Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about The Secret, a 2006 blockbuster documentary. The creator of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne, taught woo enthusiasts they could think themselves rich, healthy, and happy. And she did so using some really reprehensible and sketchy science-based and historical claims. Today, let’s look at some of those false claims.
(Previous posts in this series: Rethinking the Power of Positive Thinking; Toxic Positivity; The Secret: Background; The Secret: Review; Some of the Experts of ‘The Secret’; Oodles of ‘Secret’ Lawsuits.)
(Here’s a script I found for the documentary “The Secret.” It’s broken up into pages, which is annoying, but it’s got everything as far as I can tell. I’ll try to keep you up by providing links to the script pages in question. Also, I use scare quotes around “experts” for what are hopefully beyond-obvious reasons.)
Claim #1: OMG, It Was Hidden and Suppressed For Eons!
Rhonda Byrne begins her film with this claim:
Nefarious people did their best to keep “The Secret” hidden from da pipple. Yes! They stopped at nothing, not even murder, to accomplish this goal. Other people who learned about it tried to protect it.
To bolster the first claim, she offers shadowy clips of powerful-looking men crumpling paper, typing phrases on typewriters about hiding “The Secret,” and even shadowy backroom meetings. We even get a silly acted-out scenario involving an Ancient Egyptian servant running to bury scrolls containing rubbings he just made from carved stone tablets. While he works feverishly quickly, Roman soldiers march closer and closer to his sanctum. His master sends him packing, then waits with a dummy scroll in hand for those soldiers to murder him.
Presumably, this fuss happens over “The Secret.”
But none of it never really happened.
And we know this because Rhonda Byrne’s daughter gave her a book about it. This book presumably got printed in a real press by a publisher and then sold in a bookstore somewhere. Someone sold it and someone bought it freely. Nobody had to smuggle it or hide it or reveal it to carefully-chosen confidantes.
Moreover, once we learn the title of the book her daughter supposedly gave her, Byrne’s claim collapses even more quickly. See, Byrne’s inspiration was The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles, published in 1910 originally. A website began offering free downloads of it in 1999. Even before that, this book enjoyed numerous reprints and new editions all through the decades.
This “Secret” bases itself on popular New Age concepts that have existed since the 1700s. The background she offers is simply false from start to finish. Nobody suppressed this idea. Nobody needed to.
Claim #2: The 1% Uses This and That’s Why They’re Rich (And You’re Not).
Early on, an “expert” informs us with a straight face that the “1%” of the world uses this “Secret.” He claims that this is why they’re the 1%. Then, he implies that if we only did the same thing, we’d catapult into their ranks:
Why do you think that one percent of the population earns around 96% of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? . . . They understand The Secret.
The 1% are not wishing super-hard for their wealth. Economists have thought a lot about the 1%, and not one of them has come up with the 1% using “The Secret” or anything like it. Usually, they talk about combinations of lucky birth, fortuitous investments, shrewd business moves, and a country hellbent on protecting the interests of the mega-rich before the poor. They never credit anything remotely related to “The Secret.”
I know that it’s very appealing for people to hear that there’s this ANGLE that rich people use, and here it is, and you can use it too, and if you do then you’ll be one of them thanks to it.
But it’s not true.
Claim #3: People Are Magnets! Like Attracts Like!
Early on, an “expert” chirps this bit at us:
The simplest way for me to look at the law of attraction, is if I think of myself as a magnet and I know that a magnet will attract to it . . . You become what you think about most but you also attract what you think about most.
I mean confirmation bias. Basically, humans tend to notice and remember stuff that confirms our opinions, while forgetting and ignoring stuff that contradicts them.
If we humans seek patterns diligently enough, then we always find them. We’re good that way. We’re so good at it that we even find ways to make patterns out of completely unrelated stuff and events, which is exactly why astrology is a thing and why we just. can’t. get. rid. of. CONSPIRACY THEORIES.
Most pseudoscience bases itself on this one quirk of human perception. The scientific method helps researchers avoid that trap, which is probably why pseudoscience hucksters never use it to test their ideas. And yes, in fact, anyone vaguely testing these ideas Rhonda Byrne teaches will discover they fall flat in reality.
Claim #4: Thoughts Have Frequencies That Can Be Measured.
We’re still in the first few minutes of the documentary, by the way. And next, this same “expert” tells us:
What most people don’t understand is a thought has a frequency. Every thought has a frequency! We can measure a thought.
Sort of. But not how he means, and it doesn’t work like he imagines.
