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23 January 2011

Book Review: The Secret

Okay, so I've read Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. As you might imagine, I found myself spending a lot of time hurling epithets at the book. This review will codify those things that I said to the hardback, and will consequently contain an unusual amount of snark. You have been warned.

The Book

The Secret is quite possibly the worst book that I've ever read. And by "read", I don't simply mean "flipped through with a derisive sneer on my face": I mean "read, cover-to-cover". With a derisive sneer on my face.

So, if you're thinking of reading The Secret, don't. Read Robert Price's excellent Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today's Pop Mysticisms instead. Both books are funny books, but I find Bob Price funny in the way that Jon Stewart is funny, while Rhonda Byrne is more comparable with Steve Doocy.

My main quarrel with this blasted book is that it just goes on and on and on, saying the same thing over and over again, in hundreds of different ways. It's like reading an essay written by a tenth-grader: the font is huge, the margins are wide, and the student has repeated everything in as many ways as the human mind can conceive just to get the word-count up.

The entire book can be summed up in less than 50 words:

The universe is your friend, so if you think about something hard enough, it will happen. Why? Because of science. But sometimes it won't work. In those cases, don't blame me: blame yourself! It's your fault for not trying hard enough. Or for thinking bad thoughts. Don't do that.

While reading the book, I was struck repeatedly by Byrne's inability to distinguish metaphor from reality. Not only that, but (like most practitioners of woo) she posits a universal explanation for every complex phenomenon.

The Secret

Spoiler alert! "The Secret" is the ipse dixit "Law of Attraction" that we've already discussed. I'll let Rhonda Byrne summarise:

If you can think about what you want in your mind, and make that your dominant thought, you will it into your life. (The Secret, page 9)

For occasional commentary on Ms. Byrne's lunatic ramblings, I'll turn to Bob Price, my favourite audiobook reader, Cthulhu-enthusiast, and professor of Biblical Criticism. I'm serious: his dramatic reading of "The Dunwich Horror" is particularly superb.

But is all this a matter of shaping what happens, or what we notice? No one will deny that a fixation on a goal will alert us to opportunities and possibilities we should never otherwise have noticed. (Top Secret, page 39)

But what can "The Secret" really do for you? Can it get you happiness, wealth, and a really hot wife?

There isn't a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge. It doesn't matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want. (The Secret, page xi)

There you have it! I can't stress this enough, people. There is no such thing as hyperbole: you can have whatever you want. You want Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to fight to the death, with Christopher Hitchens as commentator? Done. You want to see a three-way beard-off between Charles Darwin, Daniel Dennett, and Aristotle? No problem. You want Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis going at it like there's no tomorrow? I know it seems far-fetched, but this is magic we're talking about. There's nothing you can't do!

(You know what? In all honesty, I didn't really care for Black Swan.)

It is the law [of attraction] that determines the complete order in the Universe, every moment of your life, and every single thing you experience in your life. (The Secret, page 5)

So, with this "Law of Attraction" governing the whole of the known universe, you might imagine that Rhonda is a big fan of positive thinking. You wouldn't want anyone's "negative energy" gumming up the works.

In fact, Byrne calls negative thinking (or simply thinking about what you don't want) "[a]n epidemic worse than any plague that humankind has ever seen". Seriously. We're talking worse than the bubonic plague, worse than cholera, worse than polio, and worse than simple diarrhoea, which kills 2–3 million people each year.

Okay, I see her point. I find her hyperbole offensive, but I do see her point. Dwelling on negative things can be detrimental to your mental wellbeing. But you know what, Rhonda? You need to consider the potential consequences of every action that you take, positive and negative, in order to make good decisions. If you simply refuse to think about potential negative outcomes, you're likely to find yourself in deep trouble fairly quickly.

So when you are feeling bad it is communication from the Universe, and in effect it is saying, "Warning! Change thinking now. Negative frequency recording. Change frequency. Counting down to manifestation. Warning!" (The Secret, page 33)

Wow. So apparently the universe sounds like a computer from a cheap sci-fi show. Did anyone else imagine Majel Barrett-Roddenberry reading those words?

