1. George says

    I was in a Borders yesterday and a bookseller was warning an associate that everyone was coming in and asking for The Secret.

    Our country is fucked. It’s hopeless.

  2. says

    We’re deep into Shirley Maclaine territory here, aren’t we? There’s a bit in one of her books (Out on a Limb; I think it made it into her made-for-TV movie as well) about the victims of a tragic bus accident in the mountains of Peru. They all died because they wanted to, you know. Or were supposed to. Or something like that. It’s all about choices, folks! Or fate or karma or just woo-woo-woo.

    Take care, people, and choose not to die tragically today. And I’ll do the best I can at my end.

  3. says

    Skepchick also weighed in on Oprah’s being all warm and fuzzy with John Edward and Alison DuBois, plus this whole Secret nonsense.

    For someone who gave James Frey a public humiliation for “embellishing” some aspects of the autobiographical information in his book because it was a bunch of lies, she’s all too happy to cozy up with liars of another stripe if it brings in viewers.

  4. jeffw says

    Half-baked kooks require half-baked evolutionary explanations, so here’s one: Deception will always be with us. Evolution involves selection, and selection is about conflict. Conflict is war, and as any military strategist will tell you, deception is of the utmost importance in war. Deception is an effective survival strategy in nature (mimicry, etc), and the human brain just makes it more elaborate, as it does for food, sex, and just about everthing else. Hence, Oprah, Ickes, Chopra, etc.

  5. David Livesay says

    I think it’s particularly cynical for someone as wealthy as Oprah Winfrey to promote a philosophy that basically says you can get whatever you want by wishing or praying for it. For someone who buys into this, eventually the only possible conclusion they can come to regarding their position in life would be that God doesn’t love them.

    I don’t know why people never think about the negative consequences of all their pie-in-the-sky bullshit. Every time I hear somebody talk about how they beat cancer by having a positive attitude I want to kick them right in the ass, because what they’re effectively saying is that the people who don’t make it are somehow responsible because they didn’t have the right attitude, and that’s a horrible thing to say.

  6. mothworm says

    This is a “secret”? Isn’t this the exact same b.s. as the old “power of positive thinking”, “prosperity gospel”, “name it and claim it”, etc. crap that’s been popular in New Age and Christian circles since, at least, the 70’s?

  7. Sastra says

    Earlier than that, mothworm. I think Wendy Kaminer traced it back to the late 1800’s at least, starting with Kellogg. Mind Cure was also very popular in the 1920’s. It has a lot of appeal partly because some of it makes sense — if you’re confident and really go for what you want, you’re more likely to get it. Trouble is, they take it much further than that reasonable variation.

  8. anon4this says

    This stuff kills. I have a family member whose death is now imminent because they chose this kind of crap as their cancer “treatment.”

  9. Kevembuangga says

    I am delighted at the idiocy of BOTH the New Age kooks and the “rationality crusaders”!
    How do you think the placebo effect works guys?
    Thinking “positive” DO change the mood and enhance some brain functions.
    This is enough to actually bring some real benefits once in a while without anything “miraculous” to it.
    Add a few chance events to be interpreted “optimistically” and there you have “The Secret”.
    If you just keep denying the whole lot and you don’t provide an ACCURATE explanation the kooks win all the time.
    Especially that for this “positive effect” to work best you have to truly believe, i.e. the more credulous you are the more chance you have to reap some benefit AND reinforce the belief.
    And the disbelievers are stuck with the “bad vibes” (aka stress…), an equally working self-fulfilling prophecy, ROFLMAO!

    It has even been noted that stupidity is truly the key to sanctity, quoting Chamfort :
    « M… me disait que Mme de C…, qui tâche d’être dévote, n’y parviendrait jamais, parce que, outre la sottise de croire, il fallait, pour faire son salut, un fond de bêtise quotidienne qui lui manquerait trop souvent ; et c’est ce fond, ajoutait-il, qu’on appelle la grâce »
    Translation :
    « M… said to me that Mrs. of C…, who tries to be devout, would never reach that point, because, in addition to the stupidity to believe, it was necessary, to make her salvation, to have a core of daily dumbness which she would too often miss; and it is this core, added he, which one calls the grace »

  10. boojieboy says

    As for Oprah and other successful-types presenting themselves as “proof” that this garbage works, its always founded on the same fallacy: “selective use of endpoints” (is there a better term for it?)

    What about all those people who thought grand and positive thoughts and ended up with terrible lives? What about those who’s lives just remained merely ordinary?

