Many years ago I was asked to give a talk to incoming university students on the nature of psychology. As a social psychology professor, I had a lot of interesting material that I was sure students would find fascinating, from blind obedience to authority to the everyday persuasion techniques of salespeople. Yet to my surprise, at the end of my presentation, I had but two questions from the students: “Does The Secret really work?” and, “Can psychics really read minds?” For those unfamiliar with The Secret, it is a bestselling book and film that promotes the idea that we can have whatever we want merely by thinking about it, all couched in New Age terms and a gross misrepresentation of quantum physics. And as for psychics, there has yet to be any solid experimental evidence of extrasensory ability, even though there is $1 million on the line (more on that later). I initially thought that students asked these questions because they did not have much formal training in science at this point in their academic career, though I soon came to realize otherwise.
College and university students, from freshmen to seniors, have asked me similar questions, along with queries about aliens, ghosts, and a wide variety of New Age and alternative health and psychological treatments. Through countless questions on these topics, I’ve realized the need to teach scientific skepticism, and that using examples of pseudoscience — claims that appear to be scientific but are not — can be an invaluable resource for helping students become discerning consumers of real-world claims.
Since publishing “The Secret,” in 2006, the Australian author Rhonda Byrne has been writing self-help manifestos based on the idea that people who think positive thoughts are rewarded with happiness, wealth, influence, wisdom, and success. In November, 2013, she published “Hero,” the fourth book in the series. The book showcases the wisdom of twelve heroes—businesspeople, sports stars, writers, and philanthropists. Byrne’s idea isn’t new—it’s been a mainstay among greeting-card companies, motivational speakers, and school teachers for decades—but she’s become one of its most visible prophets. “The way to change a lack of belief is very simple,” Byrne writes. “Begin thinking the opposite thoughts to what you’ve been thinking about yourself: that you can do it, and that you have everything within you to do it.”
There’s some truth to Byrne’s ideas about the relationship between thought and action. New inventions emerge after their inventors struggle through years of planning and mental preparation, for example. When people have a condition called somatization disorder, their psychological or emotional distress can manifest in physical symptoms—joint pain, headaches, even seizures. Byrne is also right to emphasize the stubbornness of thought. Once you think something, it is very difficult to eradicate that idea from your mind. The late, brilliant social psychologist Dan Wegner described this as the great irony of mental control: in order to insure that you aren’t thinking about an unwanted idea, you have to continually turn your mind to that very idea. How do you know that you aren’t thinking of a white bear driving a red Ferrari unless you think about whether you’re thinking it?
The books have many adherents; most of their Amazon reviewers give them five stars. But they also have detractors. One criticism is that the books use a technique popularized by fitness gurus: when you see actors with tanned, chiseled bodies promoting a new piece of fitness equipment, you get the sense that they aren’t in excellent shape because they’ve spent hours using that particular machine. More likely, they jog or lift weights, or have great genes or a lightning-fast metabolism, or have some combination of these characteristics. It’s just as hard to believe that the heroes in Byrne’s books—let alone a feverishly productive polymath like Goethe or the notoriously irritable Beethoven—succeeded because they cultivated good thoughts. Moreover, as the journalist Oliver Burkeman noted in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”
Burkeman is onto something. According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding.
The Secret teaches that victims are always to blame, and that anyone can have anything simply by wishing.
Prepare to have everything you’ve ever wanted, simply by thinking happy thoughts about it; and be careful of negative scary thoughts which might cause those things to happen to you to too. Little did you know that, just like in the original Star Trek episode Shore Leave, whatever you think of — either good or bad — will actually happen! This is the premise of Rhonda Byrne‘s 2006 book and movie, both titled The Secret.
Rhonda Byrne is an Australian television producer and author. Her book and movie propose that many of the most successful people throughout history have known a “secret” — a secret closely guarded in the marketing materials for the book and movie. The “secret” turns out to be nothing more than the old motivational speaker’s standby, that positive thinking leads to positive results. But she took the idea a step further. The Secret claims that you can actually cause events to happen by wishing for them hard enough, literally like winning the lottery or recovering from terminal illness. Similarly, a focus on fears or negative ideas will cause those things to appear or happen as well. The Secret calls this the “Law of Attraction”. The Secret further makes the completely unfounded claim that many great people knew and relied upon this wisdom, and taught it to others as “secret teachers”. “Secret teachers” included Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Jung, Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Campbell, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Beethoven. This claim is just a made-up lie: Most of these people lived before the “Law of Attraction” was invented, and there’s no evidence that any of them ever heard of it.
As of today (2008), a year and a half after its release, The Secret remains #26 of Amazon’s list of best selling books, better than any Harry Potter book. It has over 2,000 customer reviews. Half of them are 5 star, and a quarter of them are 1 star. This is the sign of a polarizing book. Most people either love it or find it to be utter nonsense. In the case of The Secret, most people love it. Thanks in large part to promotion by Oprah Winfrey, The Secret sold 2 million DVD’s in its first year and 4 million books in its first six months.