The Big Names

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of. (The Secret, page 109)

Throughout the book, Rhonda Byrne lists reams and reams of famous historical people who knew "The Secret", trotting them out one by one to make her case for her. I'm reminded of Sun Myung Moon's claims that Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, and Marx all supported his claim to be the messiah. It's easy to claim support from the dead.

Apparently da Vinci (The Secret, page 4) was in on "The Secret". Funny: I would have thought that he could have made his ornithopter fly. I guess he just wasn't thinking at it hard enough.

The Science

Like the talking heads in the fantasy movie What the Bleep Do We Know? Team Secret capitalizes, first, on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, trying to break down any strict cause-and-effect nexus, as if to reinstate an element of spontaneity into the fabric of existence. This indeterminacy is supposed to make miracles possible, since there would then be no ironclad "natural laws" to violate. (Top Secret, pages 27–28)

Rhonda Byrne really knows her science.

Quantum physicists tell us that the entire universe emerged from thought. (The Secret, page 15)

Really? I would like to know which quantum physicists you've been talking to, because that has the distinctive ring of something that you just made up. But alas, several pages later I discover that she's been talking to Dr. Fred Alan Wolf. Well, you can find kooks in any field, and Wolf's opinions on quantum consciousness do not by any means represent the scientific consensus on the matter.

I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them. (The Secret, page 156)

I'm reminded of the fact that, in light of a focus on self-esteem over substance, America's test scores in science and math continue to decline while students' confidence in their abilities remain high.

Bob Price's pithy reply?

This is why we don't let students grade their own papers. You don't need Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to doubt seriously whether Ms. Byrne has grasped the first thing about quantum physics—or, for that matter, any kind of physics. (Top Secret, page 26)

The Victim

The biggest problem with the Law of Attraction is the blame-the-victim in which it results. It would of course be a fallacious argument from final consequences to state that because it results in this particular negative outcome it is therefore false, but given that there is no reason to believe in the metaphysical powers of this so-called law, the negative consequences of believing it do bear mentioning, I think.

If your husband beats you, it's because you intend to be beaten: you are not concentrating enough on having a loving husband. If you are trapped under a collapsing building during an earthquake, you were somehow on the same "frequency" as the event. There are no accidents. It is all your fault.

But you can fix it. And we'll tell you how.


Often when people first hear this part of The Secret they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. By the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event. (The Secret, page 28)

Bob Price takes her to task.

It is because they confuse a wise rule of thumb with an overarching system of metaphysics that people like Rhonda Byrne wind up heartlessly blaming the victim. ... [Of] course she has in mind the Nazi Holocaust. Too bad those Jews didn't think happier thoughts, huh? And because they didn't, well, they asked for it! (Top Secret, pages 44–45)

And to top it all off, on the last page of the book, Rhonda writes you a moral blank cheque.

Whatever you choose is right. The power is all yours. (The Secret, page 184)

The Secret on Feelings

What if your feelings are actually communication from the Universe to let you know what you're thinking? (The Secret, page 33)

And what if the creaking in your knees is actually a communication from your neighbour reminding you to return that step-ladder you borrowed?

The Secret on Knowledge

If you do just a little research, it is going to become evident to you that anyone that ever accomplished anything, did not know how they were going to do it. They only knew they were going to do it. (The Secret, page 51)

I'm sure that this news comes as a delightful surprise to all of those aspiring medical doctors and structural engineers.

The Secret on Obesity

Whether people have been told they have a slow thyroid, a slow metabolism, or their body size is hereditary, these are all disguises for thinking "fat thoughts." If you accept any of those conditions as applicable to you, and you believe it, it must become your experience, and you will continue to attract being overweight. ... Food is not responsible for putting on weight. (The Secret, pages 58–59)

Being a dietitian, my wife was delighted to hear that Rhonda Byrne had rendered her profession obsolete.

