Episode 84: Deepak Chopra & Dr. Oz

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Donna Harris, Richelle McCullough, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the scientific failings of popular spiritualist and guru Deepak Chopra and “America’s Doctor” Mehmet Oz.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Deepak Chopra | Dr. Oz | Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Dr. Oz and Nutritional Supplements | What’s the Harm: Herbal Remedies | New York Times: Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem | Calgary Strep Victim’s Mother ‘Will Be Held Accountable,’ Say Police | National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Using Dietary Supplements Wisely | National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Ayurvedic Medicine | Health Canada: Natural Health Products

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Episode 82: What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble, Gem Newman, and Ian James discuss several of the things that, as skeptics, they’ve changed their minds out.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Reasonable Doubts Episode 43: Stewards of This Earth | PETA Embraces Autism Pseudoscience | Gem’s Favourite Recipes | Insite Supervised Injection Site | Harm Reduction in Public Health | Ramtha/J.Z. Knight at the Skeptic’s Dictionary | Your Friday Dose of Woo: H2Ooooooommmm | Masaru Emoto’s Wonderful World of Water | A Grain of Truth: Recreating Dr. Emoto’s Rice Experiment | Can Thinking Change Reality? | Geocentrism – Seriously? | Donate to Habitat for Humanity’s Muddy Waters Ride (Gem) | Donate to Habitat for Humanity’s Muddy Waters Ride (Laura) | HAAM’s Atheist Bible Study

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | Stitcher | RSS Feed

The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves

I received the following message the other day from a close friend of mine.


I saw this and for a moment was terrified until I remembered that I’m friends with YOU and therefore a much more rational person than I might otherwise be just by sheer proximity. Regardless, please remind me again that microwaves aren’t destroying my baby and various loved ones.


The link she provided was The Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves by Mike Barrett of TruthTheory.com. Ah, EMF scare-mongering. It’s been too long, old friend!

I didn’t have much planned for the next few minutes (aside from playing some Super Meat Boy), so I dove right in.

The article is, as you might expect, riddled with misinformation. That misinformation, however, is crammed cheek-by-jowl with accurate statements, leading me to suspect that the author is guilty only of sloppy research, and readily accepted claims from both scientific and unscientific sources—with perhaps a modicum of cherry-picking thrown in. (This is borne out upon an examination of his source list, but we’ll get to that later.)

How Microwaves Work

Let’s start with the author’s description of the process by which microwave ovens heat food:

In order for something to heat in a microwave oven, water must be present within the substance. If water is not present, heating will not occur and it would remain cool. The reason for this is that water molecules within the food vibrate at an incredible speed, creating molecular friction which is responsible for the heating of the food. The structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed. This is much different than any other method of cooking, as other methods such as convection ovens heat up food by transferring heat convectionally from the outside inward.

This description is almost correct, but is guilty of much hyperbole. First of all, it is not true that, lacking water, heating will not occur. What we’re talking about is dielectric heating. While it’s true that dielectric heating works best on water or substances containing water, it will also work on fats, sugars, and anything that contains electric dipoles.

Second, while stating that “the structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed” sounds scary, I’ve been unable to find any evidence that this occurs, and it’s unclear what the dangers would be even if it did. While the molecules certainly do increase in kinetic energy (they move), the author seems to be suggesting that the molecular bonds are actually broken, which would cause the water to decompose into its component hydrogen and oxygen, as occurs in electrolysis. This is a fairly incredible claim that I’ve been unable to substantiate.

The Dangers of Radiation

The author admits that microwaves are not a form of ionizing radiation, although he stresses that non-ionizing radiation can still effect physical alterations. Sure! Like cooking stuff! He then says:

Other forms of ionizing radiation are visible light, ultraviolet and infrared waves, and waves emitted from televisions, cell phones, and electric blankets.

This is completely false. These are forms of non-ionizing radiation. While it is certainly possible that this was simply a typo, it remains irresponsible misinformation.

And then the real absurdity begins:

Although we’ve conducted study after study concluding that no amount of radiation is safe, we don’t really know what all of this means in the long term.

I’m not even sure the author knows what he means, here. He seems to be conflating all forms of radiation, and then stating that the body of scientific literature on the subject concludes that there is no safe amount of any form of radiation.

