The Secret: A Rant Against Self-Help Pseudo-Science
Every few years, a new book or movie captures the New Age Heart of the World (or at least middle class America). These bestsellers promise of everything from enlightenment and powers of levitation to riches and world peace, and are hawked with all the sincerity, appeal and effectiveness of a celebrity diet fad.
This season’s run-away hit is called The Secret. It’s a book, it’s a DVD, it’s a down-loadable video file. It slices, it dices, it steams the wrinkles out of your laundry while you sleep.
It also manages to misrepresent science, history, and philosophy. It belittles the hard work and exceptional achievements of individuals like Einstein, Shakespeare and da Vinci (all of whom are pictured in the introduction of the DVD, and are presumed successful because they knew The Secret) Ito promotes a philosophy of narcissism which blames victims for their own circumstances. All of this for the purchase price of 19.95 (or just $4.95 pay per view, online)
But never mind all that… quit focusing on the negatives! Because that is, in fact, the big Secret: Think Positive. That’s it. If you learn The Secret you can get rich, and healthy, successful, popular, famous and oh yeah, did we mention RICH? (and did we mention 4.95, pay per view?)
The Secret isolates the popular notion of positive-visualization, cranks it into hyperdrive, and applies it to to the Self and personal desire. Then it slaps on a label of The Law of Attraction, and pretends that the whole thing is a revelation backed by both modern science and thousands of years of wisdom.
The oogity factor is unbelievable here. I’d really fall in love with this, in a B-movie kind of way, it if it weren’t so spiritually, philosophically, historically, scientifically and religiously bankrupt.
The Secret’s Law of Attraction isn’t a proper law by legal or scientific standards; it’s just the idea that our thoughts determine our destiny, with a pseudo-scientific label attached.
Plenty of modern books have been sold on the subject, and it’s been floating around under that name for a hundred years at least (according to Wikipedia) I vaguely remember it being a concept in Western Occultism as well (a movement that’s always been fond of making up pretentious sounding laws) though I’m too lazy to go look it up right now.
So the premise behind The Secret it isn’t a new idea, or even a recently uncovered secret of the ages; it’s just positive thinking with better marketing.
Prettied up in antiqued parchment and images that draw on the Da Vinci Code Craze, the editing of the first DVD intro implies ancient and violent conspiracies to suppress this information.
References to long standing and powerful secret societies really help get movies and books onto the best sellers lists, it seems.
But here’s the Secret, the free version. To get what you want in life, says the film, all you have to do is think about what you want, and avoid thinking about what you don’t want. You don’t even have to monitor your thoughts with much discipline. According to the trailer on YouTube, it’s all taken care of for you, automatically, once you understand The Secret (which isn’t a secret, but they’ll sell it to you anyway).
As an example of a just-add-water instant success program, The Secret is impressive.
In fact, I’m not sure it even requires water; it certainly doesn’t require work.
There’s the rub.
Positive thinking is just one potential part of that effort, and not even a necessary part of that effort.
And even great effort alone (no matter how positive) does not equal success.
Great success requires a lot of factors coming together in the right way at the right time, many of them environmental and out of our control.
Good things don’t happen just because we focus on them, and bad things don’t happen just because someone fears or focuses on them. Things happen, and they often happen no matter *what* we are thinking, because our thoughts are only a minor part of the equation that creates our lives.
Even more important, the impact of our thoughts in that equation varies, according to on the external circumstances of our lives.
Those people in affluent, privileged and protected societies (like middle class America, meaning me, and probably you) have more options, more possibilities for both success and failure, more opportunities to change their own individual fortunes. For those of us whose over all circumstances are pretty positive, our thoughts often have a huge impact on elements of our life, because our environment isn’t the sole or even primary limiting factor in our lives; our own choices make a big difference.
But for people in war-torn, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden areas, the impact of an individual’s attitude is much more limited. Through disciplined thoughts, they might find happiness and peace even in the worst of circumstances, but it’s unlikely that thought alone will change their larger circumstances, much less end a drought or manifest a 40 inch television and a power plant to run it.
It’s narcissistic in the extreme to believe that our individual thoughts are the single most important factor in reality, a narcissism that is apparently found throughout The Secret. In her article The Hubris of The Secret, Valerie Reiss mentions a disturbing quote from the film: “It’s not your job to make the world a better place…”
If there is any shred of truth to the idea that what we hold in our minds manifests in reality, in any sense, then it would be our job, obligation and duty to hold the greater good in our minds. The power implied in The Secret should, by its very nature imply a great responsibility towards others…. But responsibility on a global scale isn’t an easy sell in a privileged society, not compared to magically thinking a hawt pair of Prada shoes or a new fully loaded SUV into existence.
Thankfully, are quite a few folks debunking The Secret, and I expect more to crop up. Interestingly, some of the debunkers are using it as a platform to expose the larger problems of extreme-feel-good-philosophy that pervades the Oprah generation and feathers the nests of Sylvia Brown, Deepak Chopra, and countless other pseudo-gurus.
Since better minds than mine are debunking this stuff, I’ll stop ranting, drop a few links, and return to my dedicated practice of defensive pessimism.
More Offsite Info:
eSkeptic Magazine: The Secret Behind The Secret (scroll down for the right article)
Ken Wilbur and Julian Walker: Exploring “The Secret.” Part 1. (“It doesn’t help for people to be eating cardboard for lunch, even if it has ‘God’ written all over it….”)
The Law Of Attraction Is Real, The Secret Is Fake (worth reading just for the explanation of quantum flapdoodle)
Salon Magazine on Oprah’s promotion of The Secret (interesting perspective)
Anthony Cerminaro on Debunking The Secret (the last paragraph rang a little too true)
- The Secret: A Rant Against Self-Help Pseudo-Science
- Why The Secret Seems To Work: The Serial Debunking Begins!
- 10 Rational Reasons The Secret *Seems* To Work
- Hit and Miss: The Brain’s Bias