The Secret: Negotiating the Slippery Slope between Hope and Hoax

Real estate has buyer’s and seller’s markets–and other industries have them as well. Information industries have a particular kind of seller’s market in which demand is high for information that is not reliably available.

Cancer treatment, money management, leadership training, alternative medicine, psychotherapy, get-rich-quick training courses, spiritual guidance, diet programs–these are just some of the many industries in which demand far outpaces the supply-sellers’ ability to deliver reliable solutions–and as a result there’s persistent demand for solutions, even the ones that don’t work.

An economist would call say these markets have “high quality-inelasticity of demand,” meaning that even when the quality is low, demand stays high. It doesn’t shrink elastically the way demand for peanuts shrinks when this year’s crop is hit by aflatoxins. The peanut market is more elastic because we have other things to eat. In contrast, when you’re trying to cure terminal cancer, poverty, or anxiety, none of the alternatives to accepting a purported cure are nearly as good, so you’ll still buy, even if the product is substandard.

Worse, in most of these industries gauging quality is difficult. Suppliers warn you that it’s complicated, there are no guarantees, and it takes time; they cite all sorts of catches, reasons why their product might not work in your case because you use it wrong or aren’t receptive. So three qualities define these markets: High demand, unreliable supply, difficulty gauging quality.

Professionals in these fields–priests, oncologists, business consultants, real estate seminar leaders, holistic practitioners–face many vocational hazards. One can do sloppy work and still be a success. There’s a real risk that after a long, successful career, the very ideas that have been the key to that success will be exposed as malarkey. And even the most careful professional will meet with skepticism and scorn because hucksters rush into markets like these to fill the unfillable need. These are not meritocracies, they’re “yearnocracies.” The guru’s popularity is less a testament to healing powers than to the strength of the yearning for healing.

For the sociologically inclined, reading the history of fads in such industries is like reading human nature’s most heartfelt and unrequited wish list. If you want to know what people want, you can do worse than tracking what people fall for in these industries. There are perennial favorites: You can be as rich as Croesus without ever lifting a finger. You can enjoy a blissful life eternal. You can overcome all adversity.

There are also trends. Since the Enlightenment one of the strongest trends is toward crypto-romantic pseudo-scientism–a pseudo-scientific endorsement of magical thinking. Who among us doesn’t yearn to discover that science proves conclusively what we’ve wanted to believe all along?

We think of Socrates as the father of science’s method of reasoning, a skeptical man who made us aware of the ways our beliefs do not necessarily reflect reality. As Plato presented him, Socrates is also the father of a kind of faith that through skepticism we could eventually overcome interpretive bias to see the world clearly. Reject conventional wisdom, walk out of Plato’s allegorical cave, and there it is–reality without distortion.

Socrates’ systematic skepticism has served us well. Through science we do seem to achieve better and better approximations of reality. But in the course of this achievement we have been humbled often by the permanent perniciousness of distortion. By now we reluctantly acknowledge that our grip on reality is eternally elusive. There is always the potential for interpretive slippage between sensory data and the meaning we assign to it.

Inspired by Hume, Kant demonstrated that we could never know for certain whether we had discovered reality. Since Kant, we have had to admit the limits of skepticism to yield us absolute truths. No matter how skeptical we get, we might not really be in touch with reality, if there even is such a thing. “Idealism,” it’s called–the belief that all we know of reality comes from our ideas and that our ideas are ineluctably decoupled from reality.

Skepticism and idealism combined have generated a trend of their own in the yearnocracies: Doubt conventional wisdom. Be scientifically skeptical even about science. Admit that our thoughts are not bound by reality, but claim that reality is bound by our thoughts. There’s no way to know reality. For all we know, there is no reality outside our thoughts. Therefore what you think reality is is what reality becomes.

In other words, you can make your dreams come true just by thinking them earnestly.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne has been on the NYTimes Best Seller list for forty weeks. It is the perfect mass market, one-size-fits-all promotion for this particular and particularly trendy version of crypto-romantic pseudo-scientism. According to Byrne, here’s the secret to everything: Science has now proven that there is one law governing the entire universe. It’s the law of attraction. Whatever you think about, you’ll attract. Think about a Rolls Royce, you’ll attract one. Think about the perfect job, mate, or life ever after, you’ll get it. One catch: the law of attraction doesn’t understand the word “not.” So don’t think about not being in debt or you’ll attract more debt. Don’t think about losing weight because the universe will hear “weight,” and you’ll gain.

Does the secret work? You bet. Always. To quote the companion DVD (over 2 million copies sold), “Why do you think one percent of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth? Do you think it’s an accident?” Right. Donald Trump never thinks negative thoughts.

It’s way too easy to find fault in The Secret. Evidence doesn’t support it. Positive thinking generally is of little use unless it leads to positive action. If two people think positive thoughts about getting the same Rolls Royce, only one of them is going to get it. It’s impossible to think positive thoughts except by contrast: “I want this NOT that.” That the law of attraction doesn’t work is a relief. Imagine the trouble we would have if megalomaniacs thinking positively about genocide would automatically bring it about. Worse, imagine if anti-genocide workers caused more genocide by thinking negative thoughts about it.

The Secret is the fad careful thinkers love to deplore. Still, there are some who defend it, arguing that a subtle interpretation makes it useful. It’s true there’s no magic secret, but positive attitudes are always good. The Secret may not be entirely accurate but what could be wrong with motivating people to think positive thoughts?

My focus here will not be on The Secret but this response to it and the way such half right arguments are dangerously wrong. For those of us in laboring in yearnocracies with all of their vocational hazards, it pays to think carefully about where to draw the line between hope and hoax. The crime of “The Secret” and its ilk is to turn people’s attention to the wrong level of analysis. It ignores the uncomfortable reality that success or failure depends on striking the right attitude for the specific context, knowing what to be positive and negative about, not whether to be all positive or all negative.

There is a time to reap and a time to sow. Of course, knowing that there is a time for each is not the same as knowing which time is which. But if we are to help people figure out which is which, that is where we must encourage them to focus their attention. The crime is to distract them with an entirely different dimension.

Granted, it’s far easier to encourage people to stay positive all the time than it is to encourage them to decide carefully when to be positive. The Sufis tell of the time their perennial hero Nasrudin was looking under a streetlamp for his keys (which he’d lost in his garden) because the light was better under the streetlamp. That’s easily identified as ridiculous, but what do we say of the doctor who advises the at-risk heart patient to eat deep-fried Oreos because it’s an easier directive to get obeyed?

To put a finer point on it, positive and negative really do define each other. Hand waving aside, if you prefer one thing, it is in relation to something else that you prefer less. The more earnestly you prefer one thing, the less preferable its opposite is. To have no negative thoughts is to have decided it’s all good, which is definitely not what “The Secret” is recommending.

Convincing people to be positive but not negative is as good for them as convincing them to inhale all the time and never exhale. And since the real issue is figuring out when to be positive and when to be negative, the campaign is simply a distraction from the core issue.

Those of us working in yearnocracies might envy “The Secret” its success while disclaiming any association with its reader-mollycoddling strategy. The real secret for us, however, is not to distance ourselves from this caricature of a shoddy yearnocracy product. Rather we should look at how we are susceptible to the same vocational hazards, facing the same inexhaustible demands and in perhaps milder forms delivering our own unjustifiable promises.

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