We can scan the brain, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) tells us, and see what parts of it light up with activity — or see where blood flows as people think about certain things. The brain doesn’t operate with frequencies like a radio, though. It operates with blood flow, oxygenation, neurons lighting up and then off again, and the magnetic signature of proteins binding to dopamine and other brain chemicals.
However, none of this constitutes transmitting. We must go to great effort to detect anything I’ve mentioned here. Why would the brain transmit anything, unless something was receiving? Transmission takes energy, and our brains use so much energy as it is that they can’t afford to waste anything. And unfortunately, nobody involved with “The Secret” offers anything close to a mechanism for this transmission process (beyond a golden shimmery explosion around the person wishing and a weird noise), much less evidence supporting the existence of a receiver of any kind.
Even housecats know better than to waste energy transmitting to nowhere: they don’t meow in the wild to other cats because other cats can interpret body language and whatnot more easily. Instead, they meow to people. They know people can’t speak Cat very well, so they try to speak People to us to get what they want.
Claim #5: The Universe Is Based on Attraction.
An “expert” warbles:
This is a universe that is based upon attraction. Everything is about attraction.
Is it though?
Now, at no point do we get a definition of exactly what is meant by “based upon” and “is about,” of course. How is the universe “based upon attraction?” In what way is “everything about attraction?” Jeez Louise, y’all! It just is!
Lots of competing models exist for how the universe began, LiveScience tells us. None of the prevailing models they list even remotely sounds like the froofy wackadoo vision of “The Secret.”
In fact, it kinda sounds like that early phase of explosive expansion — which seems to be involved in all of the current theories at some level or other — would contradict the entire concept of “attraction.”
Claim #6: Attraction is a Real Live Law of Science.
Over and over again, Byrne’s “experts” hammer us with the idea that this “Law of Attraction” is every bit as real a law of nature as, well, the actual laws of physics. Here’s how Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., describes laws:
A law in science is a generalized rule to explain a body of observations in the form of a verbal or mathematical statement. Scientific laws (also known as natural laws) imply a cause and effect between the observed elements and must always apply under the same conditions. In order to be scientific law, a statement must describe some aspect of the universe and be based on repeated experimental evidence.
But the “Law of Attraction” describes nothing at all. Byrne bases it on no observations at all. It’s never been tested and found to be supported by credible evidence. It’s just a PIDOOMA she likes, that’s all. It lets her fleece an unbelievable number of sheep, justifies and validates her various biases, and makes her filthy rich.
In every sense, “The Secret” operates exactly like Creationism does for fundagelical leaders.
Claim #7: Quantum Physics Quantum Physics Quantum Physics!
I know that when wingnuts invoke quantum physics, we’re gonna have a good time. I can’t help loving it when wingnuts go there. And they can’t help going there. Quantum physics is simply irresistible to wingnuts of all kinds. In response, all I want to do is strap in and enjoy a hilarious ride through someone’s very own personal Time Cube.
And we are not disappointed by The Secret, because an “expert” breathlessly relates the following:
Quantum physics really begins to point to this discovery. It says that you can’t have a universe without mind entering into it: that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.
Part of me just wonders how this “expert’s” brain even wrapped itself around those sentences, because they’re so ridiculous.
These “experts” might be misunderstanding a famous set of experiments from a while ago. These experiments gave rise to the term observer effect. But it doesn’t mean what wingnuts think it means. Wingnuts think it means that just by watching something, by observing it, humans change reality itself at its most fundamental level. And that ain’t it, according to this comment by an actual quantum wizard working in the field. This claim simply isn’t true at any level.
If you ever hear a woomeister talking like this, consider it a perma-blinking turn light on the freeway of science.
(I encourage you to check out Infinite Automaton’s comment, relinked here. He’s got a real future in science communication, if he ever gets bored of being a wizard.)
Claim #8: Positive Thoughts Are More Powerful Than Negative Thoughts.
It has been proven now scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought. . .
Who proved what exactly, and when, and more importantly how? The “expert” never tells us any of that.
And no wonder:
It has not actually been “proven” in any way. I’m not even sure how someone might go about testing this idea.
In fact, we see the opposite more often than not in real science. Excessive positive thinking can actually hurt people in a number of different ways. There are whole papers devoted to the ethical problems inherent in telling people stuff like this. (Here’s one, and here’s another — the PDF link is on the page.)
