Friday, April 4, 2008

The rise of The Secret and the failure of our fairytales

I firmly believe that fairytales are important in the development of a child. They are far more than bed-time stories, they are lessons – lessons designed to teach the important truths of life in a way that even a child can grasp it. Granted, Fairytales were the products of their time and not every lesson should be followed. Girls don't need to live their lives waiting for a prince to come make everything OK. There are no happily ever afters and children really shouldn't accept magic beans from creepy strangers. But I maintain that there is a lot we can still learn from them. Especially tales like Stone soup or The Emperors new clothes teach us that there are smooth talking swindlers in this world who are out to take advantage of us by selling us nothing dressed up as something incredible. We should therefore be more careful, less naive and most of all we need to think!! Well, the fact that “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne is now the best selling self-help book of all time gives me the impression that either our fairytales have failed us miserably OR parents need to switch off the damn TV and start reading to their kids again!

The warning signs were everywhere! It’s written by a television producer involved in reality TV – that’s a big red light right there! After all, these are people who specialize in taking fiction, repackaging it smartly and serving it up as “real”. Furthermore everyone of the “Secret Teachers” (a group of “life coaches”, philosophers, quantum mystics, people with unaccredited Ph.D’s (like “Dr” John Gray) and experts in things like feng shui and metaphysics) seem to have their own course in self improvement they would encourage you to invest in. Then there is the fact that it is blessed by Oprah – always a bad sign. But mostly, what should be nagging in the back of your mind is the time honored axiom “If something seems too good to be true then it probably is”.

So what is “The Secret” all about? Well, basically it teaches that the whole universe obeys a principle called the "Law of Attraction". This principle puts forward that people's feelings and thoughts attract real events in the world into their lives; from the workings of the cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs ( Basically, if you want something bad enough, you will get it simply because you want it since the universe exists to cater to your every thought. Won the lottery? It’s because you wanted it more than the other 20 million people who played. Have cancer? Well that’s cause you wanted it! Raped, beaten and left for dead? You brought it on yourself! Home destroyed by a natural disaster? That’s your own fault for making it happen! See while the universe acts as your own personal genie it’s not very smart according to The Secret. Coupled with the power to grant your every whim, “the Universe” is somewhere on the sub-moron scale with regards to intelligence. How dumb is it? Well it cannot understand negatives (ex, “no”, “don’t”) so it’s definitely dumber than your average pet. See if you think “I don’t want to get shot and paralyzed in a shootout between police and robbers” the “Universe” hears: “I want to get shot and paralyzed in a shootout between police and robbers” and makes sure you get paralyzed in a shootout between cops and robbers. In other words the “universe” has the intelligence of a goldfish/pot plant. Just the kind of intelligence you want in charge of what happens to you, right?

Now for someone to be making claims as bold as this then surely they must have plenty of support to back it. The Secret certainly claims to have the support of the facts so let’s examine these claims.

Claim # 1: The Secret is an ancient truth

Yes that’s right, this is not simply a secret it is the secret, the secret of the ages passed down through the centuries. Now besides being an incredibly good marketing tool (let’s be honest, to most people “ancient secret” equals “profound truth”) is there actually anything to back this claim? Well no. See the earliest document containing “The Secret” is supposedly the Emerald Tablet. You know, the ancient text written by the Egyptian god Thoth and/or the Greek god Hermes on an emerald that contains the secrets of alchemy. (Also apparently “The Secret”.) So really in order to fact check the source material for this all one needs to do is find a mythical object! Basically this is all the proof you will get. Apart from cherry picking from pieces of ancient documents (like the Proverbs of Solomon) and various quasi religious positive thinking books there really is no proof that this is an ancient secret. Even if it was, why would that make it true? Trepanning (cutting a hole in a sick person’s skull to let the demons out) is a very ancient practice too, should we give that another whirl too?

