What's Wrong with The Secret
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Fads, Paranormal
April 15, 2008
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Prepare to have everything you've ever wanted, simply by thinking happy thoughts about it; and be careful of negative scary thoughts which might cause those things to happen to you to too. Little did you know that, just like in the original Star Trek episode Shore Leave, whatever you think of — either good or bad — will actually happen! This is the premise of Rhonda Byrne's 2006 book and movie, both titled The Secret.
Rhonda Byrne is an Australian television producer and author. Her book and movie propose that many of the most successful people throughout history have known a "secret" — a secret closely guarded in the marketing materials for the book and movie. The "secret" turns out to be nothing more than the old motivational speaker's standby, that positive thinking leads to positive results. But she took the idea a step further. The Secret claims that you can actually cause events to happen by wishing for them hard enough, literally like winning the lottery or recovering from terminal illness. Similarly, a focus on fears or negative ideas will cause those things to appear or happen as well. The Secret calls this the "Law of Attraction". The Secret further makes the completely unfounded claim that many great people knew and relied upon this wisdom, and taught it to others as "secret teachers". "Secret teachers" included Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Jung, Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Campbell, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Beethoven. This claim is just a made-up lie: Most of these people lived before the "Law of Attraction" was invented, and there's no evidence that any of them ever heard of it.
As of today, a year and a half after its release, The Secret remains #26 of Amazon's list of best selling books, better than any Harry Potter book. It has over 2,000 customer reviews. Half of them are 5 star, and a quarter of them are 1 star. This is the sign of a polarizing book. Most people either love it or find it to be utter nonsense. In the case of The Secret, most people love it. Thanks in large part to promotion by Oprah Winfrey, The Secret sold 2 million DVD's in its first year and 4 million books in its first six months.
Many of the people appearing in the movie version of The Secret are motivational speakers who spout the same old "If you can dream it, you can do it" nonsense that Amway salesmen have been chanting for decades. In essence, part of what Rhonda Byrne has done has been to simply repackage Motivational Speaking 101 inside the wrapper of a century-old philosophical construct, which we'll look at in closer detail in a moment.
As you've probably heard, The Secret has been roundly criticized from all quarters. The most common criticism is of The Secret's assertion that victims are always to blame for whatever happens to them. Whether it's a rape victim, a tsunami victim, or a heart attack victim, The Secret teaches that they brought it upon themselves with their own negative thoughts. This idea is, of course, profoundly offensive in many ways. Doctors attack The Secret for teaching that positive thinking is an adequate substitute for medical care in cases of serious illness: Wish for it hard enough, and your cancer tumors will melt away. Religious leaders criticize The Secret for its ethical claims that victims are always to blame, and for promoting the attitude that anyone can be just like a god by wishing hard enough. Many financial critics and advisors have pointed out the dangers of yet another baseless get-rich-quick scheme. The list of critics of The Secret goes on and on, as tends to happen to any mega-successful franchise.
So the question people ask me is "What do I think of The Secret?" This is really asking what is the best way to use critical thinking to analyze the validity of The Secret's claims. To do this, we first ignore everything that people say about it. We ignore the critics, we ignore the supporters and testimonial writers, and we ignore the Amazon reviews. Let's examine the claims themselves, on their own merits, and let's start by tracking down precisely where this "secret" of the "Law of Attraction" comes from.
The concept now called the "Law of Attraction" was described by James Allen in his 1902 book As a Man Thinketh. He wrote: "The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves, and also that which it fears. It reaches the height of its cherished aspirations. It falls to the level of its unchastened desires — and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own." Allen was saying that circumstances — things that happen to us — will make our desires and our fears both come to pass. Allen said that our desires and fears would "attract" those things. If Winston Churchill was indeed a "Secret teacher", we might conclude that he desired gin and feared the fire bombing of London, because both of those things certainly found their way to him. Allen wrote his book during a philosophical period called the New Thought movement, which applied metaphysical concepts to modern life. This movement was akin to what we describe as New Age today: Same ideas, slightly different buzzwords, a century apart.
Other authors followed suit based on James Allen's success, and the term "Law of Attraction" came into being among some of these followup books. A hundred years later, Rhonda Byrne read Wallace Wattles' 1910 New Thought book The Science of Getting Rich, and cleverly used it as an "ancient wisdom" foundation for contemporary motivational self-help ideas. The general public tends to love anything that can be attributed to ancient wisdom, so it's no accident that Rhonda made reference to Buddha, Aristotle, and Plato.
New Thought's "blame the victim" concept is one that's attractive to most people at a deep level. When we see someone else victimized, we take a sort of smug pride in that we did not let that happen to ourselves because we did not think whatever ugly thoughts that person must have. The Secret works! The Secret appeals to that selfish ego that's somewhere inside of all of us. This is ugly and embarrassing, but it's part of why The Secret is psychologically appealing.
Put all of these together, and The Secret is a marketing 1-2-3 punch:
- It's based on ancient wisdom, which is always popular
- It sells the same motivational self-help pitches that are always popular
- It teaches that you're already a winner because you didn't fail like those people who died in New Orleans.
Some claims in The Secret are simply factually wrong, and so fall apart under their own weight when scrutinized. Specifically, The Secret claims that quantum physics supports and explains the "Law of Attraction". At its most superficial, this claim sounds reasonable to the uncritical layperson because attraction sounds like magnetism which is a real scientific thing, and any mention of the term quantum physics sounds scientific enough to be acceptable at face value. Who's qualified to argue against quantum physics? The Secret says that thoughts have energy, and similar energies are attracted to each other. That's their quantum physics.
In fact, scientifically speaking, that statement is completely meaningless at every level, and at no level does it have anything whatsoever to do with real quantum physics. In fact, the closest analog I can find in science is that like charges repel one another, they do not attract. But we're talking about "thought energy" here, so we've already left the realm of real science and are in the world of metaphysics. Since metaphysics is a philosophical invention with no connection to real physics, either quantum or classical, you can pretty much say whatever you want and there is no scientific way to respond to it. Thus, The Secret's claim to have roots in quantum physics is childish and meaningless, yet it succeeds because it appeals to the uncritical layperson's tendency to accept scientific sounding terminology at face value. Check out Rhonda Byrne's background in quantum physics. You'll find that she took the same university courses that your cat did.
Now, it's probably important to point out that there's nothing wrong with positive thinking, and usually nothing terribly helpful about negative thinking. People with positive attitudes tend to be happier and more personable. People with negative attitudes tend to bring other people down or get blown off. In this sense, having a positive attitude is good, but nobody needs to be told that and you certainly don't need a self-help book and movie to make the point. The important line to be aware of is the division between fantasy and reality. People who buy into The Secret are not generally healthier or wealthier than anybody else, in fact they're poorer by the price of a movie ticket or a book. So go forth and be a positive person, but of claims that thought materializes into physical possessions or actions, you have good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "What's Wrong with The Secret." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
15 Apr 2008. Web.
30 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4096>
References & Further Reading
Allen, James. As a Man Thinketh. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2007. 14.
Amazon. "The Secret." Amazon.com. Amazon.com, Inc, 11 Apr. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2008. <http://web.archive.org/web/20080411053722/http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Rhonda-Byrne/dp/1582701709>
Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. New York: Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2006. 21,62,156.
Canfield, Jack. "Rhonda Byrne." Time.com:The Time 100. Time Magazine, 3 May 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1615737_1615871,00.html>
Ford, Kenneth William. The quantum world: quantum physics for everyone. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Wattles, Wallace D. Science of Getting Rich. Holyoke: E. Towne, 1910.
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