybe they should be, because Sheldrake is questioning some of the fundamental assumptions on which many people are basing their careers. And he does it well.

As per Stevens, there have only been a handful of debates between Sheldrake and his critics. Other such debates have been pointedly avoided and in one notable instance a debate with a certain very prominent atheist reportedly occurred and then slipped down the memory hole.

In 2007, Dr Sheldrake was contacted by Channel 4 who asked if he would be willing to take part in an interview for a television programme presented by Richard Dawkins. The programme was called ‘Enemies of Reason’ (although Dr Sheldrake claims he wasn’t told that when he agreed to take part).

According to Dr Sheldrake, in the subsequent debate (which was not included in the resulting series) Prof. Dawkins accused Sheldrake of “trying to turn the tables on him” and refused to discuss any research on telepathy, instead saying that Sheldrake was “prepared to believe almost anything”. Dr Sheldrake claims he accused Prof. Dawkins of being dogmatic and attempting a ‘low grade debunking exercise’. To which Prof. Dawkins reportedly said “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise”. Prof. Dawkins has never publicly talked about the interview.

It seems Dawkins, like many of those who've gone up against Sheldrake, had not felt it necessary to familiarize himself with his work. This leaves them at something of a disadvantage in their attempts to discredit it.

Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology at University College London, apparently lobbed ad hominem attacks and disparaged the subject matter for 15 minutes of his allotted 30, and gave up the rest of his time. “The blunt fact is that there's no persuasive evidence for [telepathy],” Wolpert summed up. Then he sat, looking bored, tapping a pencil, and pointedly ignoring Sheldrake who methodically laid out his evidence for telepathy.

Such self-satisfaction may play well to other self-satisfied skeptics but it didn't play well to audience members whose reaction was described in Nature: “Many in the audience... variously accused Wolpert of not knowing the evidence and being unscientific.”

Other debates have gone similarly. Of a debate with Jan Willem Nienhuys, botanist Richard Hardwick said:

[Sheldrake] comes well prepared, and he speaks fluently and clearly, as if he really wants to communicate. He marshals his arguments with precision, he provides (so far as I can judge) evidence for his statements, and he brings his nul hypotheses out into the open, ready to be shot down by the force of disproof.

. . .

In my judgement, Nienhuys’ counterattack failed... it seems Dr Nienhuys had not done his homework. He did not have any data or analysis to hand, and his attack fizzled out.

In a debate with Peter Atkins, Sheldrake asked him pointedly if he'd read the research he was dismissing.

Sheldrake: Well I’d like to ask him if he’s actually read the evidence? May I ask you Professor Atkins if you’ve actually studied any of this evidence or any other evidence?

Atkins: No, but I would be very suspicious of it.

Sheldrake: Of course, being suspicious of it in advance of seeing it is normally called prejudice.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, who was caught giving critiques of  Sheldrake's work without reading it, agreed to debate Sheldrake... if only he could find the time.

In March 2003, Dr Sheldrake challenged Shermer to a debate, which he accepted, and several times and venues were suggested, but all were rejected by Shermer. As of 2009, the debate has still not taken place.

What Stevens found in researching Sheldrake's relationship to the scientific community is that they badly depart from the rules and norms of science in their dealings with him. They dismiss his research without reading it. They make demonstrably false claims about the results and methodology. In one case, a colleague of Sheldrake's replicated his research but, shall we say, selectively reported his own results.

Sheldrake had set an experiment into pet-owner telepathy, finding that even with controls for any possible cuing and patterns, the dog in the study went to the window more than 3 times more often when her owner was headed home.

Jaytee spent 18% of the time at the window before Smart was told to return home, 33% of the time when she had been told to go home but had not yet started off in the car, and 65% of the time when she was travelling home.

His colleague Richard Wiseman replicated the study and pronounced it a failure. He got much press for disproving pet-owner telepathy. But when Sheldrake requested the data from the study, he found that, in fact, Wiseman's results were much like Sheldrake's, with the dog going to the window substantially more often when the owner was headed home. This, Wiseman did not bother to report in his research paper.

In 2007, nine years after the original paper was published and over eleven years after the completion of the research, during an interview with Alex Tsakiris on Skeptiko, Richard Wiseman said “I don't think there’s any debate that the patterning in my studies is the same as the patterning in Rupert’s’s how it’s interpreted.

