New Pseudoscience Patina, Same Snake Oil

The Secret's self-help message is just common knowledge.

By Douglas Rushkoff
Jun 20, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:40 AM


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As the saying goes, opposites attract, as when an electron races to a positively charged ion, or the north pole of a magnet pulls the south pole of another. But try telling that to proponents of The Secret, the latest in a long line of spiritual systems aimed at selling personal prosperity through faulty scientific reasoning.

In case you’ve missed it on Oprah or Larry King Live, The Secret is a self-help DVD and companion book synthesizing the pitches of a few dozen of today’s most prominent self-help gurus. Its creator, an Australian named Rhonda Byrne, claims there’s a single truth underlying all these systems. It’s more ancient than the Bible and has been intentionally hidden from human beings for just as long. The great secret? Positive thinking. Abundance is a state of mind: Think healthy, and you’ll be healthy. Or more to the point, think rich, and you’ll get rich. Most of the spiritual teachers in The Secret are wealth-seminar leaders who display the book’s logo on their Web sites. The Secret has certainly worked wonders for its marketers: More than 1.5 million DVDs have been sold, and the book hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list of hardcover advice books.

While positive thinking no doubt has its benefits—from the placebo effect to good old self-confidence—The Secret tries to justify itself not only in the language of pop psychology but in that of modern physics. According to the book, happy thoughts will do more than affect behavior. It claims the interrelatedness of matter and energy (a principle proven by Einstein) allows people to change reality to their liking by changing the way they think about it. (Thought is presumably energy in this schema, and reality is matter.) For most, however, this potential for cosmic transmutation is limited to attracting more money into their personal bank accounts.

To be sure, it’s entertaining to marvel at Masaru Emoto, a Japanese alternative healer who claims that crystals grow more symmetrically inside bottles labeled with positive messages than in those with negative messages attached. But such “results” can be explained by the observer’s tendency to notice the crystals he is looking for rather than the ones that don’t fit his expectations. That’s why people basing psychiatric therapies on pseudoscientific research will get mixed results at best. Stick a Post-it note with a positive message on a schizophrenic’s forehead and see how far you get changing the water molecules in his brain into happy ones.

Meanwhile, a growing arsenal of healing machines based loosely on tenuous nonlocality theories from the fringes of quantum physics have become an increasingly popular alternative to the discomfort of scientifically verifiable chemotherapy. With names like SCIO and Rife, these machines don’t even need to be in the same room or city as the patient they’re treating—since, as their proponents reason, quantum mechanics doesn’t recognize physical distance. Sure, if this “energetic medicine” makes a person feel better or more optimistic—and doesn’t delay or replace therapies that might actually work—there’s no harm except to the wallet.

So why bother condemning all this wishful thinking? After all, who of us hasn’t ever experienced a bit of The Secret’s real power? Wearing an expensive suit to an interview or flying first class, as one of The Secret’s featured instructors suggests on his Web site, can make you feel and act differently. Sometimes spending more money does seem to bring more money in, and speaking positively often leads to better results than whining about how tough life is.

But such techniques are hardly new, let alone secret. Like mastering the will through self-hypnosis or better negotiating through body language, the “power of positive thinking” has nearly a century-old track record among car dealers, admen, and others for whom attitude means as much as, if not more than, attributes. It’s from this universe of phantom values and socially constructed truths that The Secret derives its ultimate power. Try sharing The Secret with some refugees from Darfur; you’ll probably find the results are not terribly impressive.

No, The Secret is best applied in the same foggy arenas from which it emerged. It’s great for self-help gurus, spiritual evangelists, salespeople, and multilevel marketers because it’s based in the same kinds of mythology on which they’ve always relied: There’s a timeless principle, a preexisting law of nature only now becoming understood by science but completely easy for you to use to make your life better.

Just pay me, and I’ll share it with you.

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