In all fairness, I have to admit that this is in fact a rather old principle. The first time I came across it was in the Word of Faith movement (the Prosperity Gospel) dating back to the 60’s and 70’s. In fact if you had read books by the like of Kenneth Copeland and/or spent any time in a charismatic church, the three steps that act as the essence of the Law of Attraction: "ask, believe, receive" will leave you with the strangest sense of Déjà vu. So will all the instructions to “believe as if you have already received” and “know that you know that you know it will happen”. Really, when you get right down to it there is virtually no difference between Charismatic Christianity and The Secret – change “prosperity” to “reality creation”, dumb God down by a LOT and rename Him “The Universe” and you got The Secret! They even have the same total focus on getting more money and things! Look at Byrne's startling explanation of the spiritual significance of wealth:

If you have been brought up to believe that being wealthy is not spiritual, then I highly recommend you read The Millionaires of the Bible Series by Catherine Ponder. In these glorious books you will discover that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of. (P. 109)

Now look at the writings of any prosperity preacher – odds are you will run into the exact same claim. “The Secret” is nothing more than a get rich quick gospel repackaged as new age wisdom for a bored, unthinking middle class who wants to believe that you can get something for nothing.

(Of course in all fairness there is actually another, even older, source that I know of that contains “The Secret”. You may have encountered it too long ago in a well-guarded book handed down through the generations named "The Little Engine that Could".)

Claim # 2: The Secret is backed by authority

Another statement that proves that “The Secret” is a fact is the allegation that all the great names of history knew and practiced it:

The greatest teachers who have ever lived have told us that the law of attraction is the most powerful law in the Universe. … Great thinkers including Socrates, Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pythagoras, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Victor Hugo shared it in their writings and teachings. (P. 4)

Of course the only actual evidence given that any of these men wrote about or taught “The Secret” is a supposed Emerson quote: "The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will be." (P. 183). First problem with that quote is that it’s awfully vague and could really refer to any secret at all. Second problem is that no-one seems to be able to find the source for that quote. (See a pattern forming yet?) Besides if all of these great men shared it in their writings it would hardly be a secret! And since no one can find these references they must have kept “The Secret” a secret but the question then becomes how did Rhonda Byrne find out about it then?

Well I have to admit, even though it has no apparent root in fact and reality it’s another brilliant piece of marketing. People are suckers for conspiracy theories, everyone wants to be in on the real truth and this book makes exactly that promise. It comes down to “There is this secret that can make you rich and happy right, and while they have always known it but it they have always made sure that YOU don’t find out about it but now I will graciously make this secret (that they have been keeping from you) known for a reasonable fee.” You have to be in awe of marketing that clever! It does however remind me of a rather apt quote by one of the great minds of history that was strangely absent from the book:

"There are two things in the world that is infinite. The universe, and human stupidity. And I am not sure about the universe."

-Albert Einstein

Claim #3: The Secret is backed by science

Of course, enlightened 21st Century citizens of the world that we are, Ms Byrne doesn’t expect us to simply believe The Secret because of esoteric, mystical reasons. Far from it! You see, as it turns out the Law of Attraction is somehow based on quantum mechanics, and is therefore scientific. See, its not magic, its science! Or is it?

Quantum Mechanics is a highly mathematical theory which is extremely difficult to understand and, therefore, is a favorite of pseudoscientists. All that they have to do is claim that Quantum Mechanics supports their idea, in that way making the idea sound scientific, and scarcely anyone in their audience will be able to tell otherwise. See, in a way Quantum Mechanics is the new radiation. You know how back in the 50's & 60's radiation was wild and mysterious and not really understood so every comic book creator just used it to explain why superpowers happened? Well it seems that Quantum Mechanics has replaced radiation as that thing we don’t really understand but have heard just enough off to think it can explain the unexplainable. Now according to Rhonda Byrne “The Secret” helped her to understand Quantum Mechanics better than the leading minds of our age:

I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them. The study of quantum physics helped me to have a deeper understanding of The Secret, on an energetic level. (P. 156)

