Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, March 7th, 2007 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

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The Soul of Science (detail of book cover)

The Soul of Science
now available as a FREE MP3

An audio production and recording of Michael Shermer’s booklet, The Soul of Science, is now available for free thanks to the generous donation of recording artist John Wagner, who contacted the Skeptics Society and offered to donate his services by making this booklet available to a wider audience free of charge. We are grateful to John for his outstanding production and reading (music included!), and for making the printed page come alive.

About the Recording Artist

John Wagner owns and operates John Wagner Recording Studios, Inc. in Albuquerque, NM. He has won hundreds of Addy Awards for his work in music and advertising, including top honors as a finalist in the New York Film Festival. In 1995 the New Mexico Advertising Federation presented him with The Silver Medal Award for outstanding contributions in advertising. He has produced Grammy nominated albums as well as his own original music projects. He has mixed and assembled the audio for more than 20 documentaries for Turner Broadcasting, Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Hallmark and producer Ned Judge. Most recently he has focused his voice, talents and passion into book narration. He has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico.

LISTEN to the MP3 (32MB)

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In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Ingrid Hansen Smythe’s skeptical analysis of the movie The Secret, which was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show last month and on Larry King Live last November. Ingrid Hansen Smythe is a freelance writer with a BMus, a BA in religious studies, and a Masters degree in the nature of religion.


The Secret Behind The Secret
What is Attracting Millions
to the Law of Attraction?

by Ingrid Hansen Smythe

Psst! Have you heard The Secret? If not, the first thing you need to know is that The Secret isn’t a secret, and this in itself should set your skeptical alarm bells ringing, since whenever the very name of a thing is a contradiction of the thing itself, it is easy to imagine that the bridge up ahead may be washed out.

The Secret is a simple New-Age notion that is the subject of a recent and wildly successful book by Rhonda Byrne and DVD by Rhonda Byrne of Prime Time Productions. The secret is “The Law of Attraction” that asserts what you think creates what you feel, and these feelings flow from your body as magnetic energy waves over vast distances, which then cause the universe around you to vibrate at the same energy level as your feelings. If your feelings are negative, negative experiences will inevitably flow right back, positive feelings elicit positive experiences. Like attracts like. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. It always works; it works every time, with every person.”1 Thus there is no such thing as accident or coincidence; it is you, the individual, who brings misery on yourself because of your toxic thinking. But the good news, Eeyore, is this: if you can only alter your thoughts, and therefore your feelings, you can actually cause the universe around you to vibrate at a positive energy level and the desires of your heart will come to be realized! All you have to do is AskBelieveReceive.2 You just have to visualize what you want, feel good about it, and then ask the universe (and ask once only, oh ye of little faith) — and whatever you can imagine can be yours. “This is like having the universe as your catalogue and you flip through it and go, ‘Well I’d like to have this experience and I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that’ … It is you just placing your order with the universe. It’s really that easy … [Just] start to have different beliefs like there is more than enough in the universe, everything goes right for me … have the belief ‘I’m not getting older, I’m getting younger.’ We can create it the way we want it.”3

This is excellent news indeed for those of us who previously thought that something like aging was not optional. There are 100 assertions that constitute the backbone of The Law of Attraction,4 including:

  • Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting.
  • Thought = creation. If these thoughts are attached to powerful emotions (good or bad) that speeds the creation.
  • Those who speak most of illness have illness, those who speak most of prosperity have it, etc.
  • It’s OK that thoughts don’t manifest into reality immediately (if we saw a picture of an elephant and it instantly appeared, that would be too soon).
  • Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.
  • You get exactly what you are feeling.
  • What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match — no exception.
  • You don’t need to know how the universe is going to rearrange itself.
  • How long??? No rules on time; the more aligned you are with positive feelings the quicker things happen.
  • Size is nothing to the universe (unlimited abundance if that’s what you wish). We make the rules on size and time.
  • If you turn it over to the universe, you will be surprised and dazzled by what is delivered. This is where magic and miracles happen.
  • The Hows are the domain of the universe. It always knows the quickest, fastest, most harmonious way between you and your dream.
  • Our job is not to worry about the “How”. The “How” will show up out of the commitment and belief in the “what”.
  • We are mass energy. Everything is energy. Everything.
  • An affirmative thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative one.5

One needn’t quarrel with the psychology behind some of The Secret’s hysterically cheery rah-rah motivational coaching. For instance, their “Don’t Be A Negative Sourpuss” philosophy has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a psychological approach to altering maladaptive, unrealistic, and negative thoughts in an effort to change feelings and, as a result, behavior. It is hardly revolutionary to claim that attitude and negative feeling-states can have an impact on goal attainment. Who among us has not had the experience of trying to accomplish some task, only to fall prey to our Inner Idiot who keeps telling us, “You’ll never learn this,” or “You’re an impostor,” or “You hate this,” and these irrelevant messages lead to avoidance of the task, depression, and the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help rid the individual of unhelpful self-talk, and this inevitably leads to more successful living — no supernatural intervention required.

