Want to buy a new house? Think: House, House, House, HOUSE! Do this for a few days, weeks or months, without giving up or losing hope, and before you know it, there will be money in your bank account, an EMI for a house, and even friends bringing house-warming gifts. Need a new car? Ditto. Want to become a stand-up comedian? Think, think and think hard enough about wanting it, and your jokes will magically become funnier, your audiences larger, and your stage-presence the stuff of legend.
To those of you who haven’t heard of this before, I’m referring to the ideas in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 film ‘The Secret’, which was also released as a self-help book of the same name.
Earlier this year in January the director Raja Gosnell agreed to adapt the story from this book into a movie of the same name, a piece of news that managed to escape those of us not prone to falling for spiritual tripe. In the grand tradition of dealing in and selling happiness and the secret to success, this wonderful 198 page gem of a book explains in earnest enthusiasm the erstwhile hidden ‘secret’ of our very physical existence. It seems that a ‘natural law’ exists, hitherto unknown from the knowledge of the general public (and of course, natural scientists), known only to a select few elite who have profited from it and have, as usual, kept it secret from us poor fools. This law pertains to the existence of a magnetic ability in human thought, allowing humans to reorient the statistical working of the entire universe to suit the dreams and desires of any individual if they put their minds to it. If you think about something and express a particular emotion in your mind, the mind generates a ‘magnetic field’ of the frequency of that emotion, sending it out into the universe. The resulting ‘waves’ begin to attract anything that is similar to the emotion or thought corresponding to that frequency, setting in motion events that will move the individual’s life in that direction.
Or at least, that’s what I understood after reading the even more verbose claims in the book.
The author terms this the ‘Law of Attraction‘. Apparently, like things attract each other, so if you think nice, happy thoughts, nice and happy things and events will be attracted to you. The same applies for not-so-nice, nasty things. If you combine this with the idea that whatever you think is propagated out of your mind like waves of energy, it implies that your thoughts can directly affect the working of the physical universe.
The Law of Attraction is not a very recent idea. It first became popular in the 19th century during the New Thought movement, when an otherwise obscure American author called Prentice Mulford popularised it in his writing. In the 1970s, during the height of the American counterculture revolution, there arose a New Age movement, which was basically a rehash of some of the ideas of the New Thought movement, with a little extra inspiration from Eastern mysticism and psychedelic experimentation. ‘The Secret’ is a product of these ideas.
The film itself is a full one hour and 30 minutes of mind-numbing woo. It starts off with fantastical claims that attempt to trace the origin of the Secret back in time across many civilizations. Nothing is explicitly said, of course, or even referenced. Some interesting sequences are flashed for a few minutes that represent the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and even the Knights Templar. A list of the names of famous people who supposedly knew of it is trotted out: Plato, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison and of course, Albert Einstein. After all, no list of alleged woocraft can exclude Einstein. It is claimed that there are people alive today who know the Secret, without any mention of who these supposed masters are or where they got this idea from.
A number of talking heads then continue to describe this Secret throughout the video, lead by a man named Bob Proctor, a ‘philosopher’. He takes the cake when it comes to making the largest number of absurd claims in the entire video. Sounding like a conspiracy theory, he claims in the book,
“Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns
around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? Do
you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They
understand something. They understand The Secret, and now
you are being introduced to The Secret.”
At some point in the video, in an attempt to persuade the viewer into accepting the idea, he argues that something isn’t false simply because it’s too complicated to understand. He says,
“If you don’t understand the law that doesn’t mean you should
reject it. You may not understand electricity, and yet you
enjoy the benefits of it. I don’t know how it works. But I do
knew this: You can cook a man’s dinner with electricity, and
you can also cook the man!”
The point is then made that you needn’t understand how the law of attraction might actually work in order to accept that it is true. On the face of it, that may sound fair, but we know this is an ill-disguised attempt at arguing from ignorance, something woo-masters are quite fond of doing.
In order to lend some kind of credibility to all this, one of the talking heads turns out to be a quantum physicist. I sat up in my seat at this point, and decided to take a closer look. It turns out the physicist in the video is none other than Fred Alan Wolf, one of the physicists of the Fundamental Fysiks Group. The antics of this group merits an entire article of its own, but it would suffice to say that while their credentials as formerly practising physicists with a certified education and meaningful contributions to physics are not in question, their interpretations of quantum physics, and their attempts to link it to the study of human consciousness has been a prime source of much of the misappropriation of quantum physics at the hands of pseudo-gurus like Deepak Chopra. In the video, Wolf argues that quantum physics points to the ‘fact’ that the human mind is at the centre of physical phenomena in the universe by actually shaping it through the mere act of perceiving it, which is really just a pseudoscientific spin on the quantum problem of measurement.
