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TED, Censorship, Consciousness, Militant Atheists, and Pseudo Science!

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This is a response to an open letter to TED posted on Huffington Post Thursday by Deepak Chopra, Stuart Hameroff, Menas C. Kafatos, Rudolph E. Tanzi and Neil Theise.

More background is here.

Dear Deepak, Stuart, Menas, Rudolph and Neil,

We'd like to respond here to some of the questions raised in your letter to me and my team.

Were the talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake censored or "semi-censored"?

Easy answer. No. They're available for anyone to see on our own site and easily findable on Google. They have attracted thousands of comments. As a content curator, we have the right to remove content that's outside our guidelines. But that's not what happened here. From the start we had decided to leave the talks online so they could be debated. The censorship comments have really confused and distorted this discussion. It's a shame.

Is TED under the thumb of "militant atheists"?!

That's another simple no (and a chuckle). We certainly have talks on our site from prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. We also have talks by religious leaders, including Pastor Rick Warren, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and His Holiness the Karmapa, among many others. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in 2008. Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast will speak at TEDGlobal this June. When it comes to belief in God, and the practice of spirituality, a broad swath of beliefs are represented on TED.com, and also in our organization; our 100-person staff includes observant Buddhists, Bahai, Catholics, Quakers, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, as well as agnostics and atheists.

Should TED have a policy of asking its TEDx event organizers to avoid pseudo-science?

Your note implies we should not. We should allow "any speculative thinking..." and just let the audience decide. I wonder if you've really thought through the implications of that. Imagine a speaker arguing, say, that eating five Big Macs a day could prevent Alzheimer's. Or someone claiming she was the living reincarnation of Joan of Arc. I'm sure at some point you too would want to draw the line. The only question is where (see below). The reason TED has been able to build a reputation is through curation. It's through selecting great speakers with ideas worth spreading, and politely saying no to others. Our belief is that audience time and attention is a precious asset, and it would be hugely disrespectful and ultimately destructive to just say: hey, anything goes.

Where do we draw the boundary of what's acceptable?

We'd be first to agree there's no hard and fast way to do this. It will always be a matter of judgment; that's the nature of curation. We've issued guidelines for our TEDx organizers to avoid the platform being misused for commercial agendas, needlessly inflaming political or religious arguments, and, yes, to avoid bad science.

Respect for science is one of the core principles of TED, and for good reason. Science has been built up over many centuries by millions of humanity's finest minds constantly arguing with and challenging each other's views; repeatedly comparing those views to what actually happens in the lab and in the real world; and striving to deliver astonishing results that benefit our lives every day. By its nature, science is open to constant revision and improvement.

No one here claims that mainstream science is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It isn't. But it's the best starting point we have for judging new information. Yes a modern-day Galileo may be out there with paradigm-shifting ideas that will at some point overturn huge pieces of existing science. But he or she should expect to face a robust standard of proof before their ideas take hold. And for every Galileo, there are thousands of people who just have bad, unscientific ideas. That's why in our guidance to the thousands of TEDx organizers around the world, we ask that they steer clear of talks that bear hallmarks of unsubstantiated science. There is no shortage of fascinating, wonder-provoking work done by credible scientists that deserves a wider platform.

Is TED against consciousness as a topic?

Absolutely not. Most thoughtful people, including most scientists and philosophers of science would agree that consciousness is one of the core unsolved mysteries. Nothing would excite us more than to include talks which offer a credible contribution to understanding it better. Such talks could use the third person language of neuroscience, the first person language of experience or spirituality. We've carried plenty of each. We're hungry for more. Some people certainly believe consciousness must just be a side-effect of electrical patterns in a brain. But others, including many of us at TED, would argue that until science can find the language to explain more convincingly why and how we are sentient, you can't a priori dismiss all unusual consciousness-related claims. That's a healthy discussion and one we welcome.

Since we took the step of offering our brand free to independent organizers four years ago, there have been more than 6,000 TEDx events held around the world, and more than 25,000 TEDx talks posted. It's a thrilling initiative and has brought new ideas to numerous communities. In evolving the program, we continue to be committed to both open enquiry and appropriate skepticism... and when those two conflict, as they inevitably will from time to time, we will use our best curatorial judgment, and welcome input from our community.

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