Latest news from those kinky scientists who live out on the edge. Damn heretics.

Speed of Light May Vary

It seems the Universe has a sense of humour, as hot on the heels of the TEDx fiasco in which talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock were removed from YouTube, comes some scientific backing for one of Sheldrake's claims: that the speed of light may actually not be a constant, but vary:

Two forthcoming European Physical Journal D papers challenge established wisdom about the nature of vacuum. In one paper, Marcel Urban from the University of Paris-Sud, located in Orsay, France and his colleagues identified a quantum level mechanism for interpreting vacuum as being filled with pairs of virtual particles with fluctuating energy values. As a result, the inherent characteristics of vacuum, like the speed of light, may not be a constant after all, but fluctuate.

Meanwhile, in another study, Gerd Leuchs and Luis L. Sánchez-Soto, from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Light in Erlangen, Germany, suggest that physical constants, such as the speed of light and the so-called impedance of free space, are indications of the total number of elementary particles in nature.

Someone send the memo to Jerry Coyne...

TED to 'Reframe' Arguments Against Talks by Hancock and Sheldrake

TED - Ideas Worth Censoring

An update to last week's post about TED's removal (from YouTube) of talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake: after a weekend of being slammed for both the removal of the videos, and the manner in which they handled it (ie. making up complaints about the talks), TED have edited the page to include a blistering response from Rupert Sheldrake, and retracted the comments originally made (by striking through the text, rather than simply deleting the text). They have also issued a follow-up response to the controversy, which will be clarified further in the next day.

Update: TED have posted separate pages for viewing the videos and discussing them further:

I've posted excerpts below, with a few points that I think TED need to address further:

When Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks were flagged, the majority of the board recommended we remove them from circulation, pointing out questionable suggestions and arguments in both talks. But there was a counter view that removing talks that had already been posted would lead to accusations of censorship. It’s also the case that both speakers explicitly take on mainstream scientific opinion. This gives them a stronger reason to be listened to than those who simply use scientific sounding language to make nonsensical claims. So we decided we would not remove the talks from the web altogether, but simply transfer them to our own site where they could be framed in a way which included the critique of our board, but still allow for an open conversation about them.

What happened next was unfortunate. We wrote to the TEDx organizer indicating our intention and asking her to take the talks off Youtube so that we could repost. She informed the speakers of what was coming, but somehow the part about the talks staying online got lost in translation. Graham Hancock put out an immediate alert that he was about to be “censored”, his army of passionate supporters deluged us with outraged messages, and we then felt compelled to accelerate our blog post and used language that in retrospect was clumsy. We suggested that we were flagging the talks because of “factual errors” but some of the specific examples we gave were less than convincing.

We would like to try again.

RE "specific examples we gave were less than convincing". Actually they were fictions. Don't couch them in terms as if they weren't the most convincing reasons you could have used. They. Were. Fiction. This is a serious matter. It also gets to the heart of the action - were these fictions the reasons given by the 'scientific board', or were they the unfortunate actions of whomever put up the blog (which I find hard to believe, that they would be given the freedom to make up reasons and attribute them to the science advisory board). Whomever is to blame, are they being disciplined for defaming Hancock and Sheldrake? Why is there no apology in this post for such an unprofessional course of action - I hope the subsequent post includes one.

RE "somehow the part about the talks staying online got lost in translation." I think most people considered the removal from YouTube (and therefore ability to be embedded...y'know, the whole "ideas worth spreading bit"?) to be the main part of the action. People commenting on the post were well aware that the videos had been reposted, but still felt offended. Additionally, I think most of the "outraged messages" from supporters of Hancock were in reaction to the fictional complaints that TED inserted into the post. Going through those comments, there are even a number of people who specifically said they were *not* supporters of the pair, but were still outraged.

We plan to repost both talks in individual posts on our blog tomorrow, Tuesday; note a couple of areas where scientists or the community have raised questions or concerns about the talks; and invite a reasoned discussion from the community. And there will be a simple rule regarding responses. Reason only. No insults, no intemperate language. From either side.

RE: "note a couple of areas where scientists or the community have raised questions or concerns about the talks". I'm hoping the "scientists" mentioned include the 'scientific advisory board' for TED, seeing as they were apparently the ones who decided the talks had to come down for some specific reason. And again, if you want "reasoned responses", it would be best to start with truth rather than fictional slurs against the authors.

We will use the reasoned comments in this conversation to help frame both our guidelines going forward, and our process for managing talks that are called into question.

If this is true then I welcome the discussion. I hope it will be more than just paying lip service to disgruntled TED viewers (seeing as the initial 'community consultation' on the talks appears to have completely ignored the majority view that they should be kept in circulation.

