Dear TED, Is It 'Bad Science' or a 'Game of Thrones'?
One of modern science's great strengths is that any questionable finding dies a quick death if it's invalid. The safeguards are mainly two: Your new finding must be repeatable when other researchers run the same experiments, and peer review by qualified scientists subjects every new finding to microscopic scrutiny. So it surprised the millions of admirers of TED, whose conferences attract wide attention to new, cutting-edge ideas, when that organization decided to practice semi-censorship.
The flap is over two videos of TEDx talks delivered in the UK in January that were summarily removed from TEDx's YouTube channel (TEDx is the brand name for conferences outside the main TED events that are allowed to use the TED trademark, such as TEDxBoston or TEDxBaghdad -- so far, about 5,000 such events have used the name). This amounts only to semi-censorship because the videos were reposted on TED's blog site. Yet the reputations of the two presenters, Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, were besmirched. In a letter to all the TEDx organizers, Chris Anderson, the head of TED, proposed certain "red flag" topics, among them health hoaxes and the medicinal value of food but also the general area of pseudoscience. The response has been decidedly negative -- scientists don't like the suppression of free thinking -- and among the thousands of comments aired on the Internet, one pointed out that Sheldrake and Hancock spoke at a TEDx conference explicitly dedicated to ideas that challenge mainstream thinking.
There's no need to stir the coals. TED has been badly singed already. At a cursory glance, much of Anderson's letter sounds reasonable: TED has every right to give guidelines to conferences using their name. Who's in favor of health hoaxes and pseudoscience? As it happens, Sheldrake's talk was on "The Science Delusion" and covered ten dogmas in mainstream science that need to be examined; there wasn't a hint of bad science in it. Hancock's talk was on consciousness and psychedelics, a topic without fangs for anyone who has heard of the Sixties, much less lived through them. Even as the videos were begrudgingly reposted, TED felt justified in tagging them as "radical" and attaching a "health warning".
Yet something quite pivotal is occurring that inflames strong feelings. The decision to remove the two videos was apparently instigated by angry, noisy bloggers who promote militant atheism. Their target was a burgeoning field, the exploration of consciousness. For generations bringing up consciousness as a scientific topic was taboo. In the wildly popular fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, "A Game of Thrones," now running as an equally mad success on HBO, the mythical kingdom of Westeros is divided by a great wall 700 feet high. On the other side of the wall are lethal enemies and malefic magic. For centuries, no one has seen the zombie-like White Walkers who live on the other side of the wall, nor the dragons that once ravaged Westeros.
Even so, after magic and zombies fell into disbelief, a hereditary band of guardians swore an oath to keep watch at the wall, generation after generation. TED has put itself in rather the same position. What the militant atheists and self-described skeptics hate is a certain brand of magical thinking that endangers science. In particular, there is the bugaboo of "non-local consciousness," which causes the hair on the back of their necks to stand on end. A layman would be forgiven for not grasping why such an innocent-sounding phrase could spell danger to "good science."
The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled. One of us (Menas Kafatos) has devoted many years of research on the connection of quantum theory to consciousness. Four of us (Stuart Hameroff, Rudolph Tanzi, Neil Thiese, and Deepak Chopra) have devoted years of research to neuroscience, clinical studies and consciousness. For millennia it went without question that such a mind exists; it was known as God. Fearing that God is finding a way to sneak back into the kingdom through ideas of quantum consciousness, militant atheists go on the attack against near-death experiences, telepathy, action at a distance, and all manifestations of purpose-driven evolution. Like the guardians in "A Game of Thrones," these militants haven't actually looked over the wall, and given their absolute conviction that the human brain is the only source of awareness in the universe, you'd think that speculative thinking on the subject wouldn't be so threatening. (Most people wouldn't picket a convention of werewolves in their hometown. It's not hard to tell what is fantasy.)
But TED took the threat seriously enough that Anderson's letter warns against "the fusion of science and spirituality," and most disappointing of all, it tags as a sign of good science that "it does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge." Even a newcomer to science knows about Copernicus, Galileo, and other great scientists whose theories countermanded the prevailing body of accepted knowledge. Einstein believed in a static universe at a time when early proponents of an expanding universe were ignored, and the early reception of the now-popular "multiverse" theory was scornful. The greatest breakthroughs rarely come by acts of conformity.