    Did I read that Oprah enjoined a bunch of women in her audience to go out and try it for a week or something? No doubt any pseudo-empirical test of the theory will focus on those few women in the audience who applied the techniques and had amazing successes. All the other ones who showed no results will be ignored. Those women (and everyone else) will be lead to blaim their continued failures on themselves. They’ll put one faiure up there as a token, and she will dutifully speak the words “I must have failed to believe strongly enough. I’ll be sure to keep trying…[audience cries and applauds]”

    Why am I such a bitter person? Because these a$$hats just can’t stop from peddling this nonsense, and because there are so many credulous types out there who are ready to jump on the bandwagon. But mostly because I know I’ll be in class over the next few weeks trying to un-do what Oprah hath done.

    Let me offer an example: I enter the powerball every week (I do; I know, a tax on the math-challenged, blah blah blah…) and I may think positive thoughts about how great it would be to win the powerball, but there is no way my positive thinking raises my chances above the 1 in 140 billion or whatever it is (for me it’s just a mildly pleasant form of entertainment, well worth the buck I spend)

    Wasn’t part of becoming an adult, learning the basic lesson that “just wishing something won’t make it so”? Apparently my parents were wrong.

  11. Mooser says

    I have never been able to stand the sight…well actually the sight isn’t so bad, I have never been able to stand the voice and “thoughts” of Oprah.
    It is a perfect wonder to me how Oprah can inspire anything but a disire to kick her right in the posterior!

  12. Interrobang says

    I was counting factual errors in that video. There were so many I quit watching it. For instance, there’s a whole section on Aladdin’s genie in the lamp. Well, in the original genie stories, the djinn is almost always a malevolent entity who will give you exactly what you ask for, not what you want, not unlike computer programming or the story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the son dies in a grisly mine accident and his mother wishes him back to life. There’s a knock on the door, and the mother rushes to open it…then wishes the gruesome, mangled thing back into its grave again. The moral of the stories was almost always that you can’t get something for nothing, that you have to work for what you wanted (and, conversely, trying to get something for nothing always ends in tragedy), and certainly that you might not get it.

    Say what you will about reinforcing class-based strictures and the lack of social mobility in pre-20th Century societies, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is still probably a healthier lesson for most people than a wooified version of the Prosperity Gospel. Not only is it unhealthy for the person in question, but it also allows them to ignore the not-insignificant (in any case) contributions to their success made by other people (including the government, at least if you like roads and municipal sanitation).

  13. says

    If Oprah is the Media Moron of the Week, then do you have room to do an article about this?

    Did you know that “Christianity was the first real democracy”? After all, the Greeks didn’t let women vote or slaves, unlike the universal emancipation of a religion which told wives to remain in silent submission to their husbands and slaves to obey their worldly masters with fear and trembling and sincerity of heart, as to Christ. Wait…I must be getting something confused here.

  14. natural cynic says

    Hmmm, flashbacks to Yoda and Werner Erhard. Before that, Norman Vincent Peale. The cycle is repeating.

    You can’t always get what you want
    But, if you try sometimes, you’ll get what you need

    – Jagger/Richards

  15. says

    Tukla in Iowa makes me wonder about something:

    Can we please, please have another post mocking Scott Adams? Your loyal commenters will hone our rhetorical skills upon the drive-by trollers, the ScienceBlogs traffic will spike, and you might keep your readership numbers higher than Skatje’s for a few days longer.

  16. David Livesay says

    How do you think the placebo effect works guys?

    Thinking “positive” DO change the mood and enhance some brain functions.

    This is enough to actually bring some real benefits once in a while without anything “miraculous” to it.

    I’m not aware that it really changes anything other than the perception of pain, so thinking positively won’t prevent you from dying of cancer; at best it will make you feel a little better while you’re dying.

    As for having a positive attitude making you more successful in life, I don’t know if it’s been studied quantitatively, but I kind of find it hard to believe that most of us aren’t rich just because we don’t want it badly enough.

    If Oprah really believed the bullshit she’s peddling, why on earth would she give a Pontiac to everybody in her audience? Would it be just effective if she had just wished really hard for everyone to have a Pontiac, or exhorted them to all wish for it?

  17. says

    Well, stress can probably impair the immune system, and a cheerful, determined mindset might be able to play a detectable role in fighting secondary infections, thereby lengthening a cancer patient’s life. . . Carl Sagan’s formulation was, “Within strict limits, hope, it seems can be transformed into biochemistry.”

