The Secret, with a grain of Saltz
One of the stars of The Secret who has been making the rounds on TV lately is James Arthur Ray, not to be confused with James Earl Ray. Ray has been on CBS a couple of times this week, and just the other day he was on NBC's Today Show with Matt Lauer, facing off against psychiatrist, author and Today Show contributor Dr. Gail Saltz. According to Lauer, Secret creator and producer Rhonda Byrne was scheduled to be on this segment as well, but backed out at the last minute.
When host Lauer started the ball rolling by challenging Ray about the "scientific" nature of The Secret and the Law of Attraction, Ray answered firmly that it absolutely is based on science. Right off the bat he mentioned quantum physics, as all New-Wage marketers are apparently now required by law to do. "Everything that exists in the universe is energy, and energy vibrates," he noted, citing the observer effect as proof that we experience what we expect to experience. Since he said that in the same breath as his mention of quantum physics, I have to believe that he was talking about the observer effect as it applies to quantum mechanics, and not observer bias in the social sciences or something like that.*
Ray also cited research done by the HeartMath Institute in California, which he described as "the foremost leading authority on heart and vibrations and heart-based emotions." He said the Institute’s research has found that heart-based feelings not only impact our DNA but send vibrations out into the Universe, and those vibrations do indeed affect the things around us.
Dr. Saltz, either out of politeness or awareness of time constraints, did not point out that emotions originate in the brain, not the heart. Granted, they can have a significant impact on the heart, but the heart is not the seat of emotions. Nor did the good doctor address the feelings/DNA connection Ray mentioned. (By the way, I’ve noticed that more and more New-Wagers like to talk about how we can alter our DNA, either by changing our thoughts, or taking the right supplements, or a combination thereof.)
Regarding the science issue, Dr. Saltz really didn’t have time to say much except to note that there is no science to back up the notion that vibrations from thoughts can influence the world around us. She added that using scientific terms such as "vibrations" and "energy" doesn’t render something scientific. But Ray continued to insist that The Secret is based in science.
When Lauer brought up the concern, voiced by many, that one message in The Secret seems to be that people bring on their own illness, poverty, and other misfortunes, Ray answered, "Everything is your responsibility, nothing is your fault. There is no ‘blame’ here."
Some may say that’s just a matter of semantics, though I think the distinction is real. Yet in everyday life, people struggling with the concept of "total responsibility" are very often unable to make that distinction. They end up blaming themselves or others when things go wrong – which is pretty much what most of them were doing anyway without The Secret. And as many critics have noted, the concept of total responsibility also makes it even easier than it already was to turn away from people in real trouble; after all, one can rationalize that they "attracted" that trouble.
As for the magical-thinking charge, Ray did say repeatedly that The Secret – and his own teachings – are about taking action as well as wishing and hoping. That may be. But the promotional hype around The Secret – and again, I have to come back to that now-famous quotation about the Universe as a mail order catalog – has focused much more on thinking and feeling than on taking action. And as for Ray’s teachings,I can't help but notice that one of the actions recommended is the purchasing of tons of products and services from him and a few of his select buddies.
Lauer, who let Ray have the last word, wrapped up the segment with a remark that no matter what one believes about The Secret, we can all agree it’s taken off like wildfire.
After the Today Show segment, Dr. Saltz wrote some of her thoughts about The Secret and other self-help materials on her blog. She elaborated on what she’d said on the show – that she believes positive thinking, optimism, and gratitude can be very helpful. But she reiterated that there is no real "science" behind The Secret and the Law of Attraction, and she is concerned about potential harm.
There is no scientific data to support the idea that one’s mind can send out a vibration which will bring an external object to you or affect another person or affect a future event all by itself. This is rather the author’s idea, belief and wish. Actually, it may be many people’s wish. But by stating it as scientific fact and as a secret that will absolutely bring you success if you do it correctly, it is not only a misrepresentation — it could be harmful.
And boy, did the Secretrons come out in droves to attack her. Although on both the TV show and her blog she was far kinder and gentler than I and most critics have been, the Secret fans were angry, condescending and sanctimonious.
One reader wrote, "Listen lady, you have a lot of learning to do... And also, you were very rude and came across close-minded. Of ciourse (sic) its not a good idea if you have cancer to think about NOT having cancer. - because you are sending the message out there still focusing on CANCER. If you are ill, think HEALTH. BELIEVE HEALTH. And then act it. Get with it, for your sake."
Most of the comments accused her of being closed-minded, negative, stuck in her own narrow paradigm, unwilling to explore cutting-edge research, and the like – pretty much the same things I’ve been accused of. Some chided her for using her position of prominence to spread negativity instead of giving people hope – something I've not been accused of, since I have no prominence to speak of. At least one person accused her of just wanting "face time" on TV and not caring about improving the lot of humanity.
Apropos of the latter charge, it is entirely possible that Dr. Saltz is not the humble altruist and potential savior of the human race that, say, Rhonda Byrne, Joe Vitale, John DeMartini (talk about humility – do follow that link), and other stars of The Secret are. But I think she does have a responsibility, to her audience as well as to the patients in her private practice, to take a stand about something she believes is unscientific and even potentially harmful. That’s what she was doing, and I think she was being pretty respectful, all things considered. I also think the news media have a responsibility to present both pro- and anti-Secret points of view, and they are finally living up to that responsibility.
One writer on Dr. Saltz’s blog accused her and Lauer of "ganging up" on poor James Ray. It seemed to me that Lauer was simply asking questions that most people would ask about the more extreme claims in The Secret. He was, in other words, posing the challenges that Larry King and Oprah were apparently too starry-eyed to even consider.
One of Ray’s final shots at Saltz on the Today segment was to quote a pioneer in her field, William James. Maybe he thought that this would give him some leverage with his scientifically-minded rival. But Dr. Saltz wasn’t convinced.
I don’t recall the quotation; you can play the clip and find out for yourself. I will, however, share my own favorite William James quotation: "We believe as much as we can. We would believe everything if we could." And I really think that the phenomenal success of The Secret, and, for that matter, What The Bleep?, is a pretty clear indication that James was right.
PS - I should note that due to the quantity and vehemence of the responses to her blog post, Dr. Saltz felt compelled to do a follow-up the next day titled, "Clarification On The Secret." I actually thought her message came through loud and clear the first time, but apparently it didn't for everyone. In an effort to deflect the wrath of the Secretrons, she acknowledged again that The Secret has some valuable ideas and many people are obviously getting something from it. But she did repeat her question about the Law of Attraction: "Where is the science?"
The responses were much more civil to this post than to her previous one. Naturally, there were those who pointed her to sites that purported to show her the science, but these sites were adverts for New-Wage marketing devices. And one person repeatedly tried to persuade her that she could really open her mind if she'd do the Landmark Forum, which is just the latest incarnation of est (the Landmark hustledorks I've encountered try to keep this under their hats, though).