Well, no, it isn't. Hiding data is hiding data, and data can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Who's to say that his interpretation of that data is correct and Sheldrake's isn't?

It's very easy to dismiss as "pseudoscience" research into things classified as "paranormal." Many people won't even question that assessment. But one hopes that establishment scientists wouldn't approach the subject matter in a manner so sloppy, so lazy, and even misleading, that it borders on misconduct.

The problem for establishment sciences is that some of the results in this outre research are very compelling. It's marginalized by applying very different standards of evidence for status quo science and that which challenges it.

I have long hated the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I reads to me like an admission of bias. Just what constitutes "extraordinary" is extremely subjective. Stevens provides a little history of this now well-worn phrase.

The French mathematician and astronomer, Pierre-Simon Laplace said that “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”9 This idea was later expanded upon by the sociologist Marcello Truzzi who said “In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded... and when such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalisations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.”10 This was later popularised by Carl Sagan who created the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

This would seem to fly in the face of science as a dispassionate practice, and as Stevens explains, pretty much throws the Mertonian norms out the window.

Stevens quotes Wiseman in another context as saying:

I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do... Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions.

Again, it's a clear admission of bias. Screw any concept of equity and dispassionate, results-based science -- and torture the English language in the process.

The talk by Sheldrake that was deleted by TED didn't get into any of his research into telepathy or other phenomena. If anything, it was more threatening to the status quo. It was on philosophy of science and questioned the willingness of establishment scientists to challenge the assumptions of materialist science.

Thus far, TED has been unable to explain its specific problems with the speech. As stated, what reasons it initially laid out were thoroughly refuted, and had to be crossed out. One hopes that if they are sticking by their decision to hide his and Hancock's lectures in increasingly obscure locations, they could at least put someone forward in a debate to explain it. And one hopes they would do a better job of it than their efforts so far.

In their original criticism of Sheldrake's talk -- that would be the crossed out part -- they took issue with his statements about natural constants. They referred the reader to a "careful rebuttal" of his statements by physicist Sean Carroll, as quoted by Jerry Coyne. But even though that rebuttal included a table omitting the data from the time period Sheldrake referred to, it not only didn't disprove his statements, it validated them. Carroll's other table showed exactly what Sheldrake claimed.

In my talk I said that the published values of the speed of light dropped by about 20 km/sec between 1928 and 1945. Carroll’s “careful rebuttal” consisted of a table copied from Wikipedia showing the speed of light at different dates, with a gap between 1926 and 1950, omitting the very period I referred to. His other reference ( does indeed give two values for the speed of light in this period, in 1928 and 1932-35, and sure enough, they were 20 and 24km/sec lower than the previous value, and 14 and 18 km/sec lower than the value from 1947 onwards.

Coyne's post is premised on a straw man -- that Sheldrake claimed the speed of light was dropping. His point of course was that the recorded speed varied for a period time and that this anomaly might merit further investigation. And as one Conor O' Higgins points out, in the discussion thread, Carroll also restated another of Sheldrake's more eyebrow-raising claims.

Seán Carroll also backed up Sheldrake's claim about the speed of light being fixed by convention rather than empirical measurement:

Rupert Sheldrake: "How can we be so sure it's not going on today and that the present values are not produced by intellectual phase-locking? He said, 'We know that's not the case'. I said, 'How do we know?' He said, 'Well,' he said, 'We've solved the problem.' I said, 'How?' He said 'We fixed the speed of light by definition in 1972.' " (

Seán Carroll: "Indeed, today the speed of light is fixed by definition, not by measurement." (

So, if say, Sean Carroll is put forward by TED to debate Sheldrake, he might want to stop agreeing with him so much.

I will actually be pleasantly surprised if TED accepts the challenge by their censored speakers to debate. I expect they will demur. They will either continue to ignore the offers or beg off with some excuse for not putting anyone forward. They'll say they want their Science Board to remain anonymous and reject the suggestion of putting them behind a screen -- which is too bad because that's my favorite suggestion thus far. They'll pull a Michael Shermer and agree to a debate but refuse to schedule a time for years on end. Or they'll go for the tried and true method. They'll say it would be terribly bad science to give these ideas even a modicum of respectability by debating them. But I doubt they'll go through with a debate. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

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Mar 21, 2013

Warren Jeffs's Utah Compound on the Auction Block

As I mentioned here, one of the thousand cuts for Warren Jeffs's empire was a 30 million dollar judgment in favor of his former spokesman Willie Jessop. As discussed, collecting that judgment is proving challenging, but Jessop should get at least partial compensation from the auction of Jeffs's Utah compound.