    But this is about keeping yourself alive long enough to see the Harvest Moon festival or your daughter’s college graduation. It doesn’t deliver a Pontiac to your garage.

    In happier news, check out Joel Achenbach’s column in the Washington Post:

    Wearing my science writer’s hat (actually, it’s a beanie with a propeller), I’ve been spending a lot of time lately interviewing particle physicists. They’re very smart people who unfortunately tend to talk about “quantum chromodynamics” a bit promiscuously. They discuss muons, bosons, leptons, fermions, gluons and various other kinds of shmutzions that I can never keep straight. Fortunately, they’re tolerant of idiots, and don’t seem to mind when I ask questions like, “So how big, exactly, is a smithereen?”

    Recently I visited Fermilab, a government complex west of Chicago where scientists smash together particles to see what kind of nifty stuff will spurt out. They use a collider called the Tevatron, which is 6 kilometers (11,765 miles, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation) in circumference. Big science is employed to make little particles into littler particles. The collider is hidden under a berm that circles a tall-grass prairie. An adjacent farm has a small herd of buffalo, who are no doubt worried that they’ll be put into the collider and smashed into cows to produce beefalo.

  18. says

    Argh, I saw ‘The Secret’ before and I absolutely hated it! It’s the same esoteric hogwash as usual. And I’ve got to puke every time they come up with a QUANTUM EXPLANATION!!!

  19. says

    Selma, I beat you to it (message #19 in this thread). It’s a minor distinction, but I’ll take any recompense I can for being an addicted, if appalled, reader of Clownhall.

  20. says

    This article, about how scientific literacy is increasing in America while acceptance of pseudoscience is also increasing, mentions:

    ” Pseudoscience discussion is often absent from the classroom, Losh said, so “we have basically left it up to the media.” ”

    So basically Oprah is our nation’s science teacher. Awesome.

  21. bPer says

    Blake Stacey @ #25:

    Maybe my funnybone is broken, but I don’t understand why the author of the article you linked to and quoted from made such a whopper of a error doing a simple distance conversion (6 km = 11,765 mi?). Even if he was using the comma as a decimal point, he’d be way off. Is this supposed to be some kind of wry comment on Americans’ general ignorance of SI units?

    I can just picture this guy coming to Canada and trying to figure out how fast to drive on our highways. A dottering old biddy with a walker would pass him like he was standing still. :)

  22. impatientpatient says

    I’m not aware that it really changes anything other than the perception of pain

    Really- prove it. From what I can tell it has not more than a transitory effect, and works about as well as a placebo pill. But this shit just gets tossed around by people who really have no idea what 24/7 pain is like and then whole industries are built on the power of positive thinking in pain management. And like what happenes here, you are blamed for not thinking well enough rather than the emphasis being on finding ways to control and manage pain. Much cheaper to lie than do real science.

    I do not wish the reality on anyone- except for a few who will not be identified, only because they were idiots who purveyed this crap as truth.

  23. bPer says

    Oops. My turn for conversion errors. The author would be hard-pressed (to say the least) to make it up to the supposed speed limit. I blame my error on the absurdity of the challenge. ;)

  24. David Livesay says

    Really- prove it. From what I can tell it has not more than a transitory effect, and works about as well as a placebo pill.

    Man, what is your problem? I didn’t say it had more than a transitory effect. I’m just saying I’ve seen no real evidence that it has any effect on anything other than the perception of pain. That’s aimed at those who suggest it has other effects, like enhancing the immune response.

    I haven’t seen any real evidence that it effects anything other than morphine receptors, and yes, it works almost exactly as well as a placebo pill. For people who can be convinced that their attitude can have a positive effect on their health, no placebo pill is necessary because they can achieve the placebo effect without a placebo. That’s all that it amounts to from what I’ve seen.

  25. says

    Tristram Shandy,

    Rats, and triple rats! Because of you I had to do the unthinkable and register at Townhall in order to post a response to this:

    I am quite surprised, Mr. Harris, that you would put so much faith in an endeavor whose base of knowledge changes on a daily basis.

    Think about it; the person who wrote this managed to complete a graduate degree without even a basic understanding of what science is, or how the scientific method works.

  26. bPer says

    Blake Stacey @ #34 said:

    Is this supposed to be some kind of wry comment on Americans’ general ignorance of SI units?

    That’s be my best guess.

    Then I’d say that wry’s too strong for me. Maybe not surprising, though – I always cut my wry with ginger.

