Where “The Secret” Ends

The Little Blue Engine
By Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”

He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

Could this be…The Secret?

Somehow, this is what I think of when I hear the “Law of Attraction” arguments.


Listen, (doo dah doo) do you want to know a Secret (doo dah doo)? (Part 2)

This book was great until the Christian Science crap at the end.In the previous post, I laid some of the groundwork for a discussion of what’s wrong with “The Secret,” specifically including the contradictions and inconsistencies reported by its supporters. They really should have consulted one another before making a movie and at least got their story straight.

Anyway, I only touched on the blatant and frequent scientific inaccuracies in the piece, and I’m going to try to address all of the major ones here. Pull up a chair and grab a drink, this is going to take awhile.

First, the absurd. Despite the protestations of Bob Proctor, we do in fact know what electricity is and how it works. Different subatomic particles have different electrical charges; electrons have a negative charge, protons have a positive charge. Charged particles exert attractive or repulsive forces on one another through electric fields. When these particles are in motion in a conductor, they produce oscillations in the electric field, which we call current. And so on, and so on. I’ll admit that Electricity & Magnetism is pretty much my weakest subject when it comes to Physics, but even I can direct you to Maxwell’s Equations.

Now, the expected: the Quantum Bullshit. I understand that Quantum Mechanics is a very difficult, very weird, very counterintuitive subject. It doesn’t follow, however, that QM justifies everything which is weird and counterintuitive. QM, like all science, consists of fairly rigid laws and theories and mathematical models derived from observation and time-tested theories, and while the concepts may be difficult for the laity and the pre-med majors to wrap their heads around, it doesn’t mean we don’t know how they work. Much though I love Richard Feynman, I wish he’d never said “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” It’s true that we don’t typically think in quantum terms, because it’s simply not something we regularly encounter. You have to do a lot of mental stretching in order to grasp the more advanced (and wacky) concepts in Quantum Mechanics, like superposition and entanglement and decoherence and uncertainty. There is a degree to which we cannot understand these concepts, because they are indeed so foreign and so counterintuitive to us. Science, especially physics, is characterized by the use of conceptual models to imperfectly approximate various phenomena, and there is a large degree to which the quantum models just don’t cut it. Poor Erwin’s zombie cat is meant to illustrate a point about superposition, not to suggest a real situation in which consciousness creates reality.

But there is a larger degree to which we do understand the quantum realm, and that’s mostly thanks to the mathematical models. I may not understand all the conceptual stuff, but give me a bra and a ket and an operator or an infinite square well or a Schrödinger Equation, and I can give you a valid quantum mechanical answer.

I’m not saying that I’m any kind of expert in Quantum Mechanics; throughout these debates I’ve been consulting various Physics textbooks, the occasional helpful website, and my undergraduate Quantum professor, to clarify some concepts and refresh my memory on others. Quantum Mechanics is difficult, doubly so when you haven’t done it actively for eight months. But I know where to find the answers, I understand the concepts when they’re explained to me (because I know the terminology and the basics, and some of the more advanced basics), and moreover, I have a decent bullshit meter. I know Quantum well enough to recognize when it’s being flagrantly misused.

That, and I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts that the woos promote as scientific fact. I thought, like Fred Alan Wolf apparently, that “observer” implied “consciousness.” I wrote a short paper Freshman year (before I had any formal quantum training) about how you could reconcile omniscience, omnipotence, and free will by suggesting that God influences the universe through a divine “uncertainty principle.” The difference between me and the woos, though, is that I didn’t assume I was an expert in quantum physics or that my kooky ideas represented scientific fact. So when I did get that formal training, I recognized that “observer” meant “measuring device” and not “mind,” that quantum effects don’t generally manifest macroscopically, and that you really can’t create a device to deconstructively interfere with your roommate’s de Broglie wavelength.

So, these abuses of Quantum Mechanics represent to me a mindset of baseless arrogance, on two counts. First, these people, with little or no training, assume that they have some deep understanding of a subject which even the experts in the field have difficulty wrapping their heads around. And second, they assume that no one will bother to check their claims against the facts, either because no one understands the science well enough to check it, or because of an assumption of the ignorance of their credulous customers.

And while the latter may be based in reality, it is no less sleazy. They’re basically saying “we know you’re too stupid to actually figure out that we’re pulling the wool over your eyes.”

As far as John Hagelin and Fred Alan Wolf go, I really can’t explain them. Both have apparently good Ph.D.s from good universities, both have been published in the peer reviewed journals, and neither is far outside of his sphere of expertise on matters of Quantum Mechanics. Yet both are purveyors of this quantum mysticism garbage in a variety of places, and I can’t quite fathom how you could achieve a Ph.D. in the field and not recognize the bullshit for what it is. I guess it just goes to show that not even all the people in the field can wrap their heads around the concepts, and that being able to do the math doesn’t necessarily entail knowing what the real-world implications are. That’s one of the problems with models; sometimes we get so wrapped up in the model that we forget it isn’t a perfect representation of the actual world.

