An old yarn about a classic marketing con game on the secret of wealth instructs you to write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail. When your marks receive the book, they discover the secret--write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail.
A confidence scheme similar to this can be found in The Secret (Simon & Schuster, 2006), a book and DVD by Rhonda Byrne and a cadre of self-help gurus that, thanks to Oprah Winfrey's endorsement, have now sold more than three million copies combined. The secret is the so-called law of attraction. Like attracts like. Positive thoughts sally forth from your body as magnetic energy, then return in the form of whatever it was you were thinking about. Such as money. "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts," we are told. Damn those poor Kenyans. If only they weren't such pessimistic sourpusses. The film's promotional trailer is filled with such vainglorious money mantras as "Everything I touch turns to gold," "I am a money magnet," and, my favorite, "There is more money being printed for me right now." Where? Kinko's?
A pantheon of shiny, happy people assures viewers that The Secret is grounded in science: "It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought." No, it hasn't. "Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we're not loving and we're not grateful." Those ungrateful cancer patients. "You've got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week." Sure, if you convert your body's hydrogen into energy through nuclear fusion. "Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you." But in magnets, opposites attract--positive is attracted to negative. "Every thought has a frequency.... If you are thinking that thought over and over again you are emitting that frequency."
A pantheon of shiny happy people assures viewers that The Secret is ground in science.
The brain does produce electrical activity from the ion currents flowing among neurons during synaptic transmission, and in accordance with Maxwell's equations any electric current produces a magnetic field. But as neuroscientist Russell A. Poldrack of the University of California, Los Angeles, explained to me, these fields are minuscule and can be measured only by using an extremely sensitive superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) in a room heavily shielded against outside magnetic sources. Plus, remember the inverse square law: the intensity of an energy wave radiating from a source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from that source. An object twice as far away from the source of energy as another object of the same size receives only one-fourth the energy that the closer object receives. The brain's magnetic field of 10 -15 tesla quickly dissipates from the skull and is promptly swamped by other magnetic sources, not to mention the earth's magnetic field of 10-5 tesla, which overpowers it by 10 orders of magnitude!
Ceteris paribus, it is undoubtedly better to think positive thoughts than negative ones. But in the real world, all other things are never equal, no matter how sanguine your outlook. Just ask the survivors of Auschwitz. If the law of attraction is true, then the Jews--along with the butchered Turkish-Armenians, the raped Nanking Chinese, the massacred Native Americans and the enslaved African-Americans--had it coming. The latter exemplar is especially poignant given Oprah's backing of The Secret on her Web site: "The energy you put into the world--both good and bad--is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day." Africans created the circumstances for Europeans to enslave them?
Oprah, please, withdraw your support of this risible twaddle--as you did when you discovered that James Frey's memoir was a million little lies--and tell your vast following that prosperity comes from a good dollop of hard work and creative thinking, the way you did it.
Correction: The original version of this article used the phrase "nuclear fission" where "nuclear fusion" was intended.