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.

ZOMG won't somebody think of the children?! Seriously, if a kid can travel to South America and get their hands on some ayahuasca, I'm pretty certain they're at a stage of life where they should be taking (and hopefully want to be taking) responsibility for their own actions, rather than blaming a TED talk. And you better send a memo to Wade Davis for his talks as well...

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.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, TED has previously set certain marks via talks by Wade Davis, Elizabeth Gilbert and others. I think they will find it difficult to rationalise their decision if these two talks are compared to some of those on any criteria, from 'unscientific ideas' through to drug use.

Hopefully TED's post tomorrow clarifies things better, and perhaps starting with a proper apology might help as well...

TED Deletes Talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock

Last month I posted videos of two recent thought-provoking TEDx talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake. However, if you visit either of those stories today, you'll find that the videos are no longer accessible. The reason? Complaints were made to the TED organisation - for example, by atheist blogger Jerry Coyne, and of course, P.Z. Myers - about the lectures being unscientific and full of 'woo'. Under pressure from these bloggers and their readers (and others), TED set up a conversation page to get input from TED viewers about these talks.

Subsequently, TED made a final decision to pull the videos from their YouTube channel. This provoked a storm of anger towards TED on social networks about censorship, and perhaps because of this the videos have now turned up in their own special blog post on the TED site where they can be viewed (though they can no longer be externally embedded on other websites). Responding to the criticism, TED staff claimed "We’re not censoring the talks. Instead we’re placing them here, where they can be framed to highlight both their provocative ideas and the factual problems with their arguments."

Now firstly, I want to say that I think censorship is a slightly extreme description of what has happened. TED are a brand, and though I haven't seen a TED contract I'd imagine they are not compelled to post video of every talk that is hosted under their banner. If they don't like a talk, they have the right to remove it. What others think of them doing so is another matter – it's certainly not far from 'censorship', at least of certain ideas, in my book (as one commenter quipped on the TED website, "You’re correct, it isn’t censorship. It’s just cowardly and patronising"). But I think they *have* created a real issue now, by reposting the videos within a blog post that frames them with introductions saying they contain "serious factual errors", and I'd like to quickly go over some of these points to clarify why I think this is a problem. I'm going to concentrate on Graham Hancock's talk, because I don't have the free time at the moment to go over both talks point by point.

I have watched Graham Hancock's talk a number of times, breaking down the points, and I simply cannot find the "serious factual errors" in it that TED claims as the reason for taking it down (I've embedded a re-uploaded copy of his talk above - not sure whether TED will have this taken down at some stage though). The TED blog that frames Graham Hancock's talk puts forward these complaints about his talk as reasons for the video being pulled:

"He misrepresents what scientists actually think. He suggests, for example, that no scientists are working on the problem of consciousness."

"Hancock makes statements about psychotropic drugs that seem both nonscientific and reckless."

"He states as fact that psychotropic drug use is essential for an "emergence into consciousness"

"[He states] that one can use psychotropic plants to connect directly with an ancient mother culture."

"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-archaeology."

These are amazing statements from the TED staff, because I can find absolutely no evidence in Graham's talk for any of these accusations. Go ahead and watch the talk over, looking for these supposed statements or claims in it. So misleading are they, that I can only assume they haven't even watched the talk and are simply repeating accusations from some of the emails sent to them by the obnoxious, whining bloggers involved. Let me be clear by saying it again: the accusations against Graham Hancock which have been given for the pulling of his talk are completely without basis. The TED staff should be questioned on these claims (and as a consequence, the pulling of the video altogether) and be held to account by posting supportive evidence for them, or simply remove them (and perhaps reinstate the videos).

Graham is actually very careful to frame any speculation - moreso than many other TED talks I've watched, ironically. For instance, ... Read More »

What's the Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host of the most excellent Closer to Truth series on PBS, poses the question "What's the Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe?" to Singularity guru Ray Kurzweil. I'm skeptical of a few things Kurzweil says, but it's a fascinating question all on its own, and enjoyed hearing his answer.

TEDx Talk: Rupert Sheldrake on 'The Science Delusion'

Update: TED have pulled Rupert Sheldrake's talk for being 'unscientific'. You can read more details about the this controversy here on TDG.

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books, including The Science Delusion (Science Set Free in the US). Here he is talking about 'The Science Delusion' at a TEDx event held recently at Whitechapel:

The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality, in principle. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. The impressive achievements of science seemed to support this confident attitude. But recent research has revealed unexpected problems at the heart of physics, cosmology, biology, medicine and psychology. Dr Rupert Sheldrake shows how the sciences are being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. Should science be a belief-system, or a realm of enquiry? Sheldrake argues that science would be better off without its dogmas: freer, more interesting and more fun.