Washington County officials plan to auction a sprawling compound belonging to Warren Jeffs’ family to pay a judgment to a former spokesman for the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The April 25 auction will allow the public to bid on the multibuilding complex in Hildale that property records show sits on 6.1 acres and has a market value of $2.65 million. The sale is designed to raise money for a judgment obtained by Willie Jessop.

Jessop sued FLDS leaders, including Jeffs and his brother Lyle Jeffs alleging they arranged a late-night break-in at his business, R&W Excavating. Jessop argued that during the break-in several people stole computers, hard drives and other property.

Jessop will also have the option of putting a "credit bid" on the property himself, using a portion of the 30 million.

Jessop, for his part, mostly seems pleased to see Jeffs lose possession of compound that was largely designed for the purpose of sexually abusing young girls -- the same reason Texas is moving to seize Jeffs's Yearning For Zion Ranch. In the interview posted above, he describes how disillusioned and demoralized he was when he learned what Jeffs was doing in secret chambers of compounds like this one.

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Mar 19, 2013

TED: It Gets So Much Worse

Just when you thought the folks at TED couldn't sink any lower, they do. Not happy with ghettoizing Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talks, now they're shipping them off to Siberia. If I had to guess, I'd say they're trying to distract from 26 pages of comments that make TED look really bad. The new locations for the video embeds that can't be embedded anywhere else or seen independently doesn't even include the comments section. For that, you have to follow yet another link to a comments page and the comment length is limited. Here's the latest update on this from Graham Hancock:

New and deeply disappointing TED tactic

Just when I thought TED had seen the error of their ways and were trying to fix things (see my post here: ) I receive an email from TED Curator Chris Anderson telling me that yet another of their famous Blog pages has now been set up, this one apparently as a special standalone ghetto for discussion of my “War on Consciousness” presentation. This tactic helps to distance TED from the PR debacle they created for themselves by axing my talk from their Youtube channel in the first place (where it had attracted hundreds of comments and 132,000 views). Now not only is the presentation cut off from the discussion initiated by all those original commentators (and their ability to share it) but it is also cut off from the new discussion that followed exposure of TED’s censorship and shoddy methods – here: and here:

Worse still, the comment section will close after two weeks. 
Graham Hancock's new page is here and Rupert Sheldrake's here.

To recap, here is the TED saga, in order, starting with the lectures, which have been reposted by other people.

Graham Hancock on Mother Ayahuasca
Rupert Sheldrake's Takedown of Scientism
TED's War on Consciousness
Is TED a Cult?
The TED Censtorship Saga Continues

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The TED Censorship Saga Continues

Graham Hancock posted last evening that there has been a small victory in the battle against TED's censorship of his and Rupert Sheldrake's lectures. 

I appreciate and respect the fact that TED have now bitten the bullet -- which cannot have been easy for them -- and fully retracted their original incorrect allegations against the content of my TEDx presentation "The War on Consciousness". They have done so by crossing out the original allegations and publishing my rebuttal here:

They have done the same as regards their original incorrect allegations against the content of the TEDx presentation "The Science Delusion" by my colleague Rupert Sheldrake.

Yes, if you look at the blog post set up to quarantine Hancock and Sheldrake's ideas, their original stated reasons for deleting the videos from YouTube have been crossed out and the rebuttals have been added. But the update at the top of the post doesn't really acknowledge their rebuttals. It refers the reader to their new page.

UPDATE: Please see our new blog post Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, a fresh take, which replaces the x-ed out text below.

So by all means, read their "fresh take," but if you're looking for an explanation of their reasons for deleting the videos from their standard platform you will be sorely disappointed. This is the extent of it.