  27. Coragyps says

    What’s that old saying? “Wish (or pray) in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.”

    I think I will go wish for a placebo bicycle, though. I’m too lazy to ride a real one, anyway.

  28. YuppiTuna says

    What gets me about this is that these people are asking the universe for cars and houses and material goods. Not only is it bullshit, but it’s shallow bullshit.

    Couldn’t we at least be asking the universe for fulfillment or love or understanding or something?

  29. Tukla in Iowa says

    Couldn’t we at least be asking the universe for fulfillment or love or understanding or something?

    But that would put the daytime talk-show people out of a job.

  30. says

    If you just need to wish to the Universe for a bike and then somebody gives it to you, does that mean you can remote-control people?

  31. Selma says

    Yes you did beat me – I really must learn to read through, the comments expand so rapidly on this blog.

  32. says

    I remember my father talking about the “management” point of view and the “techie” point of view. In the “management” POV, the important tasks are to convince other people to do things, or to give you things (budget, resources, etc.). In the “techie” POV, the important tasks are to actually do something, which often involves manipulating unforgiving inanimate objects, or otherwise coming up against the hard facts of reality.

    Anyway, in the “management” POV, which is also the POV shared by salespeople, really believing in something does in fact affect the important tasks. People are more likely to give you something if you are passionate about it. Combine this basic predisposition (that is, that important things are affected by passionate belief) with confirmation bias, and you end up with lunacy like this.

    I know that engineers are sometimes seduced by the dark side into believing in ID – after all, intelligent design is what they are trained to do – but I don’t think that it’s any accident that people peddling this particular brand of woo are former salespeople.

    (The context of my father’s observation was the frequent communication gap between even relatively intelligent managers and the people actually doing things, but I think it applies here too)

  33. Chinchillazilla says

    The secret, as it turns out, is to think positively and radiate good thoughts. If you do that then good things will come back to you.

    I think that was the plot of Pay it Forward. And that ended with Haley Joel Osment getting stabbed to death.

  34. says

    Whatever this is about, Safari explodes every time I follow PZ’s link. Is this a warning?

    David Livesay: Quite true. Bunge’s Finding Philosophy in Social Science cites some obnoxious subjectivism from a social work journal and points out how horrible it is to tell the poor or downtrodden to simply talk or think their way out of their problem, when action both on their part and ours is what is necessary. (The cited article is “Words Create Worlds”, which is straight out of Heidegger or Derrida’s linguistic idealisms.)

    adspar: And a math teacher. After all, she had that charletan Drosnin peddling The Bible Code on once.

  35. dorid says

    What surprises me is the people who are spending MONEY on this trash… A lot of my friends are going out and buying books and videos and going NUTS over it, yet readily admit that the OLD theories (that said the same thing) were just plain dumb. I’m beginning to think that social desperation lowers the IQ 20 points in the average American…

    hmmm. Maybe I should tell them instead of paying for the information on The Secret they should call it into being themselves.

  36. Ichthyic says

    favorite quote from the first critic’s link:

    Don’t worry, as long as you’ve seen a picture of where you’re going and you r e a l l y want to be there, the Universe will find a way to get you there.

    Wasn’t that the plot of Deliverance?

    heh, yeah, it was, and the people who fall for this hokum will likely end up the same way (metaphorically if not literally).

  37. the great and powerful oz says

    So, did was Oprah asking the Universe to have her raped by her uncle at age 9?
    Or was she just not working hard enough at visualising herself not being raped?

  38. Kevembuangga says

    PZ : How stupid do you have to be to think the placebo effect will deliver a bicycle to your door?

    Stupidity is the culprit of course but you are NOT addressing my point.
    Namely, brushing off some real effect out of laziness or to “enhance” the rationality POV by making it simpler (rationality for dummies…) casts doubts on the whole.
    This “little lie” from the cognoscenti is the basis for the rejection of all rationality by the feeble minded.
    If positive thinking can improve (a bit…) on your health or luck, why not a bicycle?
    You and I can see the difference, “they” cannot thus to them you are just a negative atheistic moron. :-D
    See : The loser’s guide to getting lucky

  39. says

    @comments re Cancer and positive attitude.

    Really- prove it. From what I can tell it has not more than a transitory effect, and works about as well as a placebo pill.

    Man, what is your problem? I didn’t say it had more than a transitory effect. I’m just saying I’ve seen no real evidence that it has any effect on anything other than the perception of pain.

