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Scientific American

The (Other) Secret

published June 2007 | comments (20)
The inverse square law trumps the law of attraction
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An old yarn about a classic marketing con game on the secret of wealth instructs you to write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail. When your marks receive the book, they discover the secret — write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail.

A confidence scheme similar to this can be found in The Secret (Simon & Schuster, 2006), a book and DVD by Rhonda Byrne and a cadre of self-help gurus that, thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, have now sold more than three million copies combined. The secret is the so-called law of attraction. Like attracts like. Positive thoughts sally forth from your body as magnetic energy, then return in the form of whatever it was you were thinking about. Such as money. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts,” we are told. Damn those poor Kenyans. If only they weren’t such pessimistic sourpusses. The film’s promotional trailer is filled with such vainglorious money mantras as “Everything I touch turns to gold,” “I am a money magnet,” and, my favorite, “There is more money being printed for me right now.” Where? Kinko’s?

A pantheon of shiny, happy people assures viewers that The Secret is grounded in science: “It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.” No, it hasn’t. “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.” Those ungrateful cancer patients. “You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.” Sure, if you convert your body’s hydrogen into energy through nuclear fission. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you.” But in magnets, opposites attract — positive is attracted to negative. “Every thought has a frequency … If you are thinking that thought over and over again you are emitting that frequency.”

The brain does produce electrical activity from the ion currents flowing among neurons during synaptic transmission, and in accordance with Maxwell’s equations any electric current produces a magnetic field. But as neuroscientist Russell A. Poldrack of the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to me, these fields are minuscule and can be measured only by using an extremely sensitive superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) in a room heavily shielded against outside magnetic sources. Plus, remember the inverse square law: the intensity of an energy wave radiating from a source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from that source. An object twice as far away from the source of energy as another object of the same size receives only onefourth the energy that the closer object receives. The brain’s magnetic field of 10–15 teslas quickly dissipates from the skull and is promptly swamped by other magneticsources, not to mention the earth’s magnetic field of 10–5 teslas, which overpowers it by 10 orders of magnitude!

Ceteris paribus, it is undoubtedly better to think positive thoughts than negative ones. But in the real world, all other things are never equal, no matter how sanguine your outlook. Just ask the survivors of Auschwitz. If the law of attraction is true, then the Jews—along with the butchered Turkish-Armenians, the raped Nanking Chinese, the massacred Native Americans and the enslaved African-Americans — had it coming. The latter exemplar is especially poignant given Oprah’s backing of The Secret on her Web site: “The energy you put into the world — both good and bad — is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day.” Africans created the circumstances for Europeans to enslave them?

Oprah, please, withdraw your support of this risible twaddle — as you did when you discovered that James Frey’s memoir was a million little lies — and tell your vast following that prosperity comes from a good dollop of hard work and creative thinking, the way you did it.

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20 Comments to “The (Other) Secret”

  1. William Patrick Haines Says:

    Although disagree with his book that cheerleads the American economic system . This is long overdue debunking of a sick , depraved and delusional book . I highly recomend who moved my secrect
    http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/09/20/233038.php

  2. Thomas A. Vance Says:

    It don’t hurt to think positive, however one must always remember, just because you think it or feel it whatever IT is, that don’t make it so! Positive thoughts usually makes people feel good so life seems better even though things may not have changed a bit. That’s where this stuff comes from.

  3. Christine Brean Says:

    In The Secret video a boy wants a bike. He “attracked” it by going out and earning money to buy it. A man writes on a paper “$100,000″ and posts it above his bed. He studies it each morning and night. While showering one day he “suddenly” remembers he wrote a book some time ago and decides to publish it. You guessed it. He got $100,000! Tell me, whats so secret about that? The two (stupid) examples from the video just prove that you gotta work to get what you want. Simply thinking about it does not produce it.

  4. Bill Perron Says:

    I have been using the philosophy “The Secret” teaches for many years, my health is fantastic, my mind is clear, my mortgage was paid twelve years early, I am doing exactly what I want to do, and have been doing it for over 25 years now. You can knock what you don’t understand and refuse to try, but that is such a stupid way to learn, especially for someone who thinks tey are open minded and intelligent, but their negativity proves otherwise.