Both Sheldrake and Hancock are compelling speakers, and some of the questions they raise are absolutely worth raising. For example, most thoughtful scientists and philosophers of science will agree it’s true that science has not moved very far yet in solving the riddle of consciousness. But the specific answers to that riddle proposed by Sheldrake and Hancock are so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking that we think it’s right for us to give these talks a clear health warning and to ask further questions of the speakers. TED and TEDx are brands that are trusted in schools and in homes. We don’t want to hear from a parent whose kid went off to South America to drink ayahuasca because TED said it was OK. But we do think a calmer, reasoned conversation around these talks would be interesting, if only to help us define how far you can push an idea before it is no longer “worth spreading.”

How Hancock and Sheldrake are "so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking" they do not say. Their nameless, faceless Science Board says that it is so, therefore it is so.

So here is where TED stands to date. They've removed the videos from YouTube. They provided a litany of reasons for that removal. Hancock, Sheldrake and numerous commenters on that thread pressed them to explain how their critiques in any way applied to the talks in question. Hancock asked them repeatedly to show where in his talk he said any of the things they said he said. The best Chris Anderson could come up with was that they'd get back to him on that. They did not. Clearly, being unable to justify their list of reasons for removal, they crossed them all out. They then referred people to a new page justifying their reason for removing the videos, which does nothing of the kind.

Still missing in action: any explanation of their reasons for removing the videos.

I highly recommend reading the original blog post to which they consigned the matter. The comment section now stands at 25 pages and counting. I normally hate reading comments because they so rapidly degenerate into pointless name-calling and trollery, but despite TED's best efforts to make the commenters look like a deranged Hancock fan cabal, the thread is largely made up of very lucid comments. Many extremely knowledgeable people challenged TED to explain itself and, and as stated, TED has still avoided doing so. Instead they've dismissed the commenters as "hordes of supporters sent our way by Graham Hancock." Read the comments. You'll see that nothing of the kind is true. It's the most reasonable comment thread I've read in an open comment section in some time.

In addition to challenging TED to explain itself, there are numerous requests for TED to remove other lectures which resulted in credible critiques, such as this one. Those requests remain unacknowledged as of this writing.

The most risible comments in the thread come from TED people, and there aren't many of those. This one stood out. It's from one Al Meyers who runs TEDx Peachtree.

Let's unpack this, shall we?

I have not read all the comments, nor have I watched the talks in question. However, I'm going to support David and Stephen 100% here.

In other words, Meyers has no idea what's going on, but whatever it is, he's throwing his full support behind TED on whatever it is they're saying.

The brand equity is at risk if TED is spreading ideas claiming to be supported by scientific research, yet subsequently proven otherwise.

So Mr. Meyers has absolutely no idea how science works. That would mean that no scientific hypothesis could ever be discussed in a TED lecture because hypotheses are disproved all the time. So are theories. So much of what we accept as "fact" is just theory that could be disproved tomorrow. It's part of the process. Such are the dangers of scientific dogmatism -- this horribly warped idea that science produces unassailable facts, rather than a continuously revised body of research and knowledge. If no scientist could ever risk being wrong, science couldn't happen.

TED's brand... brand equity is at risk... built a brand... best for the brand... not letting social media wreck havoc on the brand...

Meyers uses the word "brand" five times in that one, brief paragraph. In other words, this was a marketing decision and Meyers fully and unequivocally supports TED's commitment to market-based science.

Meyers is a good soldier and, as near as I can tell, a good representative of the TED  ethos. I have no idea what's going on or why we're doing what we're doing but the people I've vested with authority say it's so, so it is so.

The people TED has vested with authority is those who must not be named, aka., their Science Board.

They are (deliberately) anonymous, for obvious reasons, but they are respected working scientists, and writers about science, from a range of fields, with no brief other than to help us make these judgements. If a talk gets flagged they will advise on whether we should act or not.

So this star chamber shall heretofore decide what lectures are allowed to see the light of day. Their reasons don't matter. TED won't even bother to try to explain them anymore because when they do they just bungle them and have to cross the whole thing out.

Am I alone in thinking that if TED is going to make a decision to censor something they should at least be able to articulate their reasons, rather than pointing to an anonymous panel? By their own admission, they could not. The result was in their words "clumsy" and "less than convincing," but it's also the closest we're ever going to get to an explanation.

We do, however, have some indication of just who it was put pressure on TED to silence Hancock and Sheldrake. We know because TED's Emily McManus took the time to thank them personally.

And we're grateful to those who've written about this talk in other forums, including but not limited to Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Kylie Sturgess and some thoughtful Redditors.