EdgeScience #13

Issue 13 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 13

  • Paul Devereux reports on the "Anomalies I Have Known".
  • Antonella Vannini and Ulisse Di Corpo discuss how Einstein swept retrocausality under the rug.
  • John L. Petersen explores the world of channeling.
  • Massimo Biondi reviews Raymond Moody's book Glimpses of Eternity.

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 13 from the SSE website, or the print version from MagCloud. If you do grab the free PDF, please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication.

An Animated Tour of the Invisible

Gravity. The stars in day. Thoughts. The human genome. Time. Atoms. So much of what really matters in the world is impossible to see. A stunning animation of John Lloyd's classic TEDTalk from 2009, which will make you question what you actually know.

EdgeScience #12

Issue 12 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 12

  • Rafael Locke contemplates whether it is possible to study conscious experience using scientifically verifiable methods.
  • William F. Bengston explores the difficulties in overcoming 'The Boggle Factor' in fringe science.
  • Larry Dossey discusses "Interconnectedness" in regards to medicine.
  • Michael Davidson reviews Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's book, "The Woman Who Changed Her Brain".

The latest EdgeScience comes with this message from the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE):

For the past three years the SSE has been offering copies of EdgeScience to the public free of charge. In order to continue doing so, we need your help. Obviously, we would like you to become a member of SSE, in which case you would receive the latest digital issue of EdgeScience as it is published. You would also receive the quarterly Journal of Scientific Exploration, as well as other member benefits.

Click HERE to join SSE.

2012 European SSE Conference

The 2012 meeting of the European branch of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) is being held this week (18th - 21st) in Drogheda, Ireland, under the title/theme of "Mapping Time, Mind and Space ". With speakers including Rupert Sheldrake, Paul Devereux, Brenda Dunne, Bob Jahn, and Erlendur Haraldsson, a group visit to the nearby Boyne Valley prehistoric monuments (including Newgrange), and an evening with one of Ireland’s few remaining authentic seanchaí or traditional storytellers, Eddie Lenihan, this conference should be well worth the effort if you can make it.

The full conference program is available on the website, with links to abstracts (wow, some fascinating topics in there!). It's open to the general public, so if you want to register, see the links on the front page.

Consciousness Through the Prism of the Simulation Argument

Inside The Matrix

There's a cool article at Vice at the moment titled "Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?", which discusses the idea that we are living inside a computer simulation. This isn't something new to us here at the Grail - we've covered Nick Bostrom's thoughts on the topic previously (e.g. "The Matrix in the Mainstream"). The Vice piece though talks to Rich Terrile, a planetary scientist with NASA, who is also exploring the concept that our universe - and the conscious beings within it - is one great simulation (possibly within another simulation, and so on...turtles all the way down!).

One of the points Terrile makes is something I've pondered myself previously. When playing a game, in order to make most efficient use of processing power and memory, the computer will only 'construct' the part of the world that you need to see/interact with at any one time, rather than the entire 'world' that you are playing in. This brought to mind the concept and controversy in quantum physics of an observer-created world (eg. does the Moon exist if we're not looking at it?). Terrile has considered the same thing:

The other interesting thing is that the natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV. In the game, you can explore Liberty City seamlessly in phenomenal detail. I made a calculation of how big that city is, and it turns out it’s a million times larger than my PlayStation 3. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.

Regardless of whether the theory is correct, I find it an interesting - almost necessary - thought experiment, for trying to understand how the cosmos may differ from what we think is obvious. In the case of the observation above, suddenly the idea "we're not the centre of the universe" becomes completely wrong again - indeed, 'the universe' only exists at any one time in limited space around our centre of being. Could we explain this new way of looking at the universe to someone from the 19th century, without the examples of computer games and quantum physics to draw on? If not, by extension, what different perspectives and insights into the nature of existence will the people of the 31st century have, as compared to us?

And Terrile himself seems to suffer from our vulnerability to being trapped within the dominant paradigm, even while contemplating the simulation argument:

Unless you believe there’s something magical about consciousness — and I don’t, I believe it’s the product of a very sophisticated architecture within the human brain — then you have to assume that at some point it can be simulated by a computer, or in other words, replicated.

That's right, the man who is proposing that our consciousness may be resulting from an algorithm courtesy of an external creator, or being 'inserted' into a simulation from some other place, doesn't believe there is something "magical" about consciousness. And yet these sorts of ideas have been discussed for many a year in regards to psi and life-after-death arguments (for example, see Michael Grosso's thoughts on 'transmission theory').

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