Imagining that we are like magnets is not an especially harmful mental exercise in metaphorical thinking, but when metaphor slips into metaphysics, problems with The Secret become glaringly apparent. The Secret relies heavily on fuzzy thinking, and nowhere is this fuzziness demonstrated better than by the fact that The Secret is actually proposing two completely different systems for achieving one’s goals and then blurring the line between those systems — in effect, selling the system that works on the back of the one that doesn’t. On the one hand, we are told that all that is required to get what we desire is to ask, believe, and receive. For example: A little boy wants a bike, he believes he will get a bike, he gets a bike (as dramatized in The Secret DVD). On the other hand, we are told that we can’t merely ask, believe, receive. “A lot of people watch The Secret and they say, ‘Well, I’m sitting around visualizing my millions coming into my lap.’ Well, they’ll come take your furniture away. And then how are you going to visualize [when you’re living] on the curb? You’ve got to act on it.”6 So, a little boy wants a bike, he gets a paper route to earn money to get a bike, he gets a bike. In the first scenario, the supernatural is required. In the second scenario, a paper-route is required. The second scenario is the one that most of us recognize as the only one that will actually work, in which a person has an “idea,” then acts on that idea, and then gets the desired results. The second system renders irrelevant the first system.

The testimonial of the editor of the Chicken Soup for the Soulbooks, Jack Canfield, provides an excellent example of the first system (ask-believe-receive) getting the credit for the second system (idea-action-results). He tells us that he visualized earning $100,000 (even writing the desired amount on a bill worth far less and tacking it to the ceiling above his bed) and focused his mental energy only on the goal of attaining the money. He tells us that he had absolutely no idea how he was going to get the money — he simply focused on believing that he would get the money, somehow. But how? For four weeks he had no breakthrough ideas but then, one day in the shower, he remembered that he had written a book and, if it was published (particularly if he sold 400,000 copies and he made a quarter on each) he just might achieve his financial goals. Of course the book was published, and the results were only a few thousand dollars shy of 100,000 dollars.7

Mr. Canfield attributes his success to knowing and applying the principles of The Secret — he literally attracted 100,000 dollars through good feelings, positive energy, and the power of visualization. Is it possible, however, that this is a misattribution, and that the actual reason for his success is that he suddenly remembered that he had written a book, got it published, and subsequently earned money from it? You know, the way all other authors do it. The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy would appear to be working overtime in the minds of enthusiastic Secreteers. “It happened because I wished for it,” the Secreteer would say, instead of the more obvious explanation, “It happened because I worked for it.”8

Perhaps the believer in The Law of Attraction imagines that to use both systems in conjunction is more powerful than using just the one. It seems to me that this is like a woman using some form of birth control and then lying back and affirming “I will not get pregnant! I will not get pregnant!” It seems obvious that it is the birth control, and not the positive thinking, that is getting the job done. Certainly affirmations alone do nothing to prevent pregnancy — any woman who believes otherwise is undoubtedly a mother. The Secreteers seem to think that positive affirmations and happy feelings affect the probability of an occurrence, but it would seem that the only odds that are being improved in the above example are the odds of having a pretty lousy time.

Other lines are also expertly blurred by the editors of The Secret DVD. For example, we are shown a man visualizing himself attracting a car and — no surprises here — magically getting the car. But here an objection arises — if everybody knows The Secret, won’t there be a mad dash for all the good stuff and no one will get anything? Not to worry. Not everyone wants the same things, we are told — and here there is a visual of an Indian snake charmer, followed by a little Chinese woman in a boat with a bunch of domestic fowl. Apparently, the Indian man and the Chinese woman don’t want a car. (“We don’t all want BMWs,” we are told, and this is undoubtedly correct.9 Some people want Hummers.) “The truth is there’s more than enough good to go around. There’s more than enough creative ideas, there’s more than enough power, there’s more than enough love, there’s more than enough joy.”10 So in one breath we’re talking about attracting a car — with the next breath we’re suddenly talking about attracting love and joy and other emotions sans wheels or an engine. Add to the above the following quote: “Wise people have always known this … Why do you think that 1% of the population earns around 96% of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s no accident. It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret.”11 Ah, there it is then. It is the wise people who have the money and the BMWs. Are we to conclude that the Indian man and the Chinese woman are fools? The deeply offensive racial overtones are hard to ignore, as are the sexist slurs — for instance, during the delivery of the above quotation, the visual is of a boardroom full of white, cigar-smoking male executives. Evidently social inequality and injustice, a lack of resources, several thousand years of patriarchy, oppression and inequality between the sexes — all the usual explanations as to why people don’t have money are incorrect. Social factors are irrelevant in a world where “You are the only one who creates your reality. It is only you; every bit of it you.”12

What about the scientific claims upon which The Law of Attraction is based? Such as: Our thoughts are magnetic and travel as energy and vibration for vast distances. “It has been proven scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.”13 “It is no more difficult to attract on a scientific level something that we consider huge to something we consider infinitesimally small.”14 “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.”15 “Even under a microscope you’re an energy field.”16 “You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.”17 These are extraordinary claims that surely require extraordinary evidence, which The Secreteers do by using the word “science” over and over, as if merely saying the word is the same as doing it — as if feeling good about science will attract more science into your life.