In other words, it's the New Atheist brigade, once again, making the world safe for scientism. McManus, by the way, also identifies as an atheist. I have no problem with atheism. I do have a problem with fundamentalists who set out to crush any view that does not comport with this very particular stripe of atheist world view, and that is exactly what's happened here. A comment by Kent Bye even identifies a timeline. It's actually quite clear what happened, as Rupert Sheldrake acknowledges in his rebuttal to be found here.

As I've said more than once, the New Atheists make me nervous for the same reason the Christian Right makes me nervous. They're bullies and if you want to see that bullying in action, just roll up your trousers and wade into the chain of events that led to the censorship of Hancock and Sheldrake's talks.

As I noted the other day, atheists make up 3 percent of the population of the United States. There's nothing wrong with being a minority population and I will always fight for the right of the minority to have their views respected. I wish the even tinier minority of New Atheists had the same kind of respect for everybody else. But if you're an evangelical minority, determined to spread the good news that there is no God, it helps if you're a really loud, aggressive, and self-satisfied, minority.

What it makes me think of is the early days of the Moral Majority -- which was neither -- who codified the now well-worn method of targeting advertisers on shows that did not comport with their views. This trend was rather brilliantly satirized, I thought, by WKRP in Cincinnati, at the height of the furor.

The most dangerous thing about ideologues is that they never think they're ideologues. They just think they're right.

TED, of course, didn't fight back like our fictional heroes at WKRP. They folded like a cheap tent.

The TEDx Whitechapel program Hancock and Sheldrake were invited to speak at was subtitled "Challenging existing paradigms and redefining values (for a more beautiful world)." But it would seem the parent organization has absolutely no interest in doing that.

The conundrum was summed up brilliantly by a commenter named Geoff Fitch.

If Sheldrake’s criticism are valid, they cannot simply consult their “Scientific Board” for an opinion, since, in all likelihood they would be subject to very cultural blinders that Sheldrake exposes. Is there anyone in the TED leadership that understands what Sheldrake is pointing to and can identify it in your own thinking and assumptions? Will you speak up?

I wouldn't hold my breath. TED's willingness to accept the judgement of Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and their ilk seems all too clear. They won't let these "heretical" ideas be debated fairly, in an open forum. There apparently was a vigorous debate well under way on YouTube which was deleted with Graham Hancock's video. It's all gone down the memory hole in favor of an unexplained, unjustified decision by a shadowy Science Board.

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Mar 17, 2013

The Beautiful Church is Empty

Religion is on the decline, and "nones" are on the rise. People with no religious affiliation, here in the United States is now at 20 percent -- double what it was two decades ago.

Even as the election of a new Pope in Rome dominated the day's news, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University reported that Americans are increasingly "parting ways" with religion.

In 2012, one in five people surveyed claimed no religious preference -- that's double the number who said that as recently as 1990. And religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since researchers began tracking it in the 1930s.

Not religious is not the same as atheist, however. Atheists are currently at 3 percent, according to the survey data. People are abandoning organized religion, not spiritual belief. As discussed, the number of those who define as spiritual but not religious is on the rise.

People are separating from religious institutions for a range of reasons, from their misalignment with changing social values, to hypocrisy about their own.

Jerome Baggett, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, said changes on three levels -- individual, institutional, and societal -- have contributed to declining American membership in organized religion.

. . .

Religious institutions themselves have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans due to sexual and financial scandals, or political overreaching "by the so-called Christian right," said Baggett. "Americans have a wariness to institutions in general, but a particular wariness to religious institutions," he said.

In other words, there are people who probably would be religious but have become disaffected. I know a lot of those.

I know, for example, a lot people who loved the Catholic Church but have lost patience with its intolerance for homosexuality, birth control, premarital sex, and other matters of personal morality -- even as it thoroughly bungles the problem of sexual abusive priests in its employ. It's a deeper irony than many people can stand to see in their religious leaders.

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So I found this commentary from Bill Donohue's Catholic League particularly risible. Faced with polling that showed more than half of Catholics, 54 percent, now support gay marriage, Donohue pulled a Dick Morris and  attempted to unskew the poll. As per Donohue, Quinnipiac's mistake was in counting Catholics who don't go to church every Sunday.

