When a small group of idealistic young British female academics created their own local version of the wildly popular TED talks in Whitechapel in January, with the express aim of challenging old paradigms and suggesting new ways of thinking – they had no idea they would be so successful that they would reveal a deep and growing schism in science, and spark an online battle over the future of TED, with lurid claims of censorship, defamation and betrayal.
It’s a story that has excited huge passions and posed fundamental philosophical questions about the acceptable bounds of science. Is science a methodology or a fixed worldview? Is there a ‘war on consciousness’ being waged by mainstream materialist science? Are we in danger of erecting barriers against truly new thinking and innovation?
It has shone a light on a growing philosophical divide – between those occupying the scientific mainstream, dedicated to protecting a worldview of reductionist materialism, ie: seeing everything in the universe as essentially reducible to material – and a growing band of insurgents, mainly from, or sympathetic to, the new scientific field of consciousness studies, who see a universe with consciousness at its heart.
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, has grown from its base in California hosting private talks for elite audiences to a worldwide brand in just a decade, their bold move to put online and effectively give away the talks, the crown jewels of the organisation, paying off massively, with over 800 million web views for speakers, from Bill Gates to Bono, Richard Dawkins to Plan B. In addition, TEDx franchise talks now run at around 2,000 per year. They have almost single-handedly succeeded in restoring faith in the power of ideas.
But TED’s former fans have been turning against the organisation in unprecedented numbers, describing it as “an agent of materialist orthodoxy”. And it all started in London at the start of this year. The Whitechapel TEDx franchise event, ‘Visions for Transition – challenging existing paradigms and redefining values’, took place on the 12th of January, featuring eleven speakers on topics of environmentalism, science and consciousness and initially passed off without a hitch.
But the talks themselves uncannily seemed to predict what was going to happen next. British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s talk, based on his book ‘The Science Delusion’, pointed out that there was a conflict between science as a methodology for looking at the world, and science as a worldview with key materialist dogmas, that was not open to being questioned. The controversial history writer Graham Hancock, of ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’ fame, described his experiences with the Amazonian psychedelic plant Ayahuasca, and suggested that psychedelics might be used to scientifically explore consciousness ‘from the inside’. His talk was titled ‘The War on Consciousness’, after what he described as a battle by the mainstream against heightened consciousness.
The only similarity between the talks was that both men were sketching out a view of the universe based on ‘non-local consciousness’ – the idea that consciousness is not confined to the brain, but that it is present in all things and is transceived, or picked up and magnified by the brain.
Amrita Bhohi, one of the organisers of the Whitechapel event, said: “We’ve grown up as a generation with quantum physics and the new sciences which tell us that the universe is dynamic, complex, alive and full of intelligence. The conception of a dead, materialistic, mechanical worldview feels quite irrelevant in light of these advances in research and knowledge.”
Rupert Sheldrake is (in)famous for his work on extrasensory perception, with book titles such as ‘Dogs Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home’, and has been a bete noir of the materialist faction for some time. It was perhaps no surprise when, some two months after the event, the Youtube posting of his talk was picked up and attacked by a prolific US science blogger, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. In a posting called ‘TEDx talks completely discredited’ he said that TEDx talks had ‘reached their nadir’ by giving a platform to such a ‘woomeister’.
After a short and concerted campaign against the talk, TED removed it from their Youtube channel. Two days later the Hancock talk too was removed from the channel. Both talks were then reposted on the main TED site ‘for discussion’, with a set of criticisms from TED’s science board.
“There’s a lot of rubbish and there has to be some kind of filter,” Sheldrake said, “I’m not against the idea of a filter but what I am against is applying the filter in a very partial kind of way.”
“There are lots of things up on the TEDx website which are controversial. For example, talks by militant Atheists. A lot of people disagree with what they say and think they’re actually wrong in a variety of ways. But those haven’t been flagged up or put in the Naughty Corner.”
“If there had been a similar attack by, for example, Christian Fundamentalists on Dawkins TED would have ignored it. But if it’s by scientific fundamentalists then they pay attention, and what’s more don’t just pay attention but dig themselves into a hole trying to justify it.”
And every attempt by TED to dig themselves out, seemed to make the hole deeper – as they attracted more sustained criticism online than ever before.
Shortly after they published them, TED was forced to retract entirely their reasons for quarantining the talks. The comment threads related to the talks then quickly became the fastest growing in the organisation’s history, with the vast majority of the comments criticising TED, accusing them of censorship and of being subservient to an outdated materialist worldview.
“They accused me of pseudoscience, major factual errors and misleading statements. When I responded to these accusations, they could not defend them and abandoned them. I did not want to sue them for libel – I’m against litigiousness. Instead I offered to take part in a public debate with a member of their Science Board. But none of their anonymous advisors was willing to come forward,” Sheldrake said.