“Quantum physics really begins to point to [The Secret],” says a proponent of The Law of Attraction. “It says that you can’t have universe without mind entering into it. The mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”18 Here, then, we have an authority on the subject telling us that our minds create reality. First, however, it seems obvious that a universe without sentient minds perceiving it is entirely possible, given that this was the story on Earth for the first 13 billion years. Second, it would seem that this particular proponent of The Law of Attraction is using an understanding of quantum physics based more on the questions that Schrödinger was trying to answer, rather than on the answers themselves. Does the mind of the observer truly shape reality as claimed? After all it is true that, at the quantum level, a scientist has great difficulty recording and measuring particles and their interactions without changing the results of the investigation. Is this because the scientist’s mind is influencing the experiment? Is it because the scientist perceived the experiment and, as a result of perceiving, changed the results? No. The answer is far more mundane. To put it in crudely simplistic terms, as soon as the scientist switches on the light to see what’s going on, other particles, like photons, get in the way. It is the photons that are responsible for messing up the results, not the thoughts of the experimenter.19 This explanation has the obvious disadvantage of being extremely boring and must be ruled out on the basis that it doesn’t support the “create your own reality” claim.

Besides scientific gibberish, The Secret DVD props up faltering dogma by relying on charismatic representatives and a lot of smooth talk, which is so expert and cleverly edited it is easy to miss the false premises, tautologies, red herrings, straw men, non sequiturs, and other varieties of fuzzy thinking. However, even if The Law of Attraction was logically consistent and scientifically sound, the moral implications of a Law such as this are alarming. Interestingly, some of the difficulties with The Law of Attraction are similar to those encountered by believers in The Law of Karma, and comparing and contrasting the two yields some curious insights.20

It is the business of both laws to explain why good and evil befall us, and both laws come to the conclusion that the fault is exclusively ours. In neither system can there be accident or coincidence — we are all at all times getting exactly what we deserve, and what we have attracted.21 The Law of Attraction seems particularly suited to the modern temperament though, given that with karma, you might have to wait a thousand lifetimes to get the good things you deserve, whereas with The Law of Attraction everything is possible in this lifetime. No waiting! Better service! The Law of Attraction might be said to be the lazy person’s karma, since karma is based on doing, whereas the Law of Attraction is based on feeling. This is also handy for the modern American, who is quite busy enough as it is. In addition, karma is concerned exclusively with morality (specifically good and evil deeds), but The Law of Attraction is concerned only with positive feeling vibrations, which needn’t necessarily be connected to pesky morality at all.22

When dealing with instances of extraordinary evil, however, both The Law of Karma and The Law of Attraction break down rather spectacularly. Imagine a particularly hideous situation — a healthy young girl is raped and tortured, hacked to pieces, her remains stuffed into a plastic bag and thrown in the trash. What the believer in karma is forced to admit, as morally repugnant as it may be, is that this girl deserved what happened to her. There is no innocent suffering in a universe where we all, at all times, are getting what we deserve. The believer in karma must also conclude that this event is in some sense good because this girl rid herself of an enormous amount of bad karma and is bound to come back to a glorious life next time around. Likewise, a philosophy that claims we are always getting what we ask for, and that nothing is accidental, must also believe that this girl in some sense deserved what happened to her because she attracted this evil to her. (Remember the law: “Everything in your life you have attracted. Accept that fact; it’s true.”) One might protest that a young girl has not yet developed the “magnetic powers” to attract anything to her — but one must then ask at what age do these powers develop, and does it really make the situation any less tragic? If a 12-year-old boy can attract a shiny new bike, can a 12-year-old girl attract a rapist and killer? It would seem the answer is yes, since there are 12-year-old girls who come to such a brutal demise. Perhaps, though, 12 is too young to attract such powerful evil; is it really better, though, if we imagine the rape, dismembering, and plastic-bag-stuffing of a 25-year-old woman? A 35-year-old mother of three? A grandmother? Can we really feel comfortable ever saying that people attract fatal accidents, illness, trauma, and death?

It gets worse, for what can the believer in karma or The Law of Attraction possibly say about an event such as the Holocaust? Again, the believer in karma is forced to say that each and every individual got what he or she deserved and that karmic justice was served. “Whatever one deserves … he deserves by virtue of his actions and he gets all that he deserves and only that which he deserves. Nothing which accrues to a doer on account of his actions is ever lost and nothing accrues to him on account of anything other than his actions.”23 What about those who hold the belief that, through your feeling-state, you attract either positive or negative events? Here is a little visualization for the believer in the Law of Attraction: Imagine looking each of those six million Jews in the eye and telling every one of them that due to the negative feeling-states they were each projecting, they were all, in effect, asking for it. They got what was coming to them because, “What you think and what you feel and what actually manifests is always a match — no exception.”

The Secreteers say that “There is no such thing as coincidence… Everything happens by principles and laws in our universe.”24 How can this be true in the face of such evil? Does The Law of Attraction simply not apply in some cases? Why not? Why does the believer in this alleged “law” jump to credit The Law of Attraction for a little boy magically receiving a bike from the universe, or for a motivational speaker landing a spot on the Oprah show, but fail to mention dead girls stuffed into plastic bags or six million Jews butchered in concentration camps? Is The Law of Attraction really a law at all? The Secret’s proponents want to claim for it the unchanging status of a physical law of the universe. “Just as there is a law of gravity — if you fall off a building it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or a bad person you’re gonna hit the ground.”25 Thus, if the Law of Attraction is also a physical law, it cannot be suspended to allow for events such as the Holocaust. Pity the believer in The Law of Attraction, therefore, who is in the unenviable position of having both to congratulate a little boy on attracting a bike, and also explain to all those other unfortunates that, due to their negative feelings, they attracted an airplane piloted by terrorists, a tsunami, muscular sclerosis, cancer, genocide.