This takes on added significance when we consider that 4 in 10 of the Catholics sampled do not practice their religion (28 percent go to church “a few times a year” and 11 percent say they “never” attend). That these nominal Catholics are precisely the biggest fans of gay marriage is a sure bet, though the poll fails to disclose the results.

The Quinnipiac Polling Institute has some explaining to do.

The weak impression of Ricky Ricardo aside, Donohue is articulating something very important about the Catholic mindset, which increasingly has more to do with purity tests from the hierarchy and a less to do -- okay, nothing to do -- with responding to the people who make up the Church. Who knows how many of these "nominal Catholics" could be brought back into the fold, if they felt like the Church wasn't totally out of step with the modern world.

As per Donohue, under journalistic scrutiny, Quinnipiac fessed up. If you only count those real Catholics, the numbers are about reversed.

After our news release was distributed, reporters from contacted Quinnipiac. What they admitted totally alters the outcome: 55 percent of Catholics who are regular church-goers are opposed to gay marriage, and only 38 percent favor it. This is important because Quinnipiac’s Peter A. Brown was cited all over for claiming that “Catholic voters are leading American voters toward support for same-sex marriage.” Nonsense.

What I find kind of funny about all that is that 38 percent is still a pretty healthy chunk of the regular church-goers Donohue thinks of as legitimate. Anyone paying attention to the overall trend might be very concerned about the growing disconnect between the Church and even its most ardent followers. But people like Donohue, and it would appear the Catholic hierarchy, seem to be digging their heels in. As a simple matter of organizational theory, this seems short-sighted.

In the 1950s, a lot of companies had the same organizational structure as the Catholic church. You reported up the hierarchy, and you did what the leaders told you to do. And then, in 1961, a surprising study discovered that innovative companies were just the opposite:

They are adapted to unstable conditions....Interaction runs laterally as much as vertically. Communication between people of different ranks tends to resemble lateral consultation, rather than vertical command.

. . .

Maybe the Catholic church doesn't need to be innovative. After all, if you're following the word of God, if you have knowledge of the absolute truth, then perhaps you'd never need to change. And that's often the sort of statement that comes out of Rome. After all, the church is growing (although the new members come from developing countries), so the leadership can argue that it's been successful by sticking to an organizational structure that was invented a few thousand years ago, in the age of monarchy and serfdom--three or four major economic and societal transformations ago.

It's hard to miss that even in its election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy -- a departure for the Church in many ways -- they're still hewing strongly to the very regressive policies that are disenfranchising so many Catholics. Pope Francis may be a breath of fresh air when it comes to respect for the poor, but when it comes to gay people, he's a fire-breathing hater. Frankly, it seems sort of incongruous to me. In so many ways, he seems like such a sweet man. Then he says things like this:

In 2010, as Argentina debated a marriage equality bill, Bergoglio called on Catholics to oppose the move, calling it the devil's handiwork.

“Let's not be naïve, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God,” Bergoglio wrote in a letter calling on followers to join a protest rally in Buenos Aires.

“We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a move by the Father of Lies which aims to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Bergoglio went on to say that gay adoption is discriminatory to children: “At stake are the lives of many children who'll be discriminated against in being deprived of the human growth that God wanted to be given through a father and a mother.”

Agrentina went on to ratify gay marriage, which underscores just how out of step the Church is on this issue. President President Cristina Fernandez de Kircher called his statements a "throwback to the Inquisition."

Pope Francis is also stridently opposed to birth control and abortion rights. I doubt that anyone could have been elected pope who wasn't completely regressive on these issues of sexual morality. That seems to be the litmus test of. And the farther behind that puts them with new generations, the more rigid and unyielding the Church becomes. This, according to Joan Chittister of the National Catholic Reporter has made Catholics weary.

The problem is that weariness is far worse than anger. Far more stultifying than mere indifference. Weariness comes from a soul whose hope has been disappointed one time too many. To be weary is not a condition of the body -- that's tiredness. No, weariness is a condition of the heart that has lost the energy to care anymore.

People are weary of hearing more about the laws of the church than the love of Jesus.

People are weary of seeing whole classes of people -- women, gays and even other faith communities again -- rejected, labeled, seen as "deficient," crossed off the list of the acceptable.

They are weary of asking questions that get no answers, no attention whatsoever, except derision.

They suffer from the lassitude that sets in waiting for apologies that do not come.

There's an ennui that sets in when people get nothing but old answers to new questions.