Many of the people appearing in the movie version of The Secret are motivational speakers who spout the same old “If you can dream it, you can do it” nonsense that Amway salesmen have been chanting for decades. In essence, part of what Rhonda Byrne has done has been to simply repackage Motivational Speaking 101 inside the wrapper of a century-old philosophical construct, which we’ll look at in closer detail in a moment.
As you’ve probably heard, The Secret has been roundly criticized from all quarters. The most common criticism is of The Secret’s assertion that victims are always to blame for whatever happens to them. Whether it’s a rape victim, a tsunami victim, or a heart attack victim, The Secret teaches that they brought it upon themselves with their own negative thoughts. This idea is, of course, profoundly offensive in many ways. Doctors attack The Secret for teaching that positive thinking is an adequate substitute for medical care in cases of serious illness: Wish for it hard enough, and your cancer tumors will melt away. Religious leaders criticize The Secret for its ethical claims that victims are always to blame, and for promoting the attitude that anyone can be just like a god by wishing hard enough. Many financial critics and advisors have pointed out the dangers of yet another baseless get-rich-quick scheme. The list of critics of The Secret goes on and on, as tends to happen to any mega-successful franchise.
So the question people ask me is “What do I think of The Secret?”
- The secret (dayincity.wordpress.com)
- “You are the masterpiece of your own life.” The Secret (Law of Attraction) Review. (genviedollsworld.wordpress.com)
For a moment there that headline might seem like preaching the converse of “The Secret”, the toxically ignorant book promoted by the toxically ignorant Oprah. But this isn’t about the notion that thinking bad – or good – thoughts produces bad or good results. That notion is just plain dumb. (It’s also hateful because it inescapably claims that bad things happen to people because they don’t think good thoughts.)
What I mean by “bad thinking” here however is poor thinking – the inability to think critically, the inability to understand or effectively utilize science and scientific reasoning. And when that kind of bad thinking is in effect, then in fact, very bad things do happen. Not to mention: to good people. And their children.
This was evidenced yet again a few weeks ago when a study published in the journal “Pediatrics” provided further evidence that the 2010 pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak in California was partly the result of increased numbers of parents opting out of vaccinating their children.
Sometimes too much education, too much disposable income, too much free time and above all, too much good medicine and good health, can lead otherwise seemingly intelligent people to make appallingly ignorant and hazardous choices. That appears to be the case evidenced by the new study. According to a story at salon.com (quoting a report on NPR):
“… a community loses herd immunity after the vaccination rate drops below 95 percent. In 2010, only 91 percent of California kindergarteners were up to date on their shots. The researchers found that in some neighborhoods, especially those with high income and education levels, exemption rates were as high as 75 percent.”
The significant point to understand about herd immunity is that the greater percentage of vaccinated community members in turn helps protect infants, who are too young to be vaccinated, and anyone else unable to safely be given the vaccine, from contracting the disease.
A piece in “Scientific American” points out that, “Unvaccinated individuals in the 2010 epidemic were eight times more likely to contract pertussis than vaccinated ones. But unvaccinated individuals pose risks to the community as well. ‘It’s a choice you make for yourself and a choice you make for those around you,’ Offit [Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] says. “Infants need those around them to be protected in order not to get sick. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to our neighbors as well as to ourselves and our children.’”
So bad thinking does make bad things happen – and in this case, not just to the people doing the bad thinking, but to other people, and to other people’s children – and since I live in San Diego, my children are at risk thanks to that bad thinking. If you don’t think that science education and critical thinking skills are important, think again. If you don’t think the skeptic movement does important work, think again. If you don’t think that educating people about how to think about psychics and Bigfoot claims has a direct connection to the unnecessary medical risk my children face thanks to bad thinking – think again.
- Bad Thinking Makes Bad Things Happen (randi.org)
- Vaccination Opt-Outs Found to Contribute to Whooping Cough Outbreaks in Kids (scientificamerican.com)
- Vaccination Opt-Outs Found to Contribute to Whooping Cough Outbreaks in Kids. (zedie.wordpress.com)
- Combining Shots with the Pediarix Vaccine (pediatrics.answers.com)
- Health Officials: Marin Parents Opting Out of Vaccines Put Community at Risk (blogs.kqed.org)
- Flu Shot Side Effects And Vaccinations (pediatrics.answers.com)
- Vaccine Refusals Fueled California’s Whooping Cough Epidemic (npr.org)
- Doubting the Safety of Vaccinations: How safe are they? (vaccinesforchildren.wordpress.com)
- Vaccine-Refusing Parents Falsely Blamed for Whooping Cough Epidemic (activistpost.com)
- Unvaccinated kids hurt the people in your community (kevinmd.com)