Given the moral defects, the lack of scientific backing, and the various philosophical shortcomings, how is it that a significant number of people still believe there’s something to The Law of Attraction? Part of the reason must certainly be the powerful testimonials coming from celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey, a woman who attributes her success to her mighty powers of attraction, and not to the stupefyingly enormous Oprah industry which she, and many thousands of others have worked so hard to put in place.

One might conclude, Well so what? What harm is there in believing in things that are not literally true as long as the desired result is achieved? The harm is great, I think, and no one has given voice to these concerns better than W.K. Clifford in his essay The Ethics of Belief:

The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery… It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbors ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.26

The Law of Attraction cannot admit doubt or skepticism. If one begins to doubt the power, or even to harbor negative thoughts in one’s unconscious mind, one is assuredly on the road to ruin.27 The Law of Attraction requires uncritical acceptance of, and unwavering belief in, a doctrine that has been revealed by alleged authorities, which is interpreted literally, not metaphorically, and is at the extreme end of credulity. It is just another kind of magical thinking and, worse, another brand of fundamentalism.

Resources & notes
  1. Joe Vitale and Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD, 2006.
  2. Rhonda Byrne, speaking on the Oprah show, 8 February, 2007.
  3. Joe Vitale, The Secret DVD, 2006.
  4. Assertion: a positive statement, usually made without an attempt to furnish evidence. (Collins English Dictionary, p. 89)
  5. These assertions are listed at www.universallawstoday.com, but they have been reproduced on dozens of other websites.
  6. James Arthur Ray, The Oprah show, 8 February 2007.
  7. Jack Canfield, The Secret DVD.
  8. In another instance, an advocate of The Law tells us that he posted a picture of his dream home on what he calls his “vision board”, forgot about it, found the vision board five years later, and was astounded to discover that the home he was currently living in matched the one he had visualized. This does sound amazing, except that he also tells us that he spent an entire year renovating the house that is currently his dream home. The question, therefore, is this: is he living in his dream home because he wished it, or because he renovated it?
  9. Joe Vitale, The Secret DVD.
  10. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.
  11. Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD.
  12. Esther Hicks, The Secret DVD. Imagine the fellow in the DVD who claims that “Wealth is a mindset,” speaking to an open-air audience in Calcutta or Bangladesh or Rwanda. What would the reaction of the crowd be to this message? The image that instantly leaps to my mind is of an angry mob running down a man in an Armani suit as he sprints to the safety of his private jet.
  13. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD. “Powerful in what way?” one wants to ask. If I affirm, for example, that there is an elephant in my garden shed, by affirming it have I increased the likelihood of its existence there by 100?
  14. Mike Dooley, The Secret DVD.
  15. John F. Demartini, The Secret DVD. If disease exists to teach us to be more loving and grateful, one has to wonder why even dinosaurs got bone cancer.
  16. James Arthur Ray, The Secret DVD. A claim such as this suggests that Mr. Ray has never actually looked through a microscope. If he had, he would have seen matter, not energy. The Secreteers are fond of saying that everything is energy, and back this up with the equation E=MC2. Equivalence, however, is not the same as identity. (No one would confuse wood with heat, or gasoline with flames, or cars with motion. Another example: ice and water can be converted each into the other; nevertheless, although you can walk on the former, no number of positive affirmations will enable you to walk on the latter.) What Einstein’s equation shows is simply that one can be transmuted into the other under extreme conditions, such as exist in the core of the sun.
  17. Bob Proctor, The Secret DVD. Children who have visited a science center with a stationary bike attached to a generator soon discover that they barely have enough energy to power a 40 watt bulb for even a short time, let alone an entire city for a week. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring to brain waves, which are so weak they require electrodes attached to the skull to measure them, and therefore seem even more unlikely to provide much illumination. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring to the burning of a body, which would undoubtedly light up a small section of a city — but not for a week. Perhaps Mr. Proctor is referring to “psychic” energy which frustratingly, like imaginary energy, cannot be scientifically measured, tested, quantified, controlled, or studied. Still, no matter what kind of energy this is, if it is as powerful as Mr. Proctor claims, I say bring it on — especially if it is devoid of carbon emissions.
  18. Alan Wolf, The Secret DVD.
  19. “The Secreteers are alluding, obliquely, to the collapse of a wave function when items in a quantum entangled state are observed. There is no doubt that unexpected results have been surprising physicists for a hundred years, when it comes to the very small, and that it is fiendishly difficult to measure interactions between elementary particles because the measuring apparatus has to be taken into account. However, it is by no means clear that the collapse of a wave function in anything more than a convenient mathematical metaphor for something which we can explain with equations, but not with words (although David Z. Albert does a creditable job of trying in Quantum Mechanics and Experience. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). Furthermore, the leap from being able to influence an electron going through one of two slits to being able to influence an entire mail-order universe is unquantifiably vast. Surprising effects that work reliably well at the very small (such as electron tunneling, the foundation of semiconductors) utterly fail to work at the very large (such as BMW tunneling, in which a fully-formed BMW disappears from the factory and appears in your driveway, merely because you asserted that you wanted one).” Steve Hansen Smythe, from private email correspondence.
  20. The word karma is derived from the Sanskrit verb meaning “to act, do, bring about,” and means that “one makes something by doing something; one creates by acting.” Thus karma denotes “the impersonal and transethical system under which one’s current situation in the world is regarded as the fruit of seeds planted by one’s behavior and dispositions of the past, and the view that all of one’s present actions lie similar seeds that will have continuing and determinative effect on one’s life as they bear fruit in the future.” (William K. Mahony, “Karman” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 8. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987, p. 262.)
  21. Since individuals are constantly interacting with one another, this means that there is an inconceivably intricate dance of billions of people (and, possibly, animals, since many of them are capable of positive and negative emotions), interacting in ways that fulfill the requirements of The Law at all times. Surely the composition of such a dance would be a mind-boggling task for even the most accomplished choreographer. And what happens if I believe in The Law of Attraction, and reap the benefits from it, but my husband, with whom I live, doesn’t believe? Or what if he does believe in The Law but is clinically depressed and is incapable of generating happy feelings? Does he get to live in my mansion and drive my BMW?
  22. A psychotic killer might feel very good upon terminating his victim, but good feelings can be created by morally questionable activities even by those of us who are not criminally insane. An example of this is amply demonstrated in The Secret DVD, in which a girl is shown laughing with glee at her pet — a cat, who has his head stuck in a small bag and is backing up and shaking his head in an attempt to get the thing off. The girl thinks this is hilarious, and her laughter is apparently generating good feelings which will bring more good things into her life — but what is the experience of the cat? It is one of distress, and it is this distress which the girl is using to generate her own positive feelings. Is it ever ethical to use another creature’s discomfort to further one’s own ends? Who cares? The Law is about feeling good, not about being good.
  23. Rajendra Prasad, Karma Causation and Retributive Morality. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1989, p. 215.
  24. James Arthur Ray, The Oprah show.
  25. Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.
  26. W.K. Clifford. Lectures and Essays, Vol. II. London: Macmillan and Co., 1879, pp. 185–186.
  27. “You end up attracting to you the predominant thoughts that you’re holding in your awareness, whether those thoughts are conscious or unconscious — that’s the rub.” Michael Beckwith, The Secret DVD.