Of course some amount of radiation is safe! If there were no radiation, we would be blind and we would freeze to death! Just lumping all spectra of electromagnetic radiation together is eggregious, irresponsible nonsense.

The author claims that “Tissues directly exposed to microwaves are subject to the same deformities molecules go through”. This is very misleading.

Sure, microwave radiation can cause burns: that’s why microwave ovens have doors on them specifically designed to block microwave radiation. You don’t want to bathe your hand in high intensity microwaves for the same reason that you don’t want to stick it in a campfire: it’ll burn.

Now you might be worrying that your microwave door could be broken or cracked, and you’re being exposed to dangerous invisible microwaves without your knowledge! Well, stop fretting. If this were happening, you’d know it pretty quickly, because the microwaves would literally be cooking your flesh, and that’s something that we humans tend to notice.

Remember: microwaves are non-ionizing. They don’t cause cancer: they cause heat.

“Microwave Sickness”

The author of the article then provides a laundry-list of nonspecific symptoms that he attributes to so-called “microwave sickness”:

  • Impaired cognition
  • Nausea
  • Vision problems
  • Depression and irritability
  • Weakened immune system
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia and/or sleep disturbances
  • Frequent urination and extreme thirst

Sound familiar?

This so-called “microwave sickness” is just a repackaging of electrosensitivity syndrome, a discredited (and probably psychogenic) disorder that has been shown in controlled trials to no correlation (let alone a causal relationship) to EMF exposure.

Here’s the list of symptoms attributed to electrosensitivity:

  • Fatigue and mental impairment
  • Poor memory and reduced concentration
  • Headache
  • Altered sleep pattern
  • Skin rash

And here are some of the (many, many) symptoms linked to so-called adrenal fatigue:

  • Excessive fatigue and exhaustion, chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance, insomnia
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating, brain fog
  • Low immune function
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to cold or frequent influenza
  • Anxiety, irritability, or depression
  • Reduced memory

Dr. Steven Novella calls these “the common symptoms of life”. Talking about this purported adrenal fatigue, Dr. Novella notes:

Some of these people may have a real underlying disease, and can get distracted from pursuing a proper diagnosis by the offer of a simple fake one. Many people need lifestyle adjustments, and that is where they should focus their efforts – not on magic supplements to treat nonexistent syndromes.

And finally, just for fun, here are the purported symptoms of being attacked by a psychic vampire:

  • Leaky or diminishing aura
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of energy
  • Muscle tension
  • Mental confusion
  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Physical illness

I’m convinced.

And while we’re on the subject…

It’s true that mobile phones, WiFi, etc. use radio waves in the microwave spectrum, but they are hilariously low-intensity. One of the ways that you can tell is that even the tiny bit of radiation that leaks out of a microwave oven is enough to interfere with wireless router traffic: and, as I said earlier, that’s obviously not enough to do any damage.

Cell phones and WiFi, and their related impact on health, are heavily scrutinized, and there is no strong or even middling evidence linking these devices to health problems such as cancer. There are a small number of studies by a few fringe researchers which have failed reproduction by the scientific community. Many of these experiments have startling methodological flaws. Dr. Steven Novella has a great summary of some new research on the subject here.

Also worth noting: any case or covering that purports to block the EMF emitted by cell phones, laptops, etc. (and such devices are popular!) will fall into one of two categories: (1) it won’t do anything; or (2) it will work, and your cell phone/WiFi will immediately stop working, because its signal is blocked.

So… keep that in mind.

The Nazi Connection

And this is where the author of this article really jumps the shark:

Microwaves were first invented by the Nazis in order to provide a method of cooking for their troops during World War II.

Godwin always makes me laugh. Also, I can find no evidence that microwaves were invented by the Nazis, and substantial evidence to the contrary.

The Sources

The author of this article has obviously taken no care in choosing his sources, which all seem to share strong (and fairly transparent) ideological convictions that bias them against good science. They are also uniformly hilarious.