The rest of the pseudoscience is pretty simple. There may be a magnetic component to thinking, due perhaps to electric charges in motion in the brain (thereby producing a magnetic field), but it’s absurd to suggest that every thought emits a magnetic signal, which can be ‘picked up’ by the universe. I guarantee a refrigerator magnet would put out a more intense signal. We have no way of measuring the “power” of a thought, if there is such a quantity, so saying that some thoughts are “more powerful” than others is totally baseless. In most cases, whether it’s electric charges, magnetic poles, or Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, opposites attract, not likes. While it’s true that measuring things has a quantum effect on them, we learned that fact by studying the objective external universe, not because we each create an individual personal universe. There are rules to the universe, though I sincerely doubt that the Law of Attraction is one of them. While the LoA’s caveats and exceptions render it pretty much unfalsifiable, there is one rule which tends to suggest that “The Secret” is impossible. You may be familiar with this rule, it’s called the Law of Conservation of Mass. It states fairly unequivocally that mass is neither created nor destroyed in any reaction (except where converted to energy, which is also never created or destroyed in any reaction). Which means that thoughts do not become things.

Except, of course, through hard work and determination. But for all the exceptions provided by the Law of Attraction’s supporters, they neglect to mention this one.

If there’s anything obvious I’ve missed or gotten wrong, feel free to point out my omissions and mistakes in the comments.

Next time, I’ll go over the various types of Law of Attraction supporters who I encountered on Skeptico and the other blogs. Maybe we’ll learn something about the pathology of woo-belief. Or maybe we’ll just drag this madness out for another week.

Shh! It’s a Secret! (Part 1)

Shut up!I wasn’t going to blog about this here. But yesterday I saw The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham (by Esther Hicks, but not the Esther Hicks who graduated in my class, thank FSM) at Wal-Mart. And then Kat had to leave a comment on the last post. So, my space has been invaded by the sheer idiocy that is The Secret, and I’m going to stop it here and now.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last several weeks discussing the Secret and the Law of Attraction with a variety of credulous asshats, concern trolls, and tragically misinformed rubes. If you’re not familiar with the Law of Attraction, the links above (to the ever-informative and ever-reasonable Skeptico) provide a pretty good run-down on it. If you want it straight from the horse’s mouth, you can take a look at the first 20 minutes of “The Secret” or Joe Vitale’s Law of Attraction blog (while you’re there, check out one familiar commenter‘s tragic tale of the Law gone wrong). The following list is a basic debriefing on the Law of Attraction, as presented in the film “The Secret” and on the various blogs and sites devoted to it.

  • “The Secret” was known to all the great (dead) thinkers of the past. Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare, Emerson, Hugo, Newton, Lincoln, Beethoven, Churchill, Edison, and Einstein all knew it. We know this even though we can’t say with certainty that Jesus existed; even though we can’t say with certainty that Shakespeare existed, or that he wrote the literature attributed to him, or anything specific about his life at all including his religious affiliation and birthdate; even though we can’t ask these thinkers what they really think, since they’re all dead; and even though the only proof that any of these thinkers knew “The Secret” are various out-of-context quotations.
  • Despite the fact that all the great thinkers of the past, fictional or otherwise, knew “The Secret” and wrote obliquely about it, it is still a secret, and there is an ongoing conspiracy to suppress it.
  • There is one “infinite power” in the universe, one natural law which guides all our lives. This is the Law of Attraction. Also, gravity.
  • The reason that 1% of the population earns 96% of the money is that they understand the Law of Attraction, not because of social injustice and millennia of aristocracy.
  • Basically, the Law of Attraction says “like attracts like.” Just like the attraction of a magnet. Wait…
  • You create your universe with your thoughts. Everything in your life has been attracted to you by the things you think and/or feel.
  • Every thought has a frequency. When you think of something repeatedly, you’re constantly sending out that “magnetic signal” that will “draw the parallel to you” (quotations from Joe Vitale, “Metaphysician”).
  • The universe doesn’t care what your feelings or opinions are, it just gives you more of whatever you think about. So if you think about debt a lot, you attract more debt, even if you don’t want it.
  • Positive people tend to attract other positive people and positive circumstances. Negative people tend to attract other negative people and circumstances. You can believe this, because “Quantum Physicist” John Hagelin said so.
  • This is not just “wishful thinking” or “imaginary craziness” (quotations from Fred Alan Wolf, “Quantum Physicist”).
  • Quantum Physics supports and points toward the reality of the Law of Attraction. Wolf: “It [Quantum Physics] says that you can’t have a universe without the mind entering into it; that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”
  • Lisa Nichols, “Author”: “[T]here’s a time delay, so all of your thoughts don’t come true instantly.”
  • By monitoring our feelings we are able to control the Law of Attraction.