  5. The (Other) Secret | ZAVibes Says:

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  6. John Curtis Says:

    The Secret is the latest and by far the worst example of a HIGHLY profitable trend where self-help gurus with fabricated new age titles and little relevant education, credentials or legitimate expertise brainwash us into believing that they know what is best for us, our marriages and our families.

    Often their only contribution to society is introducing some exotic sounding, new age philosophy. However, they often cleverly form an incestuous group of like-minded “experts” who cross-promote each other by swearing their success is due to following the beliefs of another member of their “cult!” All the while, they ply the airwaves jockeying for an ever-larger audience by appearing in the national media to garner third-party endorsements.

    The Self-Help Movement has become the Self-Destruct Movement by diminishing or destroying our critical thinking skills to choose and evolve on our own. We have given up the freedom to build healthy lives, marriages and families based on our unique history and life experience. Instead many victims, blinded to the value of their own life experiences, are attracted to the latest secret in self-help, in an attempt to find out what they should think, feel and how they should act… this is the definition of a cult.

    The solution is a return to our (common) senses! The best way out of this learned “self-helplessness” is to go cold turkey. Stop following ALL self-help gurus now. Begin, instead, to reclaim your natural, God-given ability to think for yourself. The common sense that was once readily available to all of us is still there free of charge and waiting to be applied to just about any challenge we might face in life… all you have to do is use it.

    Please, let’s all work together to stop the flock of “sheepeople” who blindly move from one UNPROVEN concept to the next, looking for the answers to life’s challenges that you already possess and that is the OBVIOUS!

  7. Bill Perron Says:

    The negativity of the comments from many who have posted here really indicates how much they need the “Secret”. It is amazing how they can blindly accept the garbage put out by liars such as James Randi blatantly spews, yet will not even try something positive as the philosophy of the “Secret”, or other open minded positive thinkers. So called “critical thinkers” really need a good shot of “self help” and a lot less of “know it allism”

  8. Tom Aman Says:

    The Secret was obviously know to Jesus: Mark 11:24 (New King James Version) ‘Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.’

    The Secret has been around for a long time. The advice keeps showing up again and again in sometimes surprising places if you watch for it. I use it and it works.

    The big problem is that, for it to work, you have to believe. Many who try it don’t really believe they will get the desired result so they don’t.

    The naysayers here are saying it doesn’t work, that it is wishful thinking or that the results only come with a lot of hard work. If that is what they believe, that is what they will get. In a negative way, they are just proving that it does work as advertised.

  9. Chuck Hash Says:

    Hey, Tom. I truly, truly believe the world would be a better place without the religious and the kind of person who would buy ‘The Secret’. So, how come you people are still around?

  10. Rebekah Dekker Says:

    I wonder if the “Secret” people studied the Silva Mind Control Method (http://www.silvamethod.com/), which is this same garbage, but was “invented” by Jose Silva in 1966. He didn’t actually invent it – it’s been going through various incarnations pushed by various unscrupulous charlatans for centuries.

    The Secret book is currently taking up a whole bookstore window here in Israel. Sad that they’re exporting such tripe.

  11. Jaco Says:

    The problem with credibility of “the secret” is quite clear if for example you look at competative sport – world cup final , both teams are highly motivated and extremely positive and truly believe in their capabilities and the “fact” that they are going to win along with millions of their fanatic supporters yet there must be a winner and a loser.
    What about chance and luck?
    The “Secret” can do more harm than good – teaching people that their believe in something and mind over matter approach can and must solve all their problems and realize their wildest dreams without teaching them that you need to step up to challenges, look the “demon” in the eye and maintain a straight forward pro-active approach to addressing your problems in a possitive way and adapt to circumstances, is misleading at best.
    The good points of possitive thinking can be much easier illustrated and taught to people through educating them in taking an annalytical approach to problem solving and questioning anything that teaches you that you are not required to use thinking and acting on aquired information and that everything will “magically” work out if you are possitive alone.

  12. Magda Healey Says:

    The most despicable thing in the likes of The Secret (apart from the mercenary greed behind it, of course) is the abuse of scientific language. Thus, a nice pointer about the inverse square law, but isn’t even such argument equivalent to debating with young Earth creationists?