The Secret on Time

Time is just an illusion. Einstein told us that. (The Secret, page 62)

Lunchtime doubly so.

Honestly? I wish I had the last four hours back. Also, I think that she may have misunderstood relativity.

The Secret on Money

Make it your intention to look at everything you like and say to yourself, "I can afford that. I can buy that." (The Secret, page 111)

I can totally get on-board with that. The fact that I can totally get on-board with that upsets my wife, for obvious and completely rational reasons.

The Secret on Medicine

You tell the patient that this is just as effective, and what happens is the placebo sometimes has the same effect, if not greater effect, than the medication that is supposed to be designed for that effect. They have found out that the human mind is the biggest factor in the healing arts... (The Secret, page 125)

Yeah, that happens all the time. That's called a negative trial. It happens when the medication doesn't work. Also, many doctors argue that there is no real placebo "effect". I recommend listening to episode 5 of Dr. Mark Crislip's excellent QuackCast for more details.

The Secret on Aging

Unfortunately, Western society has become fixated on age, and in reality there is no such thing. You can think your way to the perfect state of health, the perfect body, the perfect weight, and eternal youth. (The Secret, page 131)

I seem to recall that Deepak Chopra expressed a similar sentiment in his 1993 book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old, however I note that his hair is somewhat greyer of late. Strange.

The Secret on Disease
You cannot "catch" anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought. (The Secret, page 132)

So the best thing that you can do is convince yourself that you are impervious to all disease. No need for vaccines, then! Good thing, too: I've heard they cause autism.*

The Secret on Science

In simple terms, all energy vibrates at a frequency. Being energy, you also vibrate at a frequency, and what determines your frequency at any time is whatever you are thinking and feeling. ... When you think about what you want, and you emit that frequency, you cause the energy of what you want to vibrate at that frequency and you bring it to You! (The Secret, pages 156–157)

I have no comment, and will only remind the reader of what Rhonda Byrne said on page 135: "Sometimes less information is better!"

The Secret on The Secret

If you are seeking an answer or guidance on something in your life, ask the question, believe you will receive, and then open this book randomly. At the exact place where the pages fall open will be the guidance and answer you are seeking. (The Secret, page 172)

Jesus. Such humility!

The Bottom Line

The Secret is a startling morass of balderdash. The words "quantum", "law", "magnetic", "frequency", and "science" come up frequently, and can apparently be used to mean whatever you want them to mean. The book is a wishy-washy, feel-good message wrapped in a loose-knit anecdote frock. (I don't even know what that means.)

One of the things that I like about Price, though, is that he doesn't lose sight of the fact that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

By now the reader may expect me to attack and deride such assurances, but I will not. This much is simply creative psychology. If repeated contemplation of a scientific formula, a historical fact, a new friend's name, or a sports score will eventually wear a groove in the gray matter of the brain, it is not hard to imagine that one's habits of expectation may be changed by the faithful repetition of an affirmation or a scriptural text. ... [I]t appears that much of New Thought's belief in visualization and manifestation does not really depend upon dubious metaphysics but may perhaps be backed up by recourse to more mundane, psychological conditions. (Top Secret, page 37)

Thinking positively may well make you happier. But again, those who propose that we can directly alter the state of the universe with our intentions seem, as Price puts it, "to confuse metaphor with metaphysics".

The Secret gets one star for being entertaining. I would have given it half a star, but I couldn't find an appropriate ASCII character.

Final Score: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

* If you think that vaccines cause autism, fuck you. No, seriously. I reserve that sort of language only for those most deserving.


  1. Dear Shermer, I spoke with God yesterday... Do you want to know what he said?



  2. You are a fucking retard. Your life most likely sucks as much as your writing. You probably have the worst luck possible and may I wish it upon you for the rest of your life you pretentious, know-it-all FUCK.

  3. Thanks for reading, j3nnah0tt!