TED: A Choice Point

Originally, the thesis of this essay was going to be that TED, contrary to its reputation for promoting innovative ideas, excludes ideas that are truly radical or disruptive, contributing instead to a slickly packaged narrative of “Gee whiz, thanks to these nifty ideas, the world is getting better all the time.” TED is, I thought, a conservative institution, a champion of our culture's dominant narratives. It isn't hard to make that case, but when I cast my net a little wider and crowd-sourced some research, I discovered the situation is not quite so simple.

The two recent incidents that motivated my original thesis were (1) The suppression of TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, and (2) The withdrawal of TED support from TEDxWestHollywood (now proceeding this weekend as ExTEDxWestHollywood (free livestream here). In both cases, the rationale that TED eventually settled on was that the speakers and events were “far removed from mainstream scientific thinking.” The blogger C4Chaos says a lot of what is on my mind about that. TED's original justification, with rebuttals by the two speakers, can be found here. (Actually this is rewritten from the original critique, which has been expunged from the web.)

It is certainly true that the work of Sheldrake, Hancock, and many of the WestHollywood speakers is far removed from mainstream scientific thinking.Part of the mythology of science is that cogent thinking equals scientific thinking, and that therefore anything that science rejects is likely founded on shoddy reasoning, poor observation, self-delusion, or perhaps outright fraud. This belief depends on two assumptions: that the Scientific Method is superior to other sources of knowledge, and that the institution of science honestly upholds and applies the Scientific Method. Granting all that, we can draw a convenient line in accepting or rejecting new ideas by asking, “Is this idea consistent with accepted science?”

But what if these assumptions are not true? In their talks, Graham Hancock questioned the first, and Rupert Sheldrake the second. Sheldrake (a credentialed scientist with a Master's from Harvard, Ph.D. from Cambridge, and numerous publications in cell and plant biology) described how the exclusion of dissident viewpoints and anomalous data from science obscures cracks in its basic worldview. Of course a critique of mainstream scientific thinking is going to be “far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking.” By withholding its imprimatur, TED seems to be saying that such a critique is out of bounds, no matter how cogent or articulate. Unintentionally, TED's actions have illustrated Sheldrake's point.

TED's alignment with conventional thinking extends beyond science. For example, in taking down Hancock's talk, TED curator Chris Anderson mentioned that they don't want young people running off to South America to take ayahuasca thinking TED has approved it. So here is an implicit alignment with the dominant narrative that illegal drugs are bad, and that it is irresponsible to do such a thing as run off to the Amazon. As with Sheldrake, I see an irony here: Hancock was making the point that our conventional means of apprehending consciousness exclude something important.

More broadly, TED generally seems to stand for several overarching principles that are foundational to our civilization's dominant narratives: that technology is a force for good, that technological solutions exist to all our problems, that life is getting better and better. The TED presentation aesthetic communicates a can-do spirit, offering a kind of showcase for the Next Great Thing. Unsurprising, given its origin as a celebration of “technology, entertainment, and design.”

It is also worth noting that scientific orthodoxy and technology evangelism go hand in hand. If the Scientific Method is indeed capable of unlocking the mechanisms of nature, and if the institution of science embodies the accumulated fruits of its unbiased application, it stands to reason that increasing control, via technology, will accompany increasing understanding via science. To question fundamental scientific precepts casts doubt upon the efficacy of technology as well. If there are vast realms of nature and human experience that science (as we know it) has not fathomed, then perhaps technology bears parallel limitations.

The challenge to science (as an institution if not as a method) that Sheldrake, Hancock, and several of the exTEDxWestHollywood speakers pose implicates much more than science. For instance, science has often been an agent of colonialism, devaluing and replacing indigenous ways of knowing. It has been an agent of social control, celebrating as progress the transition from traditional, organic, community-based modes of interaction to those which are planned, optimized, centralized, and engineered. It has often been an agent of economic and ecological exploitation, disregarding and destroying anything it cannot or will not measure. TED's genuflection toward science (as institution), and in particular an intransigent faction within that institution, is actually a defense, however unwitting, of a primary pillar of the world as we know it.