So, yeah... I know a lot of lapsed Catholics.

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Mar 16, 2013

Is TED a Cult?

I never gave a whole lot of thought to TED. I've seen a few lectures because they went viral. Some were good. Some not so much. I never had the time or inclination to research the organization. But over the past few weeks, they've drawn my attention less because of some of the excellent presentations they've posted than because they've censored that excellent content. So, I'm learning about TED just in time to watch it jump the shark.

As I wrote yesterday, they censored two excellent lectures by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake. Weeks ago I watched a brilliant talk by Nick Hanauer that I saw posted on a thread with a very high recommendation. But as I was watching the video, I noticed other videos in the sidebar about how it had been censored, and began picking through that morass.

In watching the drama unfold between Hancock and TED, so many of the patterns are familiar. I've seen this with a lot of the big sites through the years: the in-group/out-group dynamics, the condescension and derision from site administration, the accusations that people who complain are basically spammers, the exasperated indifference from site administration, the sense from administrators that they are displaying benevolent largesse by even allowing criticism and discussion of their backroom decision, the refusal to answer direct questions, the bald-faced bullshitting...  I could go on but, really, it's so tiresome.

I've long thought that large web communities were ripe for some sort of study into the psychology of influence. They so rapidly devolve into authoritarian hierarchy. I see a lot of it displayed on the web-based arm of TED. But I have to admit that I was brought up short by the Joe Rogan interview I saw posted last night in response to TED's censorship of Graham Hancock. If this is what's going on at the actual conferences, TED is so much worse than I thought.

Rogan interviewed TED refugee Eddie Huang, who brought tales of cult-like behavior within TED. Huang compares it to Scientology. If you can get past the profanity -- not an issue for me but it merits mentioning -- this is a very interesting discussion. If Huang's experience is even remotely reflective of what goes on behind the scenes, there are some very troubling indicators here:

  • TED conferences are closed environments and none of the fellows are allowed to leave the conference
  • Forced camaraderie and inability to be alone ~ TED assigns everyone a roommate and won't allow fellows a private room even if they're willing to pay for it
  • Sleep deprivation ~ lectures, networking, and forced fun, make for very long days and full participation is overtly demanded
  • Exclusivity ~ TED is very, very special and, as part of TED, you can be special, too

Also troubling are the financial elements Huang touches upon. As discussed, TED caters to wealthy donors and, it would seem, censors accordingly.  But the financial architecture indicated here is disturbing. The heavily cultivated audience members -- who are also made to feel very, very special -- shell out thousands of dollars a piece. Fellows -- aka., the people whose lectures are the TED product -- are paid nothing. Their only remuneration is wide exposure -- should TED put their lectures out on video rather then censor them -- and the opportunity to rub shoulders with their wealthy donors.

TED also gives fellows a packet with, ahem, helpful advice, like, "don't just ask them for money," because they apparently think their brilliant speakers are idiots. And, obviously, this is not really about helping out their fellows. It's about not upsetting their big money donors, by plaguing them with crass attempts by fellows to convert their time and energy expenditure into something resembling remuneration.

So what does TED give their talent? Free room and board to participate in a week-long event, which has the possibility but not the promise of advancing their work. What does TED take from their talent? Their time, their ideas, their energy, their names... I'm reminded of Al Franken's warning to users of social media like Facebook and Google: "You are not their client, you are their product."

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Mar 15, 2013

TED's War on Consciousness

Yesterday morning I learned, to my horror, that TED has decided to censor Graham Hancock. I'm not entirely surprised about this as I've been aware for a while now that TED is quite censorious and terrified of controversial ideas. Read: Ideas which might upset their donor base. Still, their move against Hancock came like a sock to the gut, because it's not just about Hancock. It's a giant F you to anyone whose ideas are off the beaten path.

I had previously posted the lecture here. I've updated the embed, as someone was good enough to download it before it was deleted and upload it to their account. We'll see how long that lasts and if TED takes issue with someone else posting it.

As per Hancock's first Facebook post on the problem, TED's Science Board claims Hancock's presentation “strays well beyond the realm of reasonable science” and makes “non-scientific and reckless” statements regarding psychotropic drugs. What constitutes "reasonable science," I wonder?

