The Pseudoscience of 'The Secret'

Larry King recently hosted a "special event" broadcast to hundreds of theaters across America. Titled "Beyond the Secret: Spiritual Power and the Law of Attraction," the program is based on Rhonda Byrne's best-selling New Age self-help book "The Secret." The book promises to make dreams come true through positive thinking, and it has — at least for Byrne and her publishers.

The Secret franchise (books, films, DVDs, etc.) has made piles of money, but questions remain about its validity.

"The Secret" claims to be based on science, at times borrowing phrases from quantum physics. But the premise behind the book has been disproved. According to Byrne, the secret is based on a New Age idea called the "Law of Attraction." It states that similar things attract each other, so positive thoughts bring positive things and negative thoughts bring negative things. Therefore if we simply think about things we want, we will get them.

There's a superficial logic to this, but in physics, it is opposites — not similars — that attract. Regardless, the book's Law of Attraction has nothing to do with science. One cannot simply wish, think, or feel something into existence.

Bad logic

When scientists propose a new theory, they must explain how it works. "The Secret," on the other hand, gets in deep trouble when it tries to explain the mechanism by which the "Law of Attraction" supposedly works. According to the idea, our thoughts somehow send out vibrations that something in the universe somehow deciphers and responds to. If we want to be thinner, or have a new car, the universe will somehow provide it if we think about it. Positive thinking is easier than diet and exercise or earning money to buy a car, but even if the "Law of Attraction" exists, how exactly would the pounds come off, and the new car appear?

There are other serious problems with the so-called scientific basis for "The Secret."
According to the book, "Everything that comes into your life you are attracting into your life by your thoughts." Is this true? Everyone who plays the lottery thinks about winning and being rich (otherwise they wouldn't play), yet very few win. If the Law of Attraction works, why would that be? Shouldn't all of the players win, if all it takes is desire and thought?

According to the "Law of Attraction," if you have an accident or disease, it's your fault, because your negative thoughts brought it on yourself. If an airplane crashes, does that mean that one or more of the passengers caused it? What about the thoughts of others on board the plane? Did the one person's negative thoughts somehow override the positive thoughts of the others, dooming them all?

There are a few positive messages amid the platitudes; of course an optimistic outlook is better than a pessimistic one; and yes our thoughts and feelings influence how we experience the world. This is no secret, and has nothing to do with any so-called "Law of Attraction."

The origin of the secret

A sure sign of crank literature is a self-appointed expert whose main source is a personal inspiration or revelation. If "The Secret" has no basis in science, where did Byrne discover it?

She admits she just made it up, cobbling together ideas from quantum physics, New Age mysticism, common-sense principles, and a 1910 book called, ironically, "The Science of Getting Rich." Byrne decided that she had stumbled on the key to the universe, and wrote a book about her ideas, not bothering to check for logical errors or scientific reality.

The secret to book's success is its slick marketing campaign, mixing banal truisms with New Agey magical thinking and presenting it as hidden knowledge. "The Secret" is nothing new, nor is it a secret. For decades, New Age and self-help books like this one have offered up easy answers to life's problems. If any of those books worked, and really contained the secrets to success, wealth, and happiness, they wouldn’t need to publish more — and there would be no need for "Beyond the Secret," "Return of the Secret," or "Son of the Secret.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.