lecture reminder…

The Physics of the Buffyverse

with Jennifer Ouellette

Sunday, March 11th, 2pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

In the tradition of the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek, acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ouellette explains fundamental concepts in the physical sciences through examples culled from the hit TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. Ouellette writes the column This Month in Physics History for American Physical Society News, and her articles have appeared in publications from Discover to Salon.

READ full description of this lecture >

READ more about our Lectures at Caltech >


Conference Announcement
Boston, April 20–22

The Secular Student Alliance is holding its 7th annual conference at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) on April 20–22, co-sponsored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Speakers include: Salman Rushdie, Lori Lipman Brown, E.O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker. To learn more go to www.thenewhumanism.org

37 Comments »

37 Comments

  1. Ella says:

    My car was damaged by flood waters. Am I covered ?

    • John says:

      Your car probably has a part built by a bad person so nothing good can be attracted to the bad person’s part’s negative vibrations and that’s why it was flooded. Don’t touch it during a lightning storm.

  2. Hank says:

    my wife used to believe this nonsense and it makes her nuts….Hello Sena..whats up..did you read the article?:)

  3. Luke says:

    Aside from the false arguments of this book/DVD, I found it particularly disgusting that the DVD spent a great deal of time using material goods–cars, money, new bikes–as examples of things the user would receive if her or she used “the secret,” while superimposing on-screen quotes from the Buddha that, taken out of context, were used to support these claims. No one on Earth has believed more in the ephemeral, pointless nature of material items, and the filmmakers twisted these ancient words for supporting the reckless pursuit of them. Horrifying.

  4. Anthony says:

    I had a accident on my scooter and my sister who is a fan of the Secret and other similar ideas sent me this email:

    “there is something called the power of deliberate intention and it applys to intending to have a safe and easy moto ride each day…. Deliberate Intention”

    Like according to her I was planing on having an accident and since I wasn’t thinking positivly about it I deserved it.
    I find it insulting.

    With that said sure I think it’s good to have a positive outlook on life but I think it was Benjamin Franklin that said “God helps thouse that help themselves” I’ll go with that.

  5. cureeous says:

    vary cureeous indeed:)

  6. Carolyn says:

    My thoughts while reading the article: Isn’t it funny that if you ascribe the Law of Attraction to the Rapist himself…. that the Rapist visualized, believed, and realized his dream.

    How the “secret” could be used by “bad” people as well as “good”

    I watched the DVD and couldn’t stop laughing. The whole thing was like an infomercial gone bad. I was expecting Billy Mayes to pop up some time during the whole thing. I agree with whomever said it before me, the whole video was disgusting.

    It’s like you’ll obtain happiness, all you have to do is brainwash yourself and live contrary to the human condition. What utter nonsense. I enjoyed the article.