Given all of this, one would expect TED to confine itself across the board to entertaining, clever ideas that pose little threat to the status quo. But it turns out that this is by no means uniformly the case. Many TEDx talks, and even some in the official TED conference, advance ideas that overtly or covertly challenge prevailing ideologies on a fairly deep level. My crowd of researchers (I put the question on Facebook) found a bunch of radical talks on economics, education, and the political system. There are even quite a few that challenge scientific paradigms but for some reason didn't attract the ire of the militant atheists who flagged Sheldrake (he is their public enemy #1). Many more don't present a direct challenge, but are still subversive in more muted ways, for example by empowering people toward some kind of non-participation in the system. Ultimately, anything that inspires wonder, joy, forgiveness, love of nature, the feeling of connectedness, or generosity erodes the sponsoring myth of our culture and everything built upon it: that we are separate individuals in a world of other that we must conquer and control. TED appears to be defending that myth and assualting it at the same time.

Whence this schizophrenia? We as a civilization are undergoing a transition to a new (and perhaps very ancient) mythology, one in which we no longer understand ourselves as separate from each other and from nature, one in which we see the universe as intelligent through and through. Upon that narrative (which is contrary to some fundamental tenets of science), radically different kinds of social, economic, and technological systems will emerge. Today, that transition is barely underway. We all live with a foot in two worlds, striving toward a new but in many ways unconsciously clinging to the old. In that, the TED authorities are essentially no different from any of us.

We would like for there to be some familiar institution that we can trust, something of the old world that we can cling to as a sound repository of goodness, from which we can challenge all that is wrong. For some that comforting refuge is science – the one good apple in the barrel of our rotten institutions. For others it is religion, education, medicine, or information technology. If only people were better educated! If only they listened to science! And the Internet will change everything! Certainly, all of these institutions harbor positive evolutionary forces, but in main they are all integral components of a world-devouring, soul-devouring machine.

No doubt, TED's inner circle sees the potential for a more beautiful world. That world is at once tantalizingly close and impossibly distant. On the one hand, we don't need any new technology to reach it; if we could only change our perceptions and social agreements, if only billions of us had a change of heart, we could be living right now in paradise. As I like to point out, half the world wastes enough food to feed the other half. On the other hand, such a shift – which would have to encompass the money system, politics, law, and the way we see each other and the world – is so huge as to seem impossible. Consider: how close is it to political reality to disband all armies, cease all weapons production, abolish all borders, cancel most debt, and adopt already-existing upcycling and permaculture technologies on a mass scale? That is the degree of change we need to save our world. None of these things (armies, borders, money, etc.) are written into material reality. They are products of our agreements.

Perhaps it is in realization of this that TED champions the power of “ideas.” Many of the ideas promulgated via TED do indeed erode the foundation of what people consider normal or unchangeable. But as the recent contretemps reveals, TED is still wedded to the old narrative in some important ways.

The controversy over Sheldrake, Hancock, and exTEDxWestHollywood refuses to go away. Might that suggest that TED is being offered an opportunity to define itself? TED faces a choice point. Either it can retreat into the doctrines of establishment science and all that goes along with it, or it can accept this invitation to take a new step into the open questioning of the basic assumptions of our world. This needn't imply an endorsement of Sheldrake's or Hancock's views. It is merely to validate a new realm of inquiry. To do this requires no small amount of courage, because there are many rewards for adhering to the dominant ideologies. One gets taken seriously. One becomes, as Anderson himself put it, safe for the classroom – and safe for corporate sponsors, for mainstream media exposure, and other rewards for playing by the rules of the system.

This system, however, is falling apart, along with the ideologies and narratives that underlie it. This is just as true in the realm of science as it is in politics, finance, medicine, and education. The contradictions, shortcomings, and anomalies that people like Rupert Sheldrake illuminate in the edifice of science are not going away. But again, it takes courage to flout the normative belief system we call science.

How can we help TED – or anyone, for that matter – find the courage to take this step? First, I think it is important to refrain from publicly leveling accusations like “shameful,” “hypocritical,” and “cowardly” against TED. Such epithets will only cause them to harden their position. (Nor are they true. From within their perceptual framework, everything they are doing is fully justified.) We should be unwaveringly polite even as we are firm in upholding our beliefs. Both Sheldrake and Hancock exemplified this approach with their calm, courteous, and thorough rebuttals of the accusations against them.

