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 below – 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, when discussing the ‘encounters’ had under the influence of ayahuasca, he is clear in saying that he is “making no claim one way or another as to the reality status of these entities we encounter, simply that phenomenologically, in the ayahuasca experience they are encountered by people all over the world.” When introducing the possibility that human culture was born from experimentation with psychedelics, he explicitly says that it is exactly that – a possibility…in fact he even calls it a “radical” possibility – and what’s more is clear in saying that these are suggestions by other researchers: “Over the last 30 years, researchers led by Prof. David Lewis-Williams…and many others, have suggested an intriguing and radical possibility. Which is that this emergence into consciousness was triggered by our ancestors’ encounters with visionary plants, and the beginnings of shamanism.” In discussing the idea that shamanic plants might be useful in bringing about change in the world, he remains objective by saying that “rightly or wrongly, [shamans] believe that ayahuasca is the remedy for that sickness”. The only possible factual problem I could identify was the claim that the ancient Egyptians used the blue water lily and the acacia species to achieve altered states – which many have speculated upon, though I’m not sure there is incontrovertible proof for. Hardly, “serious factual errors” for which a talk should be removed from their site for though.
Graham’s own discussion of his ‘healing’ by ‘Mother Ayahuasca’ may well be the part that sent atheist bloggers into their spittle-on-the-lip frenzied whinefest. But he had clearly already introduced the topic by saying he made no claim for the reality of such beings, only that this ‘meeting’ had significant phenomenological effects on his life – and this type of experience is something we should all recognise, as we have inner dialogues all the time. Was it Graham’s subconscious talking to him? Was it truly a nature goddess? We don’t know (well, I’m sure Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers will tell you that they know), and Graham doesn’t claim to know either in his talk either.
Maybe TED is wary of speakers promoting drug use, as one of the complaints refers to “reckless” talk about psychedelics. But Graham plainly warns that “it’s no joke to drink ayahuasca… Nobody is doing this for recreation… and I’d like to add that I don’t think any of the psychedelics should be used for recreation”. He then goes on to talk about how these difficult ayahuasca sessions helped him kick his habit of smoking cannabis, which he describes as having been “a monkey on his back”.
Or perhaps it was just Graham’s critiques of science? Again, though, Graham didn’t call out all of science – he directly referred to ‘materialist science’, and his mention is only in the context of what it can tell us about the possibility that consciousness is separate to the body: “This is the paradigm of all spiritual traditions… Really, if we want to know about this mystery the last people we should ask are materialist reductionist scientists.” But he had just prefaced that statement by giving space to the materialist view: “It could be that the brain generates consciousness, the way a generator makes electricity – if you hold to that paradigm, then of course you can’t believe in life after death”.
Taking in all the possible evidence ‘against’ Graham Hancock’s talk that may have caused TED to pull it from their site, I can only say that if TED wants to remove it for the reasons they have, they have put themselves on a serious slippery slope to having to remove a number of their most popular talks. Discussing negative aspects of materialist science and talking to imaginary entities are problems? Better get rid of Elizabeth Gilbert’s discussion of artists and the concept of the muse. The idea of earth spirits and shamanic navigation of altered states of consciousness as being another model of reality far too ‘woo’ for TED? Better remove Wade Davis’s TED talks. Holism and being at one with the Universe too kooky for you? Get a bit of delete key action happening on Jill Bolte Taylor’s mega-popular TED talk. “Reckless” talk about positive aspects to psychedelics? Buh-bye Tim Brown. (Please don’t actually do this TED, they are awesome talks and I am just playing devil’s advocate)
It’s rather ironic that Graham Hancock concludes his talk by invoking the right to free speech in order to call for the right to sovereignty over our own consciousness, only to have TED pull the video. The pulling of these videos is symptomatic of a larger problem in scientific orthodoxy and the skeptical movement: the idea that the general public need smarter people – ie. skeptics and scientists – to judge what content is fit for consumption, and reject anything that might just blow out the flickering candle of rationality. Instead of promoting thinking, TED are trying to think for others.
This incident is an absolute embarrassment for TED. Not because of the content of the talks delivered, but instead their weak reaction in the face of pressure from whining individuals who I don’t want speaking, let alone thinking, on my behalf. Disappointed is an understatement.