  7. j says:

    thank you
    thank you
    thank you

    for this incisive, reasoned, full of humour send-up of all things woo-woo with The Secret. i can’t tell you how relieving it is to read this analysis. not to mention a few hearty belly laughs.

    i find the whole field of ‘attraction’ deeply morally suspect – and as someone living with a rare, chronic, incurable illness, have had ‘Secret’ pseudo-nonsense foisted on me more times than i can count to explain my deserving of the condition – all the while neatly avoiding any critical, sociological, environmental, political, or genetic inquiry into the causes of such illnesses. AND so beautifully excusing community, society or the culture at large to actually MAKE REAL CHANGE in how chronic illness is supported. its your fault! you solve it!

    thank you

  8. Kelly Ciulla says:

    loved your article; had all the same thoughts as I watched this rather offensive piece of new age “spiritual,” yet solely focused on material, drivel. However, I do think you misrepresent the Buddhist idea of Karma somewhat in your comparison. As far as I understand it, Karma is more a belief in cause and effect, not an indictment of victims. Suggesting that a Buddhist would believe that victims of the Holocaust “deserved it’ on some level is a misrepresentation and common misunderstanding of this Buddhist precept. No self-respecting monk I have ever had the pleasure to interview would suggest that the victims of oppression did anything to bring about their fate. They are, curiously enough, rather scientific about it. see Dalai Lama.

    However, thanks for debunking this drivel, particularly the rather suspect notion that the human mind contributes to illness. No sense attributing the proliferation of cancers to toxic environments, food stuffs, etc.. I suppose..

  9. Jose says:

    Hi,

    I just found this article and I really liked the way you faced this subject, cause it’s actually breeding a legion of dumb people.

    What really annoys me is the fact that this supposed power can be used both for good as for evil. How in the world could this “secret” be good news to anybody if I can use it to raise a company that will make billions probably exploiting uneducated workers, or to deny the fact that bad things happen to good people because we’re human and vulnerable to eventual distractions, lack of control and/or sickness? and last but not least…because there really IS ‘bad people’ out there.

    The movie generates and justifies the craving for money, beauty and power (not to mention relationships, seducing the wanted one, etc)…how much more vanity can you add to that? what’s so “spiritual” about that..? Nothing! Just an excuse for insane greedy people to give their mad desires a somehow beautiful tone.

    So this article is a really good contribution

    Cheers! ;-)

  10. Todd says:

    Like others posting here, I appreciate this excellent review. The positive possibilities set forth in media like The Secret have their appeal, but as you note their producers twist science and experience to make their case – leaving out any moral considerations in the process. I once observed a leader within a religious community enamored of The Secret literally browbeat one of his students into accepting the idea that an overweight person could lose weight without diet or exercise, just by thinking about it; it would’ve been a lot more credible if someone could be found who’d actually done it. This is a big problem with dogmatic acceptance of The Secret’s message; a lot of people who believe it, when among trusted friends, shed many a tear for the dreams they’ve yet to realize. That’s not just conjecture; I’ve seen it, and known the angst myself.

    I recall an article by a physical fitness expert critiquing The Secret; she noted that the secret which works isn’t “ask, believe, and receive”, but is rather along the lines of “ask, plan, work, apply discipline, endure disappointment, believe, work more, learn from mistakes, adjust your plan, work more, persist, celebrate small successes, overcome moments of despair, and don’t give up – and your chances of receiving increase.” An honest look at those who have accomplished something truly inspirational indicates that this is closer to the formula they applied.

    Anyway, thanks for the post; this is a very helpful piece.

  11. PC says:

    But the purpose of the Secret is not to explain the universe, but to provide tools for managing “mind over matter”.

    • Yams says:

      No matter how beneficial or useful something is, it should never be at the cost of misinformation.

  12. ld says:

    I think you completely twisted the ideas about The Secret. I watched the DVD recently and basically what I got out of it was that if you truly believe something will happen, it will happen. It’s like more of a self pop-talk as opposed to something magically appearing because you wished for it. If you have goals in mind set in your mind that without a doubt you belive will happen, they probably will. It’s like having something to work toward. How many times have you exerted all your positive thinking, time, and energy on something that evetually has happened? I have. When we let negative thoughts intrude in our minds, it affects how we work toward something. Basically, you can do anything if you put your mind to it, believe it can happen, and work toward it. The Secret isnt a magic genie – it’s up to you.

    • Tim says:

      “The Secret isnt a magic genie – it’s up to you.” your words.
      I recently watched a DVD version of the secret, and in that presentation, there was a sustained image of exactly what you appear to deny; there is a genie on that video. “The secret” literally does show a genie, and the genie says “your wish is my command.”
      Thus it is my assertion that you are engaged in magical thinking, and I sugget you watch the video again, and play a game of ‘spot the genie.’ Prepare youself by learning about the term ‘non-sequitur’.

  13. Napalmnacey says:

    I agree that The Secret is absolute bunkum, but your representation of karma is far off the mark. If you’re going to be skeptical about something, it helps to understand it properly first. What’s the point of debunking something when you don’t even know what it is?

    • Tim says:

      Regarding the debunking – you are committing the same error that you are being critical of. You assert that the author does not understand her subject. You make no effort to support your claim. Your post is an example of laziness.

