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We Need to Talk About TEDx

In the TEDx Talk embedded above, visionary artist Alex Grey gives a touching and humorous account of his journey as an artist, his metamorphosis from depressed loner to spiritually fulfilled family man, and the power of creativity, spirituality, and art in transforming our world through the transformation of human consciousness. It is inspiring and thought-provoking. And, if the recent TED debacle involving talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake are anything to go by, it will soon be removed from YouTube by TED, due to Alex discussing ‘pseudoscientific’ ideas such as psychic energies, global consciousness and the power of prayer, as well as ‘promoting’ the use of illicit drugs such as LSD and ayahuasca.

Now to be clear: I am not challenging TED to take this talk down in order to maintain consistency with the previous action of removing talks by Hancock and Sheldrake! Quite the opposite in fact. What it again highlights though, I think, is how badly TED got it wrong with the previous talks, and it goes back to the original decision that they needed to ‘patrol’ TEDx talks (which are talks given at independently organised events, sanctioned under the umbrella of the well-respected – at least until recently – TED brand name) for ‘pseudoscientific’ ideas. TED stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’, and their tagline is “Ideas worth spreading”. I’m not sure at what stage they shifted to feeling like they were a promoter for orthodox scientific thought, but it was a strange leap to make…some of their most popular talks have featured more spiritual and emotional topics, such as Jill Bolte Taylor’s presentation about her experience of having a stroke, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s call to return to the concept of ‘muses’, with an explicit challenge to modern, rational philosophy.

Now, as I said previously, TED has to be allowed to protect its brand name and reputation – even Rupert Sheldrake agrees that “there’s a lot of rubbish and there has to be some kind of filter”. Where TED got it wrong though is in reacting to pressure from orthodox (and in some cases, militant/fundamentalist) science advocates, and deciding they had to remove anything that had the slightest whiff of anti- or pseudo-science about them for fear of being castigated or ridiculed. I’m sure TED feels like it has to keep well-known scientists on its side for future validity. But even moreso it needs to keep well-informed viewers interested and engaged with ideas that provoke the mind. Sheldrake challenged what he calls the ‘dogmas’ of science head-on, but did so out of a love for science and the advancement of knowledge. Hancock presented alternative theories of evolution and consciousness worth considering, but explicitly couched them as speculative. There is little doubt that TED over-reacted in removing both of those talks, and their regrettable, spurious post-hoc reasoning for doing so stands as stark evidence of that conclusion.

This week the TED fiasco got even more farcical when they pulled the plug on the upcoming TEDxWestHollywood, with a theme named “Brother can you spare a paradigm”. The speakers involved included scientists such as Marilyn Schlitz from the Institute of Noetic Sciences and remote-viewing pioneer Russell Targ, and TED officials looked into some sort of (very rational!) crystal ball they have and predicted that some of the speakers would “use the language of science to claim they have proven the truth of ideas that are speculative”. That statement lies at the heart of the problem with their takedown of Hancock and Sheldrake’s talks as well – they seem to be extrapolating from people talking about concepts, and presenting challenges to orthodoxy, to them claiming objective truth (when, if you watch those talks, you’ll see they carefully frame their talks so as *not* to do that). If TED want to present ‘ideas worth spreading’, then they need to begin with ‘ideas worth discussing’. Not ‘ideas we should probably censor’.

TED have a major problem. They have now set a benchmark where some of their most popular talks should be removed to comply with their own guidelines, as applied to Hancock, Sheldrake and TEDxWestHollywood. They will also, to be consistent, be compelled other fantastic talks, such as Alex Grey’s talk above. All because of a lack of bravery in the face of criticism from the establishment. TED’s recent actions have been gutless, showing a lack of leadership in the face of some rather petty criticisms, and a lack of willingness to believe in the free market of ideas, where the strong and good survive through rigorous discussion and debate. And also by believing, for some strange reason, that “ideas worth spreading” must have some basis in rational, materialist science.

Here’s a thought experiment for TED officials: Mahatma Gandhi gives a talk at TEDxNewDelhi discussing non-violence, and the idea that God is Truth and Truth is God. Are his ideas worth spreading, or do you not want to be associated with them? It’s time for TED to get back in the market of discussing and spreading ideas, rather than deciding what is safe for people’s consumption. More likely though, I think, is that they will soon either dissolve or take more of an active, controlling hand in their TEDx subsidiary. And other organisations will rise to fill the gap that hundreds of thousands of viewers wish to have filled, in presenting real discussions at the edge of our knowledge and philosophy.

Big, fresh ideas suffocate and die in controlling environments. So the real question might be: is TED on the fast-track into obsolescence?

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