Here are the websites linked to in the “Sources” section at the bottom of the article:

  • Relfe: “Valuable natural health, mind, spirit, financial and other information unifying the whole, rather than just educating a part of the whole.” The main page contains multiple embedded Alex Jones videos, which describe in detail exactly how the government and the scientific establishment are trying to kill you.
  • The Library of Halexandria: “Halexandria is a Synthesis of new physics, sacred geometry, ancient and modern history, multiple universes & realities, consciousness, the Ha Qabala and ORME, extraterrestrials, corporate rule and politics, law, order and entropy, trial by jury, astronomy, monetary policy, scientific anomalies, religion and spirituality, and a whole host of other subjects ranging from astrology and astrophysics to superstrings and sonoluminesence to biblical and geologic histories to numerology, the Tarot, and creating your own reality.” Need I say more?
  • Lita Lee: The website of “nutritionist” (and Ph.D. chemist) Lita Lee. She would love to sell you all sorts of herbal concoctions, so why not mosey on over?
  • Global Healing Center: An online pharmacy! Except it only seems to stock those shady end-cap items that cause pharmacists to hang their heads in embarrassment, saying “We don’t decide what to stock, it comes from corporate.” Lots of cleanses and detoxifying foot pads!
  • Natural Society: This site seems to be the evil twin of Skeptic North.

And here is a list of the peer-reviewed literature cited by the author:

That is all.

THIS is why we need women in skepticism!

This is cross-posted from Subspecies.
There is a lot of post-Elevatorgate buzz about women in skepticism, including the announcement of a conference to specifically deal with women in secularism, more specifically the lack thereof. A lot of people who think that this is a non-issue have said that women (and other minorities in skepticism) will join the movement when they want to, that women simply aren’t interested in hearing about it. (And if you don’t think people actually believe this, please read the comments on the “Women in Secularism” announcement.) Since secularism is about self-improvement and education, I’m going to call Bullshit! on that. Yes, part of the problem is an environment in secularism that is intimidating to women, a lack of prominence for female skeptics, and so on. But the inverse of that is the amount of woo that is promoted to women.

Manitoba women use the health care system more than men, averaging 5.4 physician visits annually (4.4 for men), and 85% of women see a physician at least annually (79% for men.) Even healthy women of reproductive age receive birth control from their physician, have annual Pap tests, get mammograms, have prenatal consultations, and use health care services before, during and after childbirth. Women who are sick visit their physicians more frequently than men with similar illnesses. Women are more likely to be injured due to domestic violence (1 in 5 Manitoban women have been victimized by their partner in the last five years). Women are more likely to be proactive with their health, seeking screening and taking preventative measures more often than men. Now here’s the scary bit: almost 1 in 5 women in Manitoba consulted a CAM practitioner in 2003 (the most recent data). Only 1 in 10 men did the same! These statistics are in reality even worse, as the analysis excluded chiropractic, which partially covered by the province and therefore “not alternative.” Women are more preoccupied with their health, more concerned with prevention, and therefore more likely to be taken in by quacks.

Here’s a figure from the report I’m getting my data from:

The higher the household income, the more likely the women would seek CAM (here denoted CAHC for "health care"). Men did not seek more care as it became financially feasible.

In other words, as women were able to afford it, likely due to both increased income and increased private insurance coverage with the better paying jobs, more women were using CAM. I certainly would be interested to see if the discrepancy is access in lower income brackets, or a lack of awareness.

Well, maybe, you helpfully offer, chronically ill women are more likely to use CAM, and the wealth changes represent their ability to try unproven treatments for their disease! Nay nay….

The majority of women using CAM are healthy!

So what now? We have a bunch of healthy, wealthy women who are out there spending money on homeopathy and reiki and healing meditation and detox regimens and spiritual communicators. Why is it our problem if women want to waste their money on unproven crap? Well, because it’s not right, and it’s not fair. We don’t teach girls to ask questions, we tell them to trust authority, we tell them that their problems aren’t important, we tell them that they’re not an important part of the skeptical community, and then we proceed to laugh at them for finding a sympathetic ear and falling prey to placebo effects!

