TED revoke license of wayward Hollywood TEDx event

By Grant Jacobs 31/03/2013


Some readers will know that I have previously discussed how TED might deal with the issue of TEDx events that are presenting pseudo-science.

A few days ago I noted concerns were being raised over the program of a TEDx event that was to be held on April 14th at West Hollywood.

TED has now revoked the West Hollywood organisers’ TEDx license.

TED is the core organisation that runs the TED events (not TEDx events) and which licenses franchises for independent regional TEDx events under detailed rules including,

Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community. TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing “us vs them” language. If Talks fail to meet the standards above, TED reserves the right to insist on their removal.

In response to previous concerns, TED organisers wrote an open letter to the TED and  TEDx event community that opens,

In light of a few suspect talks that have come out of the TEDx movement — some of which we at TED have taken action to remove, some being examined now — and this recent thread on Reddit [link], we feel it is important to reach out to all TEDx organizers on the topic of bad science and pseudoscience.

Please know this above all:
It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes.

The West Hollywood event organisers have announced their loss of sponsorship and responded on their website and are seeking funds to continue the event under their own initiative, renaming themselves ExTEDWestHollywood (whilst still running a website with the TEDx name, tedxwesthollywood.com):

ExTEDWestHollywood

TED HAS CANCELLED THE LICENSE FOR THIS EVENT, WHICH CANNOT MOVE FORWARD UNDER THEIR AUSPICE.

THIS PROGRAM IS TOO GOOD NOT BE DELIVERED AND WE ARE REGROUPING. THE MAILING LIST WILL BE INFORMED ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AND WHAT THE NEW VENUE WILL BE.

WE HAVE LOST OUR TED-BASED SPONSORSHIP, SO WE WILL BE FOOTING THE BILL OURSELVES. ANY HELP VIA A TAX-DEDUCTIBLE DONATION TO OUR NON-PROFIT WILL BE APPRECIATED.

As I write* the ‘official’ TEDx introductory page for this event at the TEDx.com website is still live, seemingly untouched. On a positive note, this does at least let people have some idea of what was intended to be present.

Jerry Coyne’s blog notes that another blog has published excerpts of a letter from TED addressed to the organiser of the event, Suzanne Taylor (copied below).

At the time of writing my comment to my earlier post on this topic I thought TED might have to throw the license of this event, especially as the event as a whole looked poor and clashed badly with their aims.

In addition to offering pseudoscience, the organisers clearly want to set up an ‘us vs them’ approach, public statements by the organisers through their social and web presences show that they see themselves as opposing science. (Disallowed in the TED rules I quoted earlier.)

On their website they promote an argument** how the earlier TEDx controversy of parapsychologist Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake,*** author of The Science Delusion, is due to:

[…] The battle that is going on right now is the beginning of the end for materialism as the dominant ideology of the sciences. It’s pretty easy to the evidence of this.

The ground is quickly shifting under the feet of the materialists due to the increasing numbers of well informed, well educated people who can refute the materialist arguments and are aware of the evidence for the primacy of consciousness in physics. The normal power plays which materialists have used in the past do not work under these circumstances, but they will still be employed because the materialists have nothing else in their bag of tricks. Nowhere is this more apparent than at TED, which has aligned itself with the old guard materialists and finds itself at a disadvantage having to defend these suddenly ineffective attempts to control the debate.

Accusations include relying on TED’s “board of materialist scientists instead”.

To this the organiser, Suzanne Taylor, offers (uncritical) praise in the comments,

Craig Weiler, how do I love you? Let me count the ways that this is such an important piece. Your clear and cogent articulation could be what lets the new story gel. It’s been unable to cohere as the new synthesis, despite the groundswell behind it of antithesis to the materialist thesis that needs to be left in the dust.