This anonymous science board has come to occupy a central role in the controversy – as it was on their recommendation that the talks were quarantined, and it was their, subsequently retracted, criticisms that so inflamed supporters of the London speakers. TED insists that an anonymous body like this is standard practice for any organisation of its nature, but many of those opposing TED on this have said that it goes against TED’s stated ideals of openness and transparency.
TED deny they censored the talks, and say that they continued to host them without endorsing the contents, in a separate section of their site. They argue they have featured lots of religious and spiritual subjects as TED talks before, but that the criteria for science are specific and different, and that such ‘health warnings’ were necessary for talks outside the scientific mainstream.
TED have found themselves in a difficult position, some of the talks on their TEDx channel, such as an infamous presentation on ‘Vortex Mathematics’ have been heavily criticised as scientifically nonsensical. In trying to protect their brand against obvious quackery and pseudoscience, they have struggled to draw the line in the appropriate place.
“Looking back on the whole debacle now I’d say all this was simply a badly thought-out attempt to protect their “brand” that backfired on them,” Hancock said, “for some reason, despite the cutting-edge image that TED tries to promote, its guiding lights associate their brand with the reductionist-materialist faction in science and our non-local approach to consciousness was seen to undermine that brand identification.”
London was the just the first skirmish in a war that has continued since, flaring up again last month in California. The same small group of science bloggers spied another impending TEDx talk with a ‘questionable’ speaker lineup, TEDx West Hollywood’s ‘Brother, Can you Spare a Paradigm’, which featured three scientists specialising in consciousness.
After a short campaign, TED withdrew the licence for the April event – just two weeks before it was due to take place.
“The problem is not the challenging of orthodox views. We believe in that,” TED wrote to the organisers, “we’ve had numerous talks which do that. But we have rules about the presentation of science on the TEDx stage. We disallow speakers who use the language of science to claim they have proven the truth of ideas that are speculative and which have failed to gain significant scientific acceptance.”
Jerry Coyne rejoiced, calling the event an “execrable parade of self-help and numinosity”, while many others criticised what they saw as a new inquisition against radical ideas led by ‘militant atheists’.
The event was initially cancelled, but then went ahead anyway under the title exTEDx.
TED then reissued a set of guidelines to their TEDx organisers for booking speakers, specifically warning them about “the fusion of science and spirituality” and reminding them that the criteria for good science was work that “does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge”, guidelines which would rule out any theories that truly challenged the status quo.
The controversy culminated in what was intended to be a crescendo two weeks ago with a contribution from fifteen of America’s most senior academics specialising in consciousness, organised by ‘self-help guru’ Deepak Chopra on the Huffington Post. They called for a public debate on the subject. A call that was met with a response from TED, but a silence from the materialist faction that spoke volumes about how bitterly divided the two camps have become, and how they are now simply talking past each other.
The scientists that allied themselves with Chopra, while garlanded with titles from reputable universities, all had titles like ‘Consciousness Studies’, titles which, for the materialist thinkers, would disqualify them commenting on ‘reputable’ science.
Christian de Quincey, Professor of Philosophy and Consciousness Studies, at John F. Kennedy University, summed up the prevailing view of the critics: “The standard scientific story is that “obviously” mind is produced by the brain, and that all aspects of consciousness can be reduced to electrochemical events between neurons. Anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is obviously “woo-woo,” a “fraud,” or a “pseudoscientist.”
“Of course, nothing of the sort is “obvious” at all. No-one, no scientist, no philosopher, no self-appointed guardian of media “truth”–can even begin to explain how purely physical brain events could ever “squirt out” subjective experiences. This is a metaphysical issue more than a scientific one.”
The materialists fear that ‘consciousness’ could be used as a ruse to smuggle religion back into science by the back door.
“This is a major problem for TED’s brand,” Sheldrake said, “do they alienate their atheist followers, including members of their “Brain Trust” like Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker, by persisting in giving a platform to talks that upset them? Or do they placate the atheists, to avoid vague charges of “pseudoscience” that could damage their mainstream credibility in corporations and educational institutions?”
“Chris Anderson has tried to steer a middle course, by not exactly censoring the talks, but putting a health warning on them. But disillusioned TED fans are now seeing TED as an agent of materialist orthodoxy, which is not good for their former image as a forum for new and exciting ideas.”
And they are in danger of losing the new generation entirely, the eager and animated free thinkers like Amrita who have powered the exponential growth of the TEDx-branded events.
“We were guided by the advice that TED gives for identifying great speakers, which was as follows. Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world.”
“It’s interesting how TED’s actions have proven Rupert’s central thesis which is that science has become an ideology which is not truly open to being questioned. As the organisers, we can’t really complain since according to some estimations, these two talks have been the most popular TED videos of all time taking into account given the length of time they have been online and the number of comments received. So we think this is quite an achievement and are delighted that these debates which clearly need to take place are happening publicly.”