Anderson's letter is cautiously couched on the one hand -- he takes pains to divorce his warnings from outright bans and acknowledges that the dividing line between real science and pseudoscience is hardly sharp and clear. But the dose of cold water is frigid enough, since his red-flag subjects include "healing" of any kind (his quotation marks) and using neuroscience to explain various mind-body puzzles ("a lot of goofballs" inhabit this area).
TED finds itself on the wrong side of censorship, semi- or not. But this fracas actually opens a window. The general public -- and many working scientists -- isn't aware that consciousness has become a hot topic spanning many disciplines, and its acceptability is demarked by age. Older, established scientists tend to be dead set against it, while younger, upcoming scientists are fascinated. There are any number of books on "the conscious universe." There are peer-reviewed journals on consciousness and worldwide conferences on how to link mind and brain (the so-called "hard problem"). Nobody wants to guard the wall except the self-appointed watchers and minders who form a society for the suppression of curiosity (it should be noted that TED's Science Board, which undoubtedly plays a role in this dispute, remains anonymous).
Freedom of thought is going to win out, and certainly TED must be shocked by the avalanche of disapproval Anderson's letter has met with. The real grievance here isn't about intellectual freedom but the success of militant atheists at quashing anyone who disagrees with them. Their common tactic is scorn, ridicule, and contempt. The most prominent leaders, especially Richard Dawkins, refuse to debate on any serious grounds, and indeed they show almost total ignorance of the cutting-edge biology and physics that has admitted consciousness back into "good science."
Militant atheism is a social/political movement; In no way does it deserve to represent itself as scientific. Francis Collins, a self-proclaimed Christian, is an acclaimed geneticist who heads the National Institutes of Health. To date, Collins hasn't let any White Walkers or dragons over the wall. Dawkins, who has a close association with TED, gave a TED talk in 2002 where he said the following:
"It may sound as if I am about to preach atheism. I want to reassure you that that's not what I am going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as this one, that would be preaching to the choir. [scattered laughter] No, what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism."
In a society where militant atheism occupies a prestigious niche, disbelief in God is widespread, but it isn't synonymous with science. In his mega-bestseller "The God Delusion," Dawkins proclaims that religion is "the root of all evil." He describes teaching children about religion as "child abuse." He spoke publically on the occasion of a papal visit to London calling for the Pope to be arrested for "crimes against humanity." To propose, as Dawkins does, that science supports such extremist views is an errant misuse of science, if not a form of pseudoscience.
TED is a huge enterprise bringing cutting edge ideas to the world, and local TEDx organizers will no doubt feel a chill when they read Anderson's stern reproof: "It is not your audience's job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job." If the intent of this warning wasn't explicit enough, TEDx rescinded their trademark from a recent conference in West Hollywood because of "questionable" speakers, causing the cowed organizers to cancel the event before they reconsidered and held it without the coveted brand name. A call to caution is hard to tell from a desire to censor.
One of the authors of this article (Stuart Hameroff) recently gave a TEDx talk in Tucson where he made the point that critics of the possibility of consciousness outside the brain cannot explain consciousness inside the brain. While neuroscience is at a loss, the notion of consciousness being based on finer scale, deeper order quantum effects in microtubules inside brain neurons (the Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR model) has been boosted by recent discoveries of quantum resonances in microtubules, and anesthetic action on microtubules. Quantum entanglement could account for Rupert Sheldrake's findings, and consciousness occurring outside the brain. Stuart Hameroff's TEDx talk 'The future of consciousness' explains how this can scientifically happen. Should it be censored also?
But the main flaw in TED's position has been made abundantly clear. It isn't the organizers' job to exclude questionable science but a job shared between them and the audience. We're all adults here, right? Any speculative thinking worthy of the name should make somebody in the audience angry, inspire others, and leave the rest to decide if a challenging idea should be thrown out or not. Any other approach casts shame upon tolerance, imagination, and science itself.
Deepak Chopra, MD. FACP, ChopraFoundation.org/
Stuart Hameroff, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology and Psychology, Director, Center for Consciousness Studies, The University of Arizona, www.quantumconsciousness.org
Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director, Center of Excellence, Chapman University,
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital
Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center -- Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, www.neiltheise.com