    Well I do have cancer, and the positive attitude *does* have a real effect – I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy to treat my acute myeloid leukaemia. And coincidentally I posted “My take on the positive attitude thing” a couple of weeks ago. A couple of paragraphs are below”

    The truth is that there are assholes who survive cancer and wonderfully positive people who don’t make it. Certainly, attitude may have an effect on the way my body handles chemo, and fights the disease, but it’s definitely not *the* major factor. However – my attitude does make a *huge* difference to Deb and Kira, to my parents, siblings, friends, and to the way the world in general (or at least that small part of the world that knows I exist) deals with me.

    I could spend my time and energy bitching about chance, fate, leukaemia, doctors, chemo and the rest – but what a waste. It would just make people round me miserable, and wouldn’t change the facts of my disease. It’s in my own best interests to be cheerful, and concentrate my energies on the upside. Apart from any undefined positive-feedback self healing benefits that may accrue to my body, it also means that people approach me positively.

    There’s a bit more at my site

  40. dzd says

    If I ever wanted to make a hundred million dollars, I would create a newage self-help spirituality program that cuts to the chase–it would just be called The Power of Magical Thinking.

  41. says

    I watched about 3/4 of the full movie on GoogleVideo a couple weeks back when my girlfriend’s dad sent an email around talking about the movie and Oprah’s support. He’s big into all of this stuff, “The Work”, and Deepok Chopra. He needs a hip replacement and he has a really bad limp because of it, but he meditates so “he’s healing himself”.
    Ellen had two of the people from the video on her show, and I can’t help but think that it’s a trend to brainwash stay-at-home mothers with this New Age bunk.

    It’s a good think I converted my girl from that garb to the age of enlightenment.

  42. Sarcastro says

    Face it, Saint Germain is immortal.

    He was pulling this BS on rich frogs way back in the 18th century.

  43. dahifi says

    Just watched this over the weekend with my GF, who had the video recommended to her by her chiropractor. I’ve been reading a lot of neuro linguistic programming texts lately and can personally attest that such positive thinking does have a effect on subjective experience. To paraphrase the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘it works if you work it and it don’t if you don’t.’ I think training your mind to focus on positive statements instead of negative ones does create a tendency for those results to manifest themselves. And I’m not talking about making $100,000 in 30 days or whatever.

    Example: “I don’t want to be fat” vs. “I want to exercise a minimum of 5 hours a week.” The point here being that the first phrase places the focus on being fat and the other on being active.

    Example #2: “I would like to be more outgoing when approaching women on the street or in bars” vs. “I want to not be timid when meeting new people.” The first would be an example of a positive statement whereas the second is negative.

    The point I think NLP makes is that the way you choose to phrase your goals and thoughts influences the way your subconscious communicates back to your conscious mind, almost as it is echoing back to you “be timid” and “be fat”.

    I think the other byproduct of this way of thinking is that after a while of intentionally practicing it is that you reflexively stop attaching value to things of negative value and instead start focusing on the positive things. To borrow an example from the pick up artist community it would be like saying “that girl just rejected me, there must be something wrong with me” vs. “that girl must have bad taste, what was her problem?”

    Granted, one would have big problems proving any of this in a scientific environment, but to me the results are real, even if they are created by an intentional self brainwashing. In a world where quantum physics says that reality doesn’t exist until we observe it, what difference does it make to the universe whether I’m steadfastly optimistic? None to it, but a great deal to my wellbeing a quality of life.

    That being said, I thought that the Secret was one of the biggest pieces of crap I have ever seen. Within minutes my head was filled with flashbacks of “What the BLEEP to we know,” which is memorable for being one of the few films I couldn’t stand to let myself finish. I watched the Secret all the way through for the benefit of my GF, one of the most chronically pessimistic people I know and thought that it had taken everything good in NLP, wrapped it in a cheesy new age wrapper and made one of the stupidest films I have ever seen. And I say that not because of the underlying message, (which I agree with,) but with the presentation and the sensationalism with which it was made.

    As soon as the first quantum physicist made his appearance on screen my eyes started to glaze over. Another appeared near the end of the film to quote the old misproven statement to the affect of “we only use 5% of our brains now, just imagine what we could do if we were able to properly utilize the rest of our brains!”

    It would be fun to obtain a script of the movie and go thru footnoting each statement, ridiculous or otherwise, but I am inclined to believe that a good deal of what I said has foundations in scientific truth.

    To clarify, I think that there is a good possibility that the Law of Attraction has powerful, testable hypotheses that may have validity once you remove it from the bullshit that is The Secret.