Secondly, we should be vocal in our support for expanding the realm of acceptable inquiry, and make it clear that it is not a tiny fringe of airheads and cranks that supports the questioning of the basic tenets of science. No one wants to be subject to the slurs that militant atheists use (“woo-woo,” “pseudoscience,” “airy-fairy,” etc.) We have to demonstrate that such a characterization is inaccurate.

With this in mind, I have a modest proposal that I'd like to extend to anyone who has (as I have) spoken at a TED or TEDx event. I propose that we respectfully request that our videos be taken down from TED-affiliated youtube channels just as Sheldrake's and Hancock's were. One might frame this as an act in solidarity with two fellow speakers who received shabby treatment, but really, I have no ax to grind. I do not want to punish TED, or make them regret their actions, or set them up as the bad guy. It is simply this: TED says it doesn't want to implicitly endorse the views of these men by having them associated with the TED brand. By the same token, I would prefer not to implicitly endorse TED's repudiation of the realm of inquiry those two (and TEDxWestHollywood) represent, by having my “brand” associated with TED.

Besides, my TEDx talk was full of scientifically indefensible assertions. I said, “Everything we have done to the Eskimo curlew or passenger pigeon is a wound we feel all the time and suffer from.” I invoke scientifically suspect concepts like morphic fields and water memory in support for the scientifically nonsensical concept of “interbeing.” And I say, “The world we see around us is built on a story,” when any scientist could tell you it is, in fact, built on objectively existing fundamental particles. I feel uncomfortable having my talk standing, when more cogent, more eloquent talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, with years of research behind them, are suppressed. I am going to write to TED and request that my talks be taken down, and I encourage any other speakers who agree with what I have said, or who feel disturbed by the recent acts of suppression, to do the same. This isn't a struggle against the bad guy. I appreciate TED and think they have showcased some important ideas and inspiring speakers. This is, rather, an attempt to clarify the choice between stories, for me, for TED, and for its audience.




  1. You are beautifully generous and generously inclusive.

    My experience has been that TED initially did express thought leadership but that over the years it has latched itself onto the superficial, obvious and sensational. I would ask your researchers to place their findings on a time line and see what is revealed.

    As in many things I find that Robert Pirsig’s description of the dynamics of Quality fits. TED began out of an experience of Dynamic Quality but it has stagnated away from that source. At first it seemed to deteriorate into a dominantly intellectual phase and has now settled in a social popularity phase – a Circus of the Intellect. I do not know that this dynamic can be reversed.

  2. Thank you for educating us once again, Charles. I have listened to TED talks for years, and really appreciated the fresh ideas. Although I have not always agreed with some of the perspectives shared, I could not imagine some of these talks being eliminated because some of us disagreed. I appreciate your thoughtful response to this, and would add that perhaps you could suggest to your readers, especially on Facebook, that they also have the right to give input to TED, and that if they do you hope they will be considerate and respectful in their conveyance. I see this as another way of joining together in community – with the challenge of trying something new, many folks resort to just blasting who/whatever they don’t like. This is an opportunity to learn a new skill/approach while in action for the good of the whole.

  3. I find the exact same internal struggles within me that has lead TED to define themselves in this way. Some days I find myself steering toward the same type thinking, others will judge me so I must define my thinking and understanding to match that which is around me. Other days when I give myself permission my line of thinking is far from what is represented in my daily experience. It’s far more magical and imaginative. Those days are the best I am at peace unconcerned about right or wrong. This connection makes me much more unperdictable and invariably leads toward more rewarding experiences. Lead by doing, the rest will take care of itself!

  4. I opened a new browser to google a ted talk for Dr. Bruce Lipton, as well. None. I guess Ted has the opp like you say to redefine itself. Yet, it is the people who are listening on Youtube and Internet Radio to Sheldrake, Lipton, Tom Campbell (physicist) and others who are leading edge thinkers in science that will tilt the listening audience to mainstream. Then it will be science not pseudo science. I put my vote on social media, the people, and the awakening that is in process…

    • What is bad science will remain so regardless of its acceptance by the mainstream audience. It will always be pseudo science. It would be a very bad outcome for all of us if actual science were replaced with something less rigorous. The beauty of real science is that it requires evidence and its theories must be used to successfully make accurate predictions.