I trust you appreciate the speakers at http://www.TEDxWestHollywood.com, who are being attacked by reactionary forces operating like schoolyard bullies […]

Similarly, in the TEDxWestHollywood twitter stream we see tweets advocating Depak Chopra’s pseudoscience and the like:

minddfoundation
The Mythology Of Science-Based Medicine Dr. Larry Dossey and Deepak Chopra http://t.co/nnXpgVrLLf
21/03/13 12:26 AM
annatablack
One of the best kept secrets in medical science: the benefits of prayer. Larry Dossey, MD
23/03/13 6:24 PM

A reason I raise these examples is an earlier concern of mine: how to vet the organisers?

Jerry Coyne’s blog notes that another blog has published excerpts of a letter from TED addressed to the organiser of the event, Suzanne Taylor (copied below):

(…) And when we look at your speaker line-up, we see several people who promote — as fact — theories that are well outside what most scientists would accept as credible. We’re not saying all the speakers are off-base. Perhaps you could make a case for each of them individually. But when we look at the program as a whole, it’s clear that it doesn’t meet our guidelines.The problem is not the challenging of orthodox views. We believe in that. We’ve had numerous talks which do that. But we have rules about the presentation of science on the TEDx stage. We disallow speakers who use the language of science to claim they have proven the truth of ideas that are speculative and which have failed to gain significant scientific acceptance.

More than 2000 TEDx events will take place in the year ahead.  If your program is allowed to proceed, it will truly damage other TEDx organizers’ ability to recruit scientists and other speakers. (Indeed many in the TED and TEDx communities have already reached out to us to express their concern.)

We have reluctantly concluded that your program is not appropriate for TEDx, and we have to therefore terminate your license. You are of course welcome to still hold an event with these speakers. You just can’t associate it with TEDx. We are happy to work with you to figure out how to smoothly transition it into an event under a different name.  I’ll be happy to speak with you directly to facilitate this.

[My emphasis added in bold.]

This excerpt is apparently, “[…] from an earlier warning, where the threat was that if TED didn’t like the talks they wouldn’t post them, […]” (Suzanne Taylor, March 30, 2013; I am unable to link to comments on that forum.)

More fully she writes in her comment elaborating on the above letter and the rejection of their license,

[…] In the dismissal, they would not “name names.” (I thought that stance was to protect innocent people. Why are they saying that here?) What Craig quoted was from an earlier warning, where the threat was that if TED didn’t like the talks they wouldn’t post them, and not that they would yank the program not having seen the talks. My argument, when it was yanked, included saying this to them: “Physicist Russell Targ, for example, whom you earlier pointed to as questionable, is presenting research on the nature of extra sensory perception. While the work is controversial, it has been published in IEEE, Nature, Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Proceedings of the American Institute for Physics, refereed journals that found it acceptable.” This made no never mind to them.

Looking forward to more in this wonderful opportunity to tackle the entrenched skeptics head-on — a bigger issue that just TED. […]

[My emphasis added in bold.]

Note she clearly sees herself as opposing ‘skeptics’.

It is good to see TED responding to alerts being raised. At present these alerts seem informal, best as I can tell – it would be interesting, if a little depressing, to see if something slightly more organised is put in place in future. (I offered a suggestion of this kind.)

The rejection of this event is being taken up as ‘us vs. them’ by those supporting the organisers, but you can see by their own tactic admission that they stand outside of science.

Footnotes

H/T to Carl Zimmer whose tweet brought this to my attention. (My apologies that the avatars for the tweets quoted are absent; this seems to be a ‘feature’ of our platform!)

* 2pm, 31st March, NZST.

** The same blogging forum that published excerpts of the letter the organiser received from TED. The writer of this blog is very clearly opposed to science and has a few rather odd ideas, e.g.

The fact is, we cannot allow children to be taught materialistic science.  It will wreck their ability to deal with the rapid changes that are coming and put them behind their properly educated peers.  Consciousness science is best learned from early on, where children can accept the new ideas without having to push out the old ones.

*** Who promotes the idea of ‘morphic fields’. His homepage includes links to papers about email and telehphone telepathy.

Edit: Link for TED rules added. (Accidentally omitted from original.)


Other articles on Code for life:

Do TED lectures need better vetting?

On vetting TED(x) events – a suggestion

Help TED.com editor tackle TEDx pseudoscience

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