It is one thing to say that measurements of dynamical variables of the same quantum system are affected by the act of measurement, and an entirely different thing to argue that, by analogy, the entire universe is shaped by the mere thoughts of human beings. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann famously referred to this habit of invoking quantum physics to justify metaphysical and spiritual claims as ‘quantum flapdoodle’. The Secret is a cleverly conceived piece of feel-good woocraft buttressed by quantum flapdoodle.
The ludicrousness of the idea is perhaps best summarized by a statement made in the video that likens the entire process of using the Secret to ordering whatever you want from the universe. The Secret is supposed to consist of just three things: asking, believing, and receiving. You just have to ask the universe for precisely what you want (and specifically only what you want, not what you don’t want), allow the universe to answer your demands by believing fervently, and receiving it by behaving like you would if you actually received what you’ve asked for. An analogy is actually made to the story from The Arabian Nights about Aladdin’s lamp. The Genie in the lamp is a metaphor for the entire universe, merely waiting to listen to your wish and grant it to you as if you commanded it to do so.
It would be quite difficult to enumerate in detail every single example of downright absurdity that is the entirety of this film. I personally found it very difficult to believe that most people, even those who may be prone to superstition or faux spirituality, could actually take claims of this sort seriously and live by it as a principle. But experience has taught me to never underestimate the power of large numbers of gullible people. The financial success of this scam and its purveyors was made possible in part due to it being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the film and book made over million, according to Forbes magazine in 2009. No wonder they’re going to milk it even further with a new movie adaptation.
The official website of the Secret hosts several anecdotal accounts, and even has one by a woman who claims she cured her cancer using the Secret. Never mind the fact that she was following the prescribed treatment by chemotherapy, or that her medicines were changed during the course of the treatment. The idea that this belief could help the terminally ill by acting as a placebo is also dangerous, as it encourages people to take no initiative of their own to counter their illness by seeking medical help. The mechanism of placebo can only really work for a few well-documented cases in medicine, and it is still subjective and cannot be objectively upheld as a course of treatment. But, as is often the case, there is no dearth of laymen and even a few professionals in medicine who will nevertheless see this as a positive and desirable addition to conventional treatments.
It would be more productive to counter the soft approval for this that might sometimes be encountered by those who think sceptics like me are conceited in our attempts at trying to dissuade ordinary people from seeking comfort from whatever fantasy they see fit. These well-meaning critics might argue that this whole charade should be forgiven if it can actually help people who are struggling with personal problems cope with issues such as self-esteem, depression and the loss of loved ones. They might argue, for instance, that The Secret, while not truly accurate, nevertheless emphasises the role of positive thinking and optimism in our lives, and that the value of positivity is self-affirming. The problem with this argument is that it is actually based on an exaggerated faith in the power of positive thinking. Obviously, thinking positive thoughts and maintaining an optimistically goal-oriented demeanour will generally orient you towards taking actions and making decisions that help you achieve the specific goals in your life. A positive outlook will also lead to selectively focusing on the positive events and outcomes of one’s endeavours. Surely, that’s wonderful, right?
Wrong. As the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out in great detail in this video, blindness to reality in the garb of positive thinking is counter-productive and often very dangerous. More specifically to our case, the Secret itself is simply not true literally OR figuratively. The figurative sense in which such a claim might be true is itself too subjective to be validated in any way, relying entirely on anecdotal accounts that are themselves provided by those selling it. It is not testable or falsifiable, and anything that happens to someone in the course of their lives can be argued one way or another to be the result of something they may have thought about at some time or the other. Because neither precise causative mechanism nor any definable time-frame of action can be seen for the Secret to work, it remains nothing more than an ad hoc explanation.
This entire charade seems to combine America’s craze for self-help books with the enthusiasm for New Age quackery. It is as much a cultural peculiarity as it is a manifestation of a deeper lack of public rationality. As an observer living in India, I can only say that this is but one form of woocraft, and there is enough of the same thing happening in our country all the time, represented not by self-help spirituality gurus but by self-styled godmen and godwomen whose profits would put the purveyors of The Secret to shame. For a believer in these charlatans, there is no need for a universal Secret, only the loving trust in one’s chosen baba or mata.