      • This is one of the points, actually. It’s not like “if it’s not science, it does not exist”. Other approaches exist. Different forms of knowledge and its transmission. Emotions. Stories. Experiences. Relations. To name a few. Leave them behind, and you have a world which is much poorer.
        There’s even scientific evidence for this fact 🙂
        I think this article raises many really important issues.

      • It seldom serves to go to the place of absolutes. While it may seem that what is now pseudo science will always and forever be so, history seems to say that, after long filtering, some of what is regarded as “pseudo” today will be proven as valid as anything we all agree is real science today.

        By the same token, some real science will be proven, over time, to be just as wrong as what you label today as false.

        We need the folks who are probing the limits to continue to do so. They open the avenue of inquiry for those willing to investigate, be they scientists or not.

  5. Once again, your articles are always well written and make full sense! TED stands at a point that I hardly think they will ever come to recover, unless they change their attitude!

  6. Well said, in fact eloquently well said. I think your decision bears much merit and shows support for both sides. Are you going to show your stuff on exTed? Thank you for voicing your view and stimulating others to think on this issue

  7. Great idea. A voluntary request to remove your affiliation with TED may at least give them pause. Better still if a dozen do it.

  8. Personally I think Sheldrake has done some much more scientifically grounded work than Handcock. I understand Handcock being taken down but not so much with Sheldrake.

  9. How could I love you more? Am working on it. In the meantime, TED got our Livestream taken down. These people play hardball! But we are risen — again. New Livestream link: https://new.livestream.com/newparadigm/newparadigmevent. We have two days to get the word out — all help appreciated. Wait, I have to tell you I love you, again. What a smart idea to request talks go down. Let’s spread the word about that, too. More info about us and our program: http://www.TEDxWestHollywood.com

    Suzanne Taylor, the Ex TEDxWestHollywood organizer.

  10. TED is waging war against human empathy. The font of our conscious thoughts. Technology and mechanistic science cannot control or fully explain the workings of our cosmic Will. Science will always be revealing deep cracks and blind spots until people sit down and consider “the whole person”.

  11. Well, scientific thinking says that if you have even one experiment out of line with your theory, then you should adjust your theory or come up with a new one that does explain the experiment. At the moment, conventional science is faced with innumerable things it cannot explain. I believe the biggest joke is that conventional physics claims that 27% of the universe consists of dark matter and 68% dark energy. In effect this means that they can say nothing whatsoever about 85% of the universe, other than it’s there and they have no idea what it is. The same goes for the junk DNA of molecular biologists.
    It is clear that we are very near a paradigm shift that will change the way we think, act and exist. Conventional science always resists the shift, but in the end the new paradigm always wins.
    So, let’s help the world into the new paradigm by practising love and consciousness. Free your mind and the rest will follow!

  12. Charles! You captured the heart and spirit of the more beautiful world in this post and you put it into tangible, compassionate action. This post expresses the world I want to live in.

  13. Do you think it may be possible, that by requesting your talk be taken down, that TED may be more likely to ‘retreat into the doctrines of establishment’? If your talks discuss ‘scientifically indefensible assertions’, is this not part of a necessary prerequisite to TED accepting the invitation to step into the radical and transformational mind set?” Are you planning on distancing your talk in the long term, or thinking that perhaps with increased dialogue with TED, that a compromise state may be reached and you would allow your talk to be put back up? Thank you for the great article.

  14. what I loved about reading this entry, was that just an hour ago I read a quote from Albert Einstein, ” I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”

  15. Charles, were you feeling triggered when you wrote this? It feels different than many of your other essays.

    I am grateful that this controversy brought those two talks to my attention. I enjoyed them both very much.

  16. That was so beautiful, eloquent and insightful!! The truth spoken so clearly and I do hope that other TED speakers are inspired to do the same…to request that they too be removed from You Tube.

  17. thank you charles. incredibly well thought out and stated.

    in our overwhelming experience of awe and joy at all the incredible things, culturally and scientifically, that technology provides (myself included), we seem to have lost any sense of critically thought out ethics – an acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the suffering of others.

    we will need as much ideological transformation as scientific innovation to solve our predicament. but will we..?

