The Radford Files
Selling Secrets to Suckers
Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling New Age self-help book has been on the best seller lists for 60 weeks and counting. Sixty weeks! That’s an amazing amount of time for any book, but that’s exactly what The Secret has done. For the two or three of you out there who haven’t read or heard of it, The Secret is a book (and film) that basically says if you want something badly enough, the cosmos will provide it. Filled with easy answers and feel-good advice, it of course has been an incredible success.
Shortly after The Secret came out, I was asked by Newsweek magazine to review the book and provide my take on it. In sum, it’s not a bad book if you're able to believe things you know aren’t true, turn off your logic and critical thinking skills, and adapt your personal beliefs to someone else’s self-contradictory and nonsensical ideas. I can’t.
Whenever I encounter a person who claims to know the secrets of the universe, I am always curious to know how they know what they are saying is true. If a physicist claims to have discovered a universal law, others ask what his or her proof is. How do you know what you have found is real? A sure sign of crank literature is a self-appointed expert whose main source is a personal inspiration or revelation.
So where did Byrne get the Secret? It seems she more or less made it up, crafting The Secret from a sketchy patchwork of quantum physics, dubious New Age mysticism, some common-sense principles and a rediscovered 1910 book called The Science of Getting Rich. Byrne decided she had stumbled on the key to the universe and it all made sense to her. After searching for loosely related quotes by eminent historical figures, Byrne decided they, too, knew the Secret. Byrne co-opts historical figures such as Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison as great bearers of the Secret, which would likely puzzle them were they alive today (though Oprah Winfrey heavily promoted the book and gushed that she had been unknowingly using the Secret her whole life).
To help explain her ideas, Byrne draws on a panel of 24 teachers, larded with self-help gurus and metaphysicians, with a few MBAs, fringe quantum physicists and even a feng shui expert thrown in for good measure.
The basic problem with the premise behind The Secret is that it has no basis in reality. If the book were clearly labeled fiction, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as a “self-help” book that guides people’s lives, this is dangerous. The Secret, Rhonda Byrne states, lies in a New Age idea called the “Law of Attraction.” It states that similar things attract each other, so positive thoughts bring positive things and negative ones bring negative things. Therefore, goes the dubious logic, if we think about things we want, we will get them. (This is what psychologists call “magical thinking.” Of course, in physics, it is opposites that attract, but this Law of Attraction has nothing to do with science.)
The Secret gets in deep trouble when it halfheartedly tries to explain the mechanism by which the Law of Attraction supposedly works. For example, one basic tenet is that our thoughts send out vibrations that the universe (or some unspecified power) somehow deciphers and responds to. If we want to be thinner or have a new car, the universe will provide it if we only think about it hard enough and believe we will get it. But even if the Law of Attraction was valid, how exactly would the pounds come off and the new BMW appear?
While The Secret is superficially appealing, the concept makes less sense the closer you look. The best antidote to the Secret’s silliness is a little common sense. Is it really true that thinking about something a lot makes it happen or brings it about? It would be wonderful if the premise underlying The Secret were true. The Law of Attraction sounds interesting, but where is the evidence for it in the real world? A few examples:
1) The crime rate has steadily declined over the past 20 years. FBI statistics show that in 2005, crime was at its lowest level since records began being kept. Yet even as crime dropped in the '80s and '90s, the public grew more fearful of crime, fueled by alarmist news coverage. If the amount of real crime were linked with the amount that people thought about crime, the rate should have skyrocketed. Instead, the opposite occurred.
2) Millions of Americans have been concerned about further acts of terrorism on American soil in the months and years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, yet nothing has happened. If Byrne’s Law of Attraction is valid, thinking makes it happen, and so many people thinking about another attack should have brought it about. Once again, the Law of Attraction fails the test.
3) Everyone who plays the lottery thinks about winning and being rich (otherwise they wouldn’t play), yet very few win. If the Law of Attraction works, why would that be? Shouldn’t all of the players win, if all it takes is desire and thought? Did the winners think more positive thoughts or want the money more than the other 99.8 percent of losers? Or was it simply random chance, the luck of the draw?
4) Hospitals are full of sick people who wish, think and pray to get well. While of course a positive outlook is helpful for medical recovery, plenty of pessimistic patients recover, and many optimistic ones do not.
Author Lisa Nichols, featured in the film version of the book, explains that “every time you look inside your mail expecting to see a bill, guess what? It will be there. You’re expecting debt, so debt must show up so you don’t think you’re crazy. Every day you confirm your thoughts. Debt is there because of the Law of Attraction. Do yourself a favor: Expect a check!”
Doesn’t that make sense? Isn’t that easy? According to The Secret’s economic insights, the problem is not our bills or debt, the problem is that we are expecting those pesky bills! Stop expecting them and they will go away. Apparently, the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes over the past year in the mortgage foreclosure disaster just didn’t use the Secret. I wonder how much time Oprah spent skimming the book before deciding to promote this half-baked twaddle.
The Secret sees a purpose behind everything and assumes there is no randomness in the universe. Whatever your circumstance, you have brought it on yourself. According to The Secret, “Everything that comes into your life you are attracting into your life by your thoughts.” The Secret holds that if you have an accident or disease, it’s your fault. There is of course a grain of truth to this: If a drunk wanders onto a highway and is hit, it’s likely his fault; if a lifelong smoker gets lung cancer, it’s likely her fault. But is everything we experience of our own making?
If an airplane crashes, does that mean that one or more of the passengers brought that on himself? What about the thoughts and feelings of the other people onboard the plane? Did the one person’s negative thoughts somehow override the positive thoughts of the others? Did soldiers killed in Iraq simply not think enough positive thoughts to avoid death? If all it took for wealth, success and happiness is positive thoughts and feelings, the world would be a very different place.
Of course, there are a few generic, positive messages amid the pablum. Yes, an optimistic outlook is better than a pessimistic one. Yes, our thoughts and feelings influence how we experience the world. This is no secret.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Books like The Secret cross my desk every few weeks. I’ve got a bookshelf full of very similar New Age self-helpers written by people who, like Byrne, had a personal revelation or inspiration and decided they discovered the secrets of the universe. Everybody loves a secret, and 60 weeks on the best-seller list proves it. The secret to The Secret’s phenomenal success is its slick marketing campaign; it’s a timeworn trick of mixing banal truisms with New Agey magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge. The last self-help book I saw with such a slick marketing scheme was The Celestine Prophecy, which author James Redfield turned into a moneymaking cottage industry.
The Secret is nothing new, nor is it a secret. New Age bookshelves are overflowing with authors who claim to know and reveal the secrets of the universe. For decades, self-help books like this one have offered up easy answers to life’s problems (such as “thinking makes it happen”). If any of those books really contained the secrets to success and happiness, the self-help industry would be out of business. If The Secret lived up to its hype, the self-help bookshelves will soon be empty. Instead, next week, next month and next year, people who didn’t find the answer in The Secret will keep searching—and buying more books.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.