You’d think that Rhonda Byrne would have sponsored some actual peer-reviewed studies about this, if she thinks it’s really that true. Weirdly, though, we discover that woo hucksters are strangely reluctant to do anything like that (as I once discovered).
Claim #9: There’s a “Buffer of Time” Involved Here.
You live in a reality where there is this buffer of time. And truly that serves you. You’re really not wanting to be in an environment where your thoughts manifest immediately. The evidence is long in coming and that is really a good thing.
While she talks in the documentary, a man opens his mail to see a postcard of an elephant. He sits and smiles at the picture. Then, suddenly, an elephant appears in his living room! ZOMG! Isn’t it a good thing that our thoughts don’t manifest immediately? That there’s a “buffer of time” that “serves you?”
Now, our “expert” doesn’t explain how she knows about the “buffer of time,” much less what mechanism it uses. She can’t, because this is just a venerable method woo-meisters employ to protect their ideas against testing and falsifiability. The confirmation bias fairy attends to the rest.
Any ex-Christian knows exactly what this “expert” is doing. It’s just another way to say Jesus totally answers prayers, just, ya know, it might take a few years, centuries, or millennia for it to happen. That way, nobody can say Jesus didn’t answer their prayers. It’s not the end of the world yet, is it? IS IT? So you don’t know, maybe he’s just taking his own sweet time to do it! So shut up!
However, just as we can do with prayer, we can dismiss this “expert’s” claim very easily because nobody’s ever produced credible evidence supporting any part of it.
Claim #10: Dear Depressed People, Just CHOOSE To Be Happy!
This one steamed me. An “expert” chirps:
When you’re feeling down, did you know that you can change it like that? Put on a beautiful piece of music. Start singing. That’ll change your emotion. Or think of something beautiful. Think of a baby. [doco shows a clip of a screaming, enraged baby] …Maybe one you love. And dwell on it. Really keep that thought in your mind, block everything out but that thought. I guarantee you’ll start to feel good.
Wow, it’s really that easy! Like, why don’t therapists just tell depressed people to do that instead of offering all those other techniques and medications we’ve devised to help depressed people (and we’re still trying to find more, because they all still fail some folks). Gosh, y’all, all this time we could have told them to just think happy thoughts and put on music! Or think of a sweet little baby! It was always that easy, all along!
That’s absolute horseshit, according to real psychologists. In fact, positive thinking often backfires.
Christians do the same thing when they tell people to pray lots and “give to Jesus” all those bad emotions they feel. It doesn’t work for them, and this doesn’t work either for exactly the same reasons.
Sometimes mild distraction does work to help redirect our thoughts toward the positive. Reframing our experiences can help us improve our mood. But it’s nothing but irresponsible for this “expert” to “guarantee” that this stuff works every time.
The Lessons Learned.
There’s lots more, but I think I’ve made my point. The Secret makes a number of astonishing claims. However, it backs up precisely NONE of those claims with credible evidence.
Rhonda Byrne makes the exact same mistakes that fundagelical leaders make: she thinks that if she just hammers at a claim repeatedly, people will accept it as true. If she uses a bunch of anecdotes, people will confuse that for real data.
And she constantly invokes the names of real people — giants in their fields, like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King, Jr. — to give her whackadoodle ideas a veneer of respectability. She provides lines to “experts” to read and gives them bylines and background art to make them seem like credible voices in a sea of self-help lunacy.
But once we examine Rhonda Byrne’s claims, they all fall apart.
Lucrative Lies Told to Tickle the Ears.
Nothing in The Secret tethers to reality. It’s all wishful thinking in service to confirmation bias.
No wonder it still sells like hotcakes to the desperate and the gullible. And no wonder Byrne’s work has suddenly become so attractive to fundagelicals.
In fact, fundagelicals have proven to be such a great market for her that she’s remaking this fake documentary into a sort of fundie rom-com! It comes out next month in some very odd parts of the world for a fundagelical movie.
And you know what? Her “Secret” still be complete balderdash in its new form too.
NEXT UP: A blast from the past on Sunday, and then of course LSP Monday. Tuesday, we take a look at one of the worst recent abuses of positive thinking: coronavirus protection. Later, we’ll cover the equally popular positive-thinking “documentary,” What the Bleep Do We Know? And later on, I want to cover the desperate ways that Christian leaders try their best to talk their flocks out of buying into these ideas. Busy busy week coming our way! See you tomorrow!
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I didn’t use this source in the piece, but it’s interesting all the same: Skeptical Inquirer’s 2007 roast of The Secret.