    ‘That world is at once tantalizingly close and impossibly distant. On the
    one hand, we don’t need any new technology to reach it; if we could
    only change our perceptions and social agreements, if only billions of
    us had a change of heart, we could be living right now in paradise. As I
    like to point out, half the world wastes enough food to feed the other

  18. This say’s it all:

    Ultimately, anything that inspires wonder, joy, forgiveness, love of nature, the feeling of connectedness, or generosity erodes the sponsoring myth of our culture and everything built upon it: that we are separate individuals in a world of other that we must conquer and control. TED appears to be defending that myth and assualting it at the same time.

  19. What I really like about this conversation is that is a public exchnage between a community of elders. Who now qualify to sit around a global fire and chat openly about how we inform ourselves about our opportunities, our desired global discourse, and when it is that that people not institutions actually can call the shots about how we might design yet a better way to carry on the discussions that matter.

  20. Kudos Charles. This is authentic leadership, bridge building and courageous loyalty not just to Sheldrake and Hancock but the greater idea of an expanding consciousness and paradigm. This is what the work needs and hopefully TED will at this choice point look into its heart and leap forward into freedom.

  21. Sheldrake has invited his critics to run their own tests to replicate
    his experiments, such as setting up a double blind observation to see if
    there is something other than routine that allows a dog to know when
    it’s owner is coming home. I don’t think he has had any takers. Where
    would the funding come from? The veterinary department? I know it is
    out of date but The Outsider, by Colin Wilson, said it well: Any major
    breakthrough in a realm of thought is going to come from outsiders. The
    insiders are too invested in the status quo — and the grants that go
    with it.

  22. As a practical (but certainly not militant) atheist/deist, I agree completely with your stance. Personally, I find very little of what Ruper Sheldrake has to say remotely convincing – his power to convince lies in his well-spoken, pleasant and articulate delivery, not in his content. I am not here to critique Sheldrake however, but to join in criticism of TED’s effective censorship on largely spurious grounds.

    If we all had to express ourselves in consistently scientifically-defensible ways, we’d none of us get anything done whatsoever.

    I actually gave up on TED Talks a long time ago. Onion Talks are far more illuminating.

  23. I found this article (and your work in general) awesomely brilliant and inspiring. However, I feel the need to challenge a statement you made as a parenthetical aside, as though it were obvious, which I think embodies an important misconception about science.

    You stated that the new mythology in which we no longer see ourselves as separate from nature is contrary to some fundamental tenets of science.

    I think that’s a misconception arising from a mechanistic view of the scientific paradigm that has been obsolete for nearly a century. Unfortunately, that mechanistic view still underlies most of our social structure even though it’s scientifically unsustainable.

    Indeed, much of the new mythology actually arises directly from a new understanding of science, in particular from certain ways of interpreting Quantum Mechanics. Einstein put it better than I can:

    “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

    That statement is as good a summary of the new mythology you speak of as I’ve ever seen, and it’s entirely consistent with and rooted in Einstien’s understanding of science.

  24. Charles, you put quite an emphasis on Rupert Sheldrake, and you state: ” We have to demonstrate that such a characterization is inaccurate.”

    However, until this happens, someone who comes up with hypothesis _without_ being able show reproducible results, and while possibly ignoring quite fitting explanations is possibly not the best person to be called a “credential scienctist”.

    I’m sorry to say so, but arguing that someone is an authority in a field doesn’t make the field less un-sciency. Also, he is coming from a different field. You might reconsider this argumentum ad verecundiam (“a credentialed scientist with a Master’s from Harvard, Ph.D. from Cambridge, and numerous publications in cell and plant biology”). As a scientist, I can see the merits of his works in plant biology.

    But I still can doubt his parapsychological works. And name it as it is: pseudoscience. Also, I can do it without being called a “militant atheists”, thank you very much.

    Aside from this, and the fact that taking content down is not the best idea in the age of the Streisand effect, I don’t know exactly what he was talking about. So,. prominent link, please. (Please, no links to other talks, other opinion blogposts, and esp. not to social networks!) Then, I can decide if his presented thoughts were “ideas worth spreading”. Until then, given *all* credentials, I doubt it. From experience, without doing statistics, and on a personal basis.

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