  14. alex says:

    vi el dvd de el secretox mis amigos, y veo que esa teoria la utilizaba napoleon hill , y antesde el dale carniege piense y hagas rico, enfatizando las riquezas materiales, la belleza etc etc, muy buen articulo que bueno que alguien se preocupa por desenmascarar a estos tipos, que ganan mucho dinero engañando gente felicidades por el articulo

  15. Kim says:

    I do believe in the “outline” of The Secret but it goes much deeper than that. If it were that easy, we’d all be Jesuses, Buddhas, whomeva, walking around on this paradise filled world. But we’re not…Not to say it can’t be done (after all Jesus said…”But the Kingdom of God is within you and outside of you. Once you come to know yourselves, you will become known …The kingdom of heaven is spread out across the earth, only people don’t see it…Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you…Truly, truly, I say to you, He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and Greater Works than These will he do.”) Some of those quotes were taken from different translations, but they all basically say the same thing. We are all One, he was only a messenger, like we get ALL the time! People go to church, synagogue, mosque, whateva and it doesn’t sink in, they fight in the Name….it is ourselves that get in our own way. If it were easy ditto the aforementioned. I agree with what was said about mis-representing about the above “Laws” but if anything, it was brilliant marketing, shameful yes, but only because they misrepresented sacred Laws.

  16. Tim says:

    Thank you for this article, I enjoyed your thoughtful comments. Without any doubt, ‘The Secret’ is no secret at all. A disposable consumer good, effectively designed to create more garbage for the future. I admit to a green streak, and there would be my first criticism of such an offering. Another waste of real energy and resources. If I was to apply ‘the secret’ in my world, then crap like this would not get made in the first place.
    Thus I want to know a real secret; How did this culture of consumption and personal desires become status quo? When did having more stuff become a paradigm of our society?
    …and so on.

  17. Kyra says:

    Really? Why doesn’t this article mention that Esther Hicks is “channeling” a group of entities known as Abraham? If you ask me, that clarifies a lot about the pseudoscience that the Secret promotes.

  18. Rick Gracia says:

    I pray that Christians (true followers of Jesus Christ) do not fall for this man made self help false way of living according to the truth. The real truth is that Christians are suppose to have the mind of Christ, 1cor 2:16. Our war is in our mind. Our carnal minds want to run the show but the Holy Spirit will if you daily submit and humble yourself and turn away from sin (being wise in your own eyes). Romans 8:1 There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. God is a Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth John 4:24. It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life John6:63 ultimately we should use our minds to serve God not our flesh, 2Cor 10:3-5 is probably one of the best scriptures to help us understand this. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Col 2:20-23 God bless you, I pray that you understand.

  19. JR says:

    I have recently discovered that an old friend from college has “discovered” The Secret and is devoting herself to helping others manifest their dreams just as she has done. It is most odd, because she is separated from her husband, trying to sell her house for close to a year now, is living with a like-minded (and I use the term “mind” loosely) friend, and working several jobs to make ends meet. If this is the “life of your dreams” then I say no thanks!!

    The angle you did not discuss in your otherwise excellent article is that these Law of Attraction pushers are making A LOT OF MONEY at the expense of greedy, gullible people. Nothing new about scam artists of course, but when the great Oprah and Larry King add to their credibility … it just strikes me as very sad.

  20. DB says:

    Thank you. I often hear this “Law” of Attraction bunk used among my peers. I was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with me for thinking it is an overly simplistic and arrogant notion. Your article gave words to all that I intuitively knew was wrong with it.

  21. secret says:

    I’ve heard some sceptics say that IF the secret really was working then it can’t work anymore coz’ they’ve been attracting thoughts that the secret doesn’t work for anybody else but themselves, so either it was never working or if it was working then it doesn’t work anymore ; )

  22. A says:

    Did you all negative thinkers really believe that your life will change just by seeing the film, you have to study this to really understand how it works and what’s been holding you back from your success.

  23. T says:

    A little bit if artistic license was taken in the making of ‘The Secret’ but if you really look at the content of your life its often largely a reflection of your beliefs. There is a sense of attracting without effort because its automatic but there are other things such as earthquakes which are not attracted by people’s thoughts…the ‘secret’ is a thing but I find it a bit silly to suggest that it is everything in cause and effect

  24. S says:

    All the New Agers I have met appear to be lacking in compassion and empathy. To assert,”if you really look at the content of your life its often largely a reflection of your beliefs.” seems very insenstive. What about those people who spend their lives taking care of a sick relative or disabled child, a single mother struggling alone, someone with learning disabilities, or someone battling schizophrenia or cancer. Not only is these peoples suffering disregarded, but they are also to blame for it according the thinking behind Secret.

    What would happen if those followers and practitioners of the Secret were dropped into the most dangerous, poverty stricken, violent parts of the world ravaged by famine and/or civil war? I wonder how long their “positive beliefs and affirmations” would enable them to survive.

  25. Len says:

    You know, it seems to help a fairly large group of people with anxiety and self doubt. The risk is of certainty, just as the risk with anti-anxient drugs is of addiction and of SSRis is some mental/emotional/sexual impairments. So I’ll offer that sometimes, for some people, and in limited doses, the secret is a good idea to have.
    The marketing of it is over the top.

  26. mike says:

    This is an important article. Ingrid’s challenge to explain the law of attraction to Holocaust survivors/victims is not as potent, methinks, as going to a children’s hospital and explaining it to children afflicted with all sorts of debilitating genetic disorders. Well! If the law of attraction ALWAYS works, wouldn’t secreteers be morally obliged to do this? This shows when one stops questioning an idea (which requires a spirit of doubt) it inflates into absurdity. Not only are the inflated ideas in ‘The Secret’ absurd, they lead to a breakdown of compassion and a propping up of the worst of our narcissistic tendencies.