    I have written my own (a bit indulgent, but hey, I think I deserved a treat after actually reading the thing) review of the book and was encouraged by mostly positve response. There is hope for reason yet.

  13. Magda Healey Says:

    Oops, forgot the link:

    http://www.thebookbag.co.uk/reviews/index.php/The_Secret_by_Rhonda_Byrne

  14. Joan P. Says:

    Buddha taught that suffering comes from desiring. If you want wealth, even if you get it you will be unhappy. Monks have nothing but a robe and a rice-bowl, but they are the happiest people on earth.

  15. Phyllis Maximilien Says:

    Even if all of this had some basis or truth to it, (the law of attraction, the secret), which I seriously doubt, the problem with it is basically tied to the material. Money making schemes, and individuals obsessed with materialism. Saddly there is nothing spirtual or mind opening in these theories. For me that’s enough to reject them.

  16. Pam P. Says:

    Not sure where to even start. For me the law of attraction makes complete sense – maybe not exactly like The Secret or whoever’s the next popular guru. It’s one law of the universe like the law of karma. For the writer to give examples of groups of people as why this “stuff doesn’t work” is ridiculous. Don’t the Hindu religions also classify people in a caste system based on karma? I don’t agree with this either. Sounds like the law of the land to me – has nothing to do with the law of attraction or karma.

    However I will say that there is something behind mass consciousness that emphasizes being a victim or a survivor within certain groups and this can perpetuate throughout generations. If Oprah held unto the belief that she was a little black girl growing up in TN, the granddaughter of slaves, with very little options in the 60s would she had garnered as much success in her lifetime? She says that she did not hold onto that belief, she knew she could have more – not just materialistically but spiritually she knew she was more than that. And she says that she worked hard…but we all know folks who work hard and still don’t reach beyond their beliefs or thinking about what/how they can acheive.

    I also don’t agree that success is always about material things – it is about looking at your life and seeing what you have, being grateful, and feeling that you have abundance around you whether it’s through love, relationships…and oh well yes stuff.

    As with any new thought, philosophy, or religion, people will use it for spiritual gain… I don’t think that’s the only intent for the gurus of the law of the attraction but if it gets more people think more positively I’m all for it. Honestly I’m tired of the cynics…give it a rest.

  17. Hernan Navas Says:

    I don’t think you’re a cynic for disbelieving what defies logic, common sense and verifiability. This is where religion, faith and “the gurus of the law of the attraction” differ from science. Scientists make mistakes like everyone else, but there’s a tradition in science of skepticism and a tradition of verifying each other’s contentions. The religious, and the “gurus”, on the other hand are reluctant to challenge what other members of the professional cast says. They take each other’s words on faith and require everyone else to do the same.

  18. Brad Says:

    The problem with the folks who believe in the Secret is that do what most people do…they look for the evidence that SUPPORTS their belief and deny the evidence that goes against it. For everyone who says “it works”, ask yourself “When didn’t it work?” After all, it can’t work every time. What you will find yourself doing it talking yourself into believing it worked for a reason and then looking for reasons WHY it didn’t work (“I didn’t believe hard enough”, “I gave out the wrong energy”…etc). You create your successes with post hoc reasoning and you rationalize your failures the same way. [And I am not even going to discuss the 'science' behind this scam...for if you believe that their 'science' is real, then you have no idea what science is. The secret is not falsifiable, ergo, it is not science. Wrapping scientific mumbo jumbo around it doesn't make it true!]

  19. Fagan Roberts Says:

    I am a huge fan of the free market system because I understand that my goals in life, my dreams, my desires and pursuits are MY OWN, and it should not be determined nor impeded by the deterences of the parasitical greed of interlopers and government over taxation and regulation.

    As an atheist I understand that if this were a book about how to extract the most money from taxpayers to give to whom the state determines as “the needy” for votes, most atheists would have no problem with it. For many atheists are statetheists at heart. (Most people have to believe in some higher power/authority, I guess)

    But it is a spritual based book and not a material one. Which is enough for smart people to reject it. But here you have a clutch of moneyed people making a buck off the spiritually credulous. Don’t buy the book. Nothing new here.

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