So I recently came across an article in the New York Times critiquing the popular New Age book The Secret and its new sequel The Power. And as expected it laid out the usual skeptical tripe against New Age belief. This partly annoys me, but it also amuses me. New Agers as we tend to believe in a little of everything get hit the hardest when skeptics try to critique belief systems.
(Although you ever notice how elitists will critique Jewish and Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, Hindu Yoga and all the accompanying beliefs that come with it…but there is one system of belief they never seem to critique. That would be the system with the most anti-Semitic, most misogynist, most bitter, most violent and most hate filled religions, both in terms of what is laughably referred to as a holy book and certainly in practice. I’d name that religion but I have no immediate desire to have a fatwa issued against me…but you probably can figure out which religion founded by a genocidal lunatic I’m talking about. But back to my original point for this cat-walk, isn’t it utterly hypocritical of skeptics to critique beliefs that work for the good and make people feel better, but don’t’ like to critique on the same grounds butchers. But it’s worse that these are often the same people who tell you you’re a racist if you criticize this particular religion. But it might just be because if you insult Jews and Christian and Buddhists and Hindus and New Agers they’ll feel sorry for you for your limited view of the world and not, you know, cut your head off.) But enough of my side comments…is The Secret Pseudoscience?
Well here’s the thing, they can list quite well the psychological points on why people are willing to believe in the Law of Attraction which states that our thoughts create reality. You think about something long enough, good or bad, and you’ll get it. But while you can point to the psychological reason why a person might be drawn to this, even without scientific data to back up that belief, the authors offer absolutely no evidence against the idea that the Law of Attraction is true. They claim that what evidence is given on quantum mechanics is wrong, but the day I simply trust a psychologist on quantum mechanics is the day I trust a linguist on politics. Quantum mechanics is a field that even the people who study it don’t have an idea what it’s really all about. But thought does seem to have some part to play in it. Is it really a terrible jump in logic to believe that thought might create reality instead of the other way around? It isn’t illogical in light of the utterly bizarre things we learn from quantum mechanics. But just because it’s a possibility isn’t scientific proof. At this point I am merely saying that just because you can’t prove scientifically doesn’t mean it isn’t true, nor does it mean it’s true. This is realm of faith. And science should have the common decency to stay out of the realm of faith. Conversely faith should have the tact to stay out of science (i.e. evolution is real, intelligent design for the start of life is still up in the air though).
Further one has to ask the pragmatics of such a critique. If it makes people feel more empowered, focused and goal driven…what exactly is the harm. So you’re out 23 dollars for the new book. If the you bought the first book and the DVD too you’re out about $75. I’ve spent more on a single dinner. Possible positive psychological effect for a relatively cheap price. I fail to see why among all the evils in the world, this is one these author’s choose to attack.
But my favorite part of the criticism is where they reveal that they never really read the book. They’re just making complaints without knowing what the hell they’re talking about (it’s a classic skeptic move). As proof that the logic of the Law of Attraction doesn’t work they offer this very stupid thought experiment, “What if a thousand people started sincerely visualizing winning the entire $200 million prize in this week’s Lotto? How would the universe sort out that mess?” Well, maybe if you read the book you’d have read you’re supposed to focus on what you actually want and not worry about the means. People don’t want to win the Lottery, they just want the money, how is mildly irrelevant. And because your brain would keep going through a thousand different ways you could get the money, you’d never win the lottery that way.
So why attack this area of faith when it really hurts no one? After all if works for you personally use it. If it doesn’t, then skip it. It’s not like we’ll ever have any kind of scientific test that can prove thoughts affect reality….
…oh wait. We do have those tests. We have a large body of research studying prayer. Now not all of the evidence is conclusive and some studies show a greater effect than others, but the general conclusion is that prayer actually does cause a measurable difference in the recovery of patients (even when they don’t know they’re being prayed for). Now, if these studies are correct then there are only two possibilities for how prayer affects the recovery of hospital patients. Either God is up there in heaven with a big clip board and saying “Oh, he only got 99 prayers, he dies–he’s got 2,000 prayers, he lives.”….an illogical way of looking at things. Or option 2, God doesn’t really get involved in this world directly and it’s the thoughts of the prayers that affect reality. Oh that’s the law of attraction. I wonder what would happen if those prayers studies used the principles of The Secret and The Power (i.e. focus only on what you want and don’t think about what you don’t want….I’m sure some of the people praying were praying that the person didn’t get sick, which according to the law of attraction means you’re focusing on getting sick…the universe doesn’t really understand negating adjectives). If they did that I’d be willing to bet a year’s salary that the recovery rates would go even higher.
So. Law of Attraction 1. Bitter psychologists 0.
I hope the two psychologists who wrote this found some happiness in trying to tear down other people’s harmless beliefs…but I doubt they have a concept of what happiness is.