  27. Orla says:

    While I haven’t seen the movie personally, several people have told me what it says, and I think part of the reason people don’t appreciate the message is because it’s not the whole message. If the law of attraction as explained in this movie is considered along with the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and the ancient teachings of the I Ching etc. its clear that the law of attraction will work the best for people who give (or will in the future attempt to give) value in return for what they attract. If you want your boss to give you a raise, you need to be of higher value to your boss than the money they will part with. Eckhart Tolle suggests that in order to fully enjoy life, one needs to ‘get rid of’ their ego and focus on the present. The I Ching regularly suggests aligning yourself with the will of “the Sage” i.e. to be modest and follow the morally correct path. I believe the reason that the law of attraction doesn’t work for everyone even though they ‘know’ the secret is because they have not attempted to see the full picture. The secret might be a good starting point but sooner or later it becomes clear that there is more to it than sitting down and thinking about what you want, opening the door and finding it there waiting for you.

    Say you want to know what your life purpose is; First, start by thinking positive thoughts or about things you like in order to get positive energy flowing; second, start sending out questions into the universe as to what your purpose is or what you should be doing; third, (I Ching) be patient and wait for the response and meanwhile remain present and enjoy those of your surroundings that appeal to you; fourth, when the response comes (random example, own your own cafe?!) try to figure out a way that you can incorporate that idea into a business plan where the ULTIMATE goal/purpose is CREATING VALUE FOR PEOPLE!; fifth, (action) start collecting information that you need – how to set up a business, becoming self employed, renting, insurance etc.; sixth, remain patient (I Ching) and present (Eckhart Tolle) while doing this and ideas and opportunities will come to you which will guide you even though it could take some time; seventh, as success comes your way remain true to the ultimate goal and be aware that it is not necessarily any extraordinary talent that you possess that got you there. Just like any professional athlete knows that there is an enormous amount of ‘behind the scenes’ effort in getting your fifteen minutes of fame, not just a talent that doesn’t need honing. Lebron James might be an excellent basketball player, but he trains very hard, all the time, the same is true for any success in life Therefore be humble and hard working. The idea is that if you find what you really want to do in life, it won’t seem like hard work and you will reap the rewards of giving value to people.

    This in my opinion is the only true way to attract what you want into your life. There is a specific purpose for every person in the world and with the right attitude the universe will help you get there. Many people do not have the right motives and so are not truly harnessing the power of the universal laws. I don’t know of too many people who have truly tried the aforementioned method, however I am currently trying it and am very excited by the results I am seeing but it is a long process. Too many people want results immediately, and as this doesn’t happen, they consider this to be useless information for fools to believe in, but if used correctly, I truly believe it works.

  28. Bobodread says:

    The Secret ruined my life. The Law of Attraction manual by Abraham was suggested to me by a psychic, who was unable to provide me with any meaningful advice. She’s out of business, in financial ruin, and is the love slave of some reincarnation of Jesus, who by the way, is in jail in order to work out karma stuff. The Secret made me a lazy daydreaming idiot for 7 years. Now that I want a career, I have to answer some hard questions and face up to the realities of the rejection. I’m not white, blonde nor do I have a passport from a first world country, and my fiance stole all my money. It’s an uphill struggle for me. I have only myself to rely on.

  29. Lucky says:

    Wonder how it fits in with the biblical story of Job. I recall he was a fairly loyal stand up guy and had all sorts of crap thrown his way just to be tested.
    Do we not need failure, bad, misery to test us?
    Persons born into wealth or royalty…what do they need of the secret?

    • Paul says:

      That is why Jesus said it is very difficult for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (the system of manifestation) ….

  30. Cal Engime says:

    ‘After all it is true that, at the quantum level, a scientist has great difficulty recording and measuring particles and their interactions without changing the results of the investigation. Is this because the scientist’s mind is influencing the experiment? Is it because the scientist perceived the experiment and, as a result of perceiving, changed the results? No. The answer is far more mundane. To put it in crudely simplistic terms, as soon as the scientist switches on the light to see what’s going on, other particles, like photons, get in the way. It is the photons that are responsible for messing up the results, not the thoughts of the experimenter. This explanation has the obvious disadvantage of being extremely boring and must be ruled out on the basis that it doesn’t support the “create your own reality” claim.’

    I’m afraid it also has the disadvantage of being incorrect; interference from other particles is not the basis of the uncertainty principle. It is based on the wave nature of matter and is independent of the measurement process.

    But that is a separate issue from whether or not there is a special role for the observer in quantum mechanics (though not necessarily a conscious observer), which depends on one’s interpretation; there is currently no consensus on which is correct. The traditional Copenhagen interpretation does have a causal role for the observer; interpretations which lack wave function collapse (such as the many-worlds interpretation) and objective collapse theories (such as the Penrose interpretation) do not.

  31. PB says:

    The best comment in all these is from Orla. Thanks for summarising so well. The Secret seen by itself will appear frivolous and full of hot air to many. But if seen as one element of a larger picture (and here is where the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and the Vedanta school of thought from India – look up http://www.chinfo.org – come in) then there can be found some validity. I suspect in their need to make a commercially lucrative concept out of this, the proponents have overexcitedly pushed materialistic examples that would find quick appeal, but ultimately what it alludes to is the power of positive thinking. I do agree with many therefore who say this is really no secret at all. Eckhart Tolle’s writings are fantastic and provide a complete holistic view of the larger concept. I would recommend them as mandatory reading for anyone with curiosity about this whole area of discussion.

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