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Secrets and Lies

Special Report

Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford

March 29, 2007

Last year, Rhonda Byrne discovered the secret of the universe. It is based on a principle of quantum mechanics and lies in a force with direct physical effects on matter. If you’re thinking it’s odd that such a momentous discovery hasn’t been publicized—surely it deserves at least a journal article or two?—you clearly haven’t been spending much time in the self-help section of your local bookstore, where Byrne’s new book is found. Tantalizingly titled The Secret, it’s probably the most slickly marketed idea to draw on quantum physics in all of history. Alas, though, it won’t be appearing in Science or Nature. “The Secret,” it turns out, is a lie.

Propelled by the gushing enthusiasm of Oprah Winfrey and a clever advertising campaign, The Secret has topped the best-seller lists and moved nearly two million copies to date. The book has a companion DVD film, whose “hidden knowledge” themes bear more than a passing resemblance to The Da Vinci Code and the ironically titled What the Bleep Do We Know?

The first warning sign that something is amiss is a common one—the author is a self-appointed expert whose main source is a personal inspiration or revelation. Byrne, a documentary producer, traces her “discovery” of the “secret” to a downtrodden period in her life. Give her this: she didn’t fold. Instead, she drew on a poorly understood scientific theory, a few common-sense principles, and, most heavily, a nineteenth-century American philosophical movement with roots in quackery. She co-opted William Shakespeare, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and other prominent people as co-bearers of her secret, then rounded up a panel of twenty-four contemporary teachers: self-help gurus and metaphysicians, a few MBAs, a feng shui expert, and two fringe quantum physicists who weren’t fully informed about her theories before the cameras started rolling. Voila: a semblance of scientific accuracy. Out of this patchwork she made a movie (available for download online for just $4.95!) and accompanying book.

The problem is that neither the film nor the book has any basis in scientific reality. The Secret, Byrne states, lies in a New Age idea called the “Law of Attraction”: that similar things attract each other, so positive thoughts bring positive things and negative ones bring negative things. Of course, in physics, it is opposites that attract, but never mind that: according to Byrne, our thoughts send out vibrations that the universe (or some unspecified power) can somehow decipher and respond to. Therefore, goes the dubious logic, we have only to think very hard about the things we want, and we will get them. If you want to lose weight, Byrne writes, you’ll first have to accept that “food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight.”

If that example leaves you scratching your head, author Lisa Nichols, featured in the film, 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. . . . 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? 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! One wonders how much time Oprah spent skimming the book before agreeing to promote this half-baked twaddle.

There’s also an ugly flipside: 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? Do soldiers killed in Iraq simply not think enough positive thoughts?

Some of Byrne’s supporters write off this troubling aspect by arguing that the Law of Attraction is a metaphor. It’s not; Byrne herself has said so. It is a literal statement that you are what you think. “It’s a real belief that our thought can shape, control, and direct this powerful force in the universe, that it sets in motion energies that go out into the atmosphere,” says Robert Fuller, a professor of religion at Bradley University who has studied metaphysical beliefs.

To make the idea sound less preposterous, Byrne cloaks it in irrelevant but snazzy-sounding scientific terms. Without identifying the “observer effect”—the idea from physics that observing a process alters its outcome—she leans on its philosophical implications. She also summons up “quantum entanglement,” the little-understood theory that, at the subatomic level, particles influence each other’s behavior in ways that aren’t yet fully clear to scientists. Neither theory applies to weight loss, credit-card bills, or for that matter anything else above the scale of atoms. The book also doesn’t offer any explanation of how the universe supposedly reads our thoughts and responds to them. “She is invoking quantum physics,” says Beryl Satter, professor of history at Rutgers, “to people who don’t know a lot about quantum physics.” For all the scientific language in The Secret, then, there is very little science in it. “Very few people actually trained in scientific thought are attracted to this,” says Fuller. “But most of us aren’t trained in scientific thought.”

None of this is to say The Secret doesn’t have intellectual roots. It does—although they aren’t in science at all. They’re in “New Thought,” a metaphysical movement with a long history of invoking science to justify profoundly unscientific claims. New Thought has its roots in the showmanship of Franz Mesmer, the Austrian physician who began experimenting with hypnosis in 1775. Mesmer’s key concept of “animal magnetism” is “very much like what Byrne is talking about with ‘attraction,’” says Fuller. The traveling doctor claimed to be able to manipulate magnetic fields within and between people’s bodies by passing his hands over them and putting them in passive, sleeplike trances. Do-it-yourself showmen started traveling through New England, imitating Mesmer and working as “healing hypnotists” themselves.

In 1838, one of these, a young clockmaker named Phineas P. Quimby from Maine, claimed to be able to put a seventeen-year-old boy into a trance. The boy would then diagnose people’s illnesses. Quimby laid out the principles that would become New Thought, which he largely lifted from Mesmer. “He argued that there was a powerful, mighty, spiritual force in the universe—it was a little like The Force in Star Wars,” says Fuller. “If you thought negatively, you’d close yourself off from it and you would lack emotional composure, physical vitality, even economic prosperity.” Sound familiar?

The roots of pseudoscience grow strong near the septic tank of misinformation, and the Law of Attraction has other pseudoscientific kin as well. It takes a special sort of arrogance for a layperson to proclaim that he or she is so brilliant as to have discovered a heretofore unknown law of the universe simply by inspiration, but there are plenty of people who fit the bill. Just as Byrne believes she discovered The Secret, Samuel Hahnemann “discovered” the universal “Law of Similars” in 1790 when he developed the disproven quackery of homeopathy. He concluded that “like cures like,” so that, if a drug produces symptoms similar to a disease, then taking that drug will relieve the symptoms of that disease.

The Secret, therefore, is nothing new, nor is it a secret. It’s a time-worn trick of mixing banal truisms with magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge: basically, it’s the new New Thought. New Age bookshelves are overflowing with authors who claim to know and reveal the secrets of the universe. If any of these self-help books—written in the 1800s or written today—really contained the secrets to success and happiness, the self-help industry would of course be out of business. “The buyers for these books are people who bounce from one self-help gimmick to the next,” says Terence Hines, professor of psychology at Pace University and author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. “It’s almost like they’re addicted to it. They buy the book and it doesn’t work, so they jump on the next pseudoscientific bandwagon.”

The Secret will indeed bring happiness, success, and prosperity—for Rhonda Byrne, her publisher, and bookstores. If the past is any indication, those who buy her book will be the losers; after the fad and hype die away and the disillusionment sets in, most will be returning to the self-help sections for yet more easy answers.

Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford

Mary Carmichael is a general editor for health and science at Newsweek.

Benjamin Radford is author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Advertisers, and Activists Mislead Us.