I'm betting this is primarily about the psychotropes. There is a certain symmetry to the whole thing. Hancock's presentation addresses the ridiculousness of criminalizing plant teachers that indigenous peoples have been using since time immemorial, and that suppressing such shamanic practices is a method for delimiting our consciousness. He has been very outspoken about the right of a free people to explore their own consciousness without legal impediment. And now he's being censored for it. Shocker.

As the day went on, Hancock posted some of the specific criticism TED has used to justify deleting his presentation.

(1) The TED letter says of my presentation: "...he misrepresents what scientists actually think. He suggests, for example, that no scientists are working on the problem of consciousness."

. . .

(2) The TED letter says of my presentation: "He states as fact that psychotropic drug use is essential for an “emergence into consciousness,” and that one can use psychotropic plants to connect directly with an ancient mother culture."

. . .

(3) The TED letter says of my presentation: "He seems to offer a one-note explanation for how culture arises (drugs), it’s no surprise his work has often been characterised as pseudo-archeology.”

Having listened to the presentation in question and being extremely familiar with Hancock's body of work, as I am, I'm fairly horrified at this litany. This completely misrepresents what he's actually said. So they're censoring Hancock based entirely on straw man arguments, which is just lazy and cheap. Hancock has quite reasonably asked them to point to where exactly he has said any of the above and the response has been to put him off until next week some time, meanwhile letting those statements stand. Early this morning Hancock posted an open letter to TED demanding that they justify these defamatory comments or remove them. He has also posted Chris Anderson's reply to his concerns.

The way TED is currently handling the controversy is by posting his presentation -- along with Rupert Sheldrake's, which they are also censoring -- on a special blog page in which they frame their arguments against them. (I originally posted Sheldrake's lecture here and if someone reposts that on YouTube, I'll update that page as well.)

A rather raucous debate ensued, which they are clearly unhappy about.

It would help your cause to let this whole discussion calm down a little. You seem to have whipped your supporters up into a bit of a frenzy.

Yeah. It sucks when the little people get all worked up and start complaining. It must be Hancock's fault. We couldn't possibly be pissed on our own, having formed independent opinions about TED's actions. Nah. That couldn't be it. Graham Hancock. What a demagogue that guy is. Yeesh.

A quick scan of the ensuing debate on that page brings up the following, thoroughly disingenuous and condescending statement from Chris Anderson, which seems to sum up the attitude from TED in a nutshell.

What on earth are you talking about?!! They haven’t removed the videos. They’re right here on this very page! And scientists do know better than the public when it comes to discerning pseudoscience from science.

Not censored -- just blocked on YouTube where they were getting thousands and thousands of hits and removed to a blog post that only regular readers of their blog and those following the controversy would even know about.

Worse is the supposition that "scientists do know better than the public." Hancock is a journalist whose books are based on the work of scientists, archaeologists, psychologists, and other researchers. Sheldrake IS a scientist -- with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge. So what this really comes down to is an "our scientists are better than your scientists" argument. Their position is that their science board knows what is good for people. And all those other scientists... well they're not really scientists are they. They might lead the little people who can't really think for themselves astray. It's TED's responsibility to do the hard thinking for us.

This attitude will be familiar to anyone who has followed sites like Wikipedia, through the years, which also ruthlessly suppresses anything that isn't mainstream, status quo science. None of these sites are the "free expression in the brave new world of teh internets" they claim to be. They're thought farms -- even more censorious and controlled than conventional media. Most of the big web sites are terrified of breaking new ground. Take for example the Daily Kos which we learned the other day censored and banned the "47 percent" filmmaker, who arguably went on to turn the last presidential election.

TED was taken to task last year for suppressing a presentation by Nick Hanauer, a billionaire who dared to point out that it's actually middle class consumers who are the engine of the economy, not the top 1%. He had charts and graphs and stuff so it was all very convincing... but I'm sure that was pseudoscience, too. The ensuing uproar and media attention seem to have forced TED to publish the lecture.

Nick Hanauer gives an explanation of his theoretical framework and the controversy on TED in this interview.

A little more on TED's decision to censor it can be found in the following, which also explains that Melinda Gates talk on birth control -- BIRTH CONTROL -- was also very risky and controversial. The Young Turks posit that this really comes down to the politics of TED's big money donors.

So TED is a forum for "ideas worth spreading" as long as they don't rock the yacht.

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