This is way they don't let you grade your own papers in College... But, to her credit, a couple of the contributors to the book are actual physicists. The best known one is John Hagelin, who got very few votes running three times for President of the United States on the Natural Law Party ticket, and currently is associated with the Maharishi University of Management. Both of these ventures are offshoots of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental meditation movement. In other words, Hagelin is an eccentric, to put it mildly. Now unlike Ms Byrne I have not received any help to understand what is arguably the most complex field of physics - I must not have wanted it enough... Therefore I will leave the debunking of this kind of Quantum Quackery to the experts:

Michael Shermer, Scientific American, 1/2005 , (this is a reposting of the original article on a blog. You can pay to read the original here: "Quantum Quackery"

Victor J. Stenger, "Quantum Quackery", Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2007

In conclusion then, "The Secret" has no foundation in fact or reality. Clearly it doesn’t work, that much should be plain to anyone bothering to look at the world. Despite infinite numbers of Miss Whatever contestants asking for world peace, why do we have none? Who asks, dreams and visualizes harder than teenagers? Yet how many hot celebs end up sleeping with their nerdy fans? Let’s go past those who believe all the way to those completely convinced – why do those in asylums rule their straitjackets and not the world? Are these examples too trivial? OK, here is one that’s not. Why do we have a thing such as unrequited love in this world if The Secret and the Law of Attraction is supposed to ALWAYS work (according to Secret Teacher Joe Vitale anyway)? When you fall in love with someone you ask for them (in one way or another), you hope, dream and believe that they will love you back and you try to receive their love with all your might. Why o why then, since the “Universe” is as dumb as a box of hammers and doesn’t know any better do you not then always get the object of your affection? Also, the entire sentiment that one gets struck by death, tragedy and disease because you are asking for it just sickens me. If there was any truth to “The Secret” would we even HAVE the 3rd world? Would there be squatter camps, concentration camps and death camps all over the globe? Would prisons even have inmates if dreaming of freedom magically gave it to you?

Now of course some would swear on their lives that the Law of Attraction really does work. Well, if it seems to work then maybe it’s because the very lesson that you could have learned (for far less money) from “The little engine that could” has some merit (as does all forms of positive thinking in one way or another): He thought he could do it, he worked towards his goal and he took the chance to prove he could do it when the situation presented itself. Amazing right?!! Also there is a lot of conformation bias (remembering and magnifying the hits and forgetting the misses) amongst those who claim it works. In this way "The Secret" is rather foolproof – if you get anything good then it’s due to "The Secret" working and if you don’t you probably just did it wrong. Then of course there is the often overlooked fact that just like prosperity teachings in the church, The Secret can work REALLY well – IF you happen to be a prosperity/secret teacher! Of course money seems to “just come to you” – you are taking up a collection for goodness sake!! Of course the results are no different. David Schirmer, the "investment guru" in the film, has his business activities under investigation by the Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC). This was reported on 1 June 2007 by A Current Affair in a segment titled "The Secret Con". The show initially confronted Schirmer in a segment titled "The Secret Exposed", aired on 28 May 2007, with complaints from people who say Schirmer owed them money. Turns out he was charging astronomical fees to teach his wealth gathering secrets to people, promising to invest a large sum (included in their class fees) on their behalf to show them just how great the system works. That’s the last anyone heard of their money.

In closing I beg you - remember what the fairytales taught you! There are a lot of people out there who will do their utmost to swindle you! THINK!! The Emperor is naked and so is "The Secret": it's an empty promise pretending to be dressed up as a profound truth. Don't be the emperor, be the kid who sees through the BS. Besides, believing in fairytales will leave you far less disappointed than believing the Universe to be your personal genie.

For more of the official criticisms against “The Secret” you can look at the following list of grievances on Wikipedia.

If you prefer something more light hearted, check out this humorous debunking of "The Secret" (that nevertheless completely destroys it) from some Australian skeptics:

1 comment:

Tania said...

As you say - easy to sell, especially since the writer includes a handy "if you fail it's YOUR fault" clause in her "secret". From a marketing scientist's side, I have to give her credit though!