To supplement this, here’s a list of significant quotations from the people in the video. I’ve provided the link above in case you think I’m quote-mining, but I’ve provided all the relevant context so you can get the point. I don’t have to distort what these people say, because…well, see for yourself:

  • Bob Proctor, “Philosopher”: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind. It’s what you’re thinking. You see, whatever is going on in your mind, you are attracting to you.”
  • John Assaraf, “Entrepreneur,” and supplier of the magnet analogy: “You become what you think about most, but you also attract what you think about most.”
  • Mike Dooley, “Writer:” “And that principle [the Law of Attraction] can be summed up in three simple words: Thoughts. Become. Things.”
  • Proctor, again: “See yourself living in abundance, and you will attract it. It always works, it works every time, with every person.”
  • Nichols: “When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them, with all of your attention, the Law of Attraction will give you what you want, every time.”
  • Nichols, again: “The Law of Attraction is not biased to ‘wants’ or ‘don’t wants,’ it manifests the things that you think about.”
  • Proctor: “The Law of Attraction is always working, whether you believe it or understand it or not. It’s always working.”
  • Proctor, again: “Now, if you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean you should reject it. You don’t understand electricity probably. First of all, no one even knows what electricity is. And yet you enjoy the benefits of it. Do you know how it works? I don’t know how it works. But I do know this: that you can cook a man’s dinner with electricity, and you can also cook the man.”
  • Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith, I shit you not, “Visionary”: “It has been proven now scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.”
  • Nichols: “You have good feelings and you have bad feelings. And you know the difference between the two, because one makes you feel good, and the other makes you feel bad.”
  • Doyle: “You’re getting exactly what you’re feeling about, not so much what you’re thinking about.”
  • Doyle: “There are no rules, according to the universe” (in apparent response to the question that, if everyone uses The Secret, won’t we run out of stuff?).

Holy crap, where to begin? I guess I could start with the contradictions. The video was only twenty-four minutes long, yet they managed to contradict themselves with the sort of efficiency and aplomb that typically requires a big thick leather-bound book. The universe conforms to specific laws, like the law of gravity (but not, apparently, the law of conservation of mass). But it only conforms to one law, the Law of Attraction. But you create your day with your thoughts, and “there are no rules, according to the universe.” This is a great secret and no one knows about it, except all the world’s greatest thinkers and the rich, powerful, and successful in society. You get what you think about, and thoughts become things, but you don’t really get what you think about, you get what you feel about, but the universe doesn’t care what your feelings are. Every thought has a frequency and you attract the things you think about most, but positive thoughts are more powerful than negative thoughts. It always works, every time, no matter whether or not you know about it, but it works for the things you think about the most, not for every little thought, and there’s a time delay. Oy, stop the spinning, I want to get off.

You know, real scientific laws tend to be a lot simpler. The basic concepts can usually be explained in a sentence or two, and the whole thing is coherent all the way through. There aren’t contradictions and exceptions to the law of gravity. There’s an equation that (to a certain degree) always works every time whether or not you believe in it, and whether or not you know how it works. It’s not “some masses are attracted as a function of the inverse square of the distance between them, but they’re also attracted in a linear relationship, except that some are attracted as the cubed root of the frequency of the color of the larger mass.” No, you ask any scientist anywhere, and they’ll tell you “G=m1*m2/r2.” Every physicist can tell you “in a closed system, the entropy tends to increase;” every chemist can tell you “PV=nRT;” every first year physics student can tell you “an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” These are scientific laws. “(Repeated) Thoughts (actually, feelings) become (after a time delay) things (because like attracts like)” is not a scientific law; it’s all hedges and weasels, all caveats and exceptions.

Now, I’ll admit that many scientific laws are only selectively applicable. The Ideal Gas Law describes an unrealistic situation, but uses it to model actual phenomena. Newton’s laws only apply in Newtonian frames of reference, and are only accurate to a certain degree. The Second Law of Thermodynamics includes in it the caveat that it only works for closed systems. The difference here is that science doesn’t make claims to 100% accuracy. We may round up to it, in cases like gravitation or Newton’s laws, but we recognize that every law may be supplanted with one which explains the phenomena even more accurately (as with the relativistic versions of Newton’s laws). Strike two against the Law of Attraction.

Next time, “The Secret” and its crimes against science!