Worst of all, thanks to “integrative” “medicine,” woo is pervading our hospitals. While walking through the Women’s Health Centre, I saw a poster for upcoming health workshops being hosted at the Centre that made me do a double take. Yes, sponsored by Alberta Health Services, you can take a $40, 2-hour workshop in Reiki (“massage for your soul!”), a $190, 12-hour class in Feng Shui, or a $48, 3-hour workshop entitled, I kid you not, “Talking to Your Angels and Learning How to Listen,” run by Sandy Day, who claims to be a Reiki Master, Shaman, and Intuitive Healer. This is not some backwoods hand-waving Natural Healing Centre Of Happiness and Puppy Dog Kisses, this is at the biggest teaching hospital in the city, the centre for the high-risk pregnancies, for breast cancer: the medical hub! Or, on Wednesday, September 17th from 7-9 pm, the classroom for “Energy Medicine – The Internal World.” Oh but don’t worry, in tiny text:

Women’s Health Resources does not support, endorse or recommend any method, treatment, product, remedial center, program or person. We do, however, endeavour to inform because we believe in the right to have access to available information in order to make informed individual choices.

Now, call me skeptical, but I’m pretty sure if I wander over to the Urology clinic, I somehow doubt that I will see the same advertisements promising healing touch lessons for prostate problems.

For more than one reason, really. (zpeckler@flikr)

If we don’t teach our girls to question, and if we don’t ask our women to think, stuff like this is only going to get worse. No amount of half-assed disclaimery is going to change the fact that misinforming anyone is the opposite of giving them an informed individual choice. Talking about the dangerous of being teleported to Neptune by devious extraterrestrial cows does not come into discussions of which car you’d like to buy. Yes, you should be aware of the pros and cons of every car, and yes you should be free to make that choice, but having some random loon come in off the street to convince people that our Bovine Neptunian Overlords only abduct people who drive Chevies is pretty much the opposite of informed consent, particularly if the random loon also happens to sell Toyotas. Why is the Women’s Health Centre not bringing in drug companies to give presentations on why everyone should be taking Lipitor? Perhaps because there is a major conflict of interest when you are essentially charging people to sit through a sales pitch? And this is actually a bad example, because at least Lipitor actually has demonstrable, independently reproducible benefits!

So yes, we do need more women in skepticism. We need women standing up for themselves, saying that they are tired of all this bullshit being thrown at them. Without female allies telling Oprah to go stuff herself and Dr. Oz to take his reiki elsewhere, the skepticism movement will never succeed at exposing fraud in CAM. Women’s voices don’t just deserve to be heard in skepticism, they need to be heard, for the sake of everyone’s health.

Escape to Reality

The Humanist Association of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Skeptics were joint sponsors of an informational booth at the Red River Exhibition that ran 17–26 June 2011. Surrounded as we were by booths from the Gideons, the Winnipeg League for Life, the Church of Scientology, and folks hawking knock-off Power Balance wristbands, we called the booth “Escape to Reality”.

I spent a fair portion of my free time over the last week staffing the booth (along with the indefatigable and demonstrably more dedicated Donna Harris and others), and generally had a lot of fun. We even got a shout-out from PZ, which is always appreciated. We had many enjoyable conversations with believers and skeptics of all stripes.

Donna, Laura, and I chatted at length with a few creationists, who were apparently offended that one of our signs put “Young Earth Creationism” in the same evidential category as “The Easter Bunny”. When pressed, they could provide no positive evidence for their position, and seemed to forget several of their own talking points. Apparently there are no beneficial mutations, evolution cannot add information to the genome, and Darwinism predicts that species will just get stronger, smarter, and better over time, while we’re clearly just getting sicker and sicker.

When I tried to explain that evolution only predicts increasing adaptation to the species’ environment, I was smugly informed that I did not understand evolution. When I tried to explain precisely how mutations can add “information” in a genetic sequence, bringing up insertions, deletions, transpositions, and point mutations, I was met with blank stares. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out some codons (ATG CTG TAG…), changing or crossing out letters to illustrate the replication or replacement of one or more nucleotides.

“I’m going to stop you there,” one of the creationists said. “What are all those letters supposed to mean?”

Sorry, I thought, my mistake. I assumed that because you so arrogantly asserted that mutations were incapable of adding new information to a genome, you were at least passingly familiar with what “information” means in the context of genetics. I decided to cut my losses and move on.

There were times that they stumbled over their own talking points, which I found amusing. For example, they brought up Mount St. Helens several times, but couldn’t seem to remember why it was so important for their case. I reminded them that Steven Austin had rock from a new lava flow at Mount St. Helens dated, and the potassium-argon dating showed the rock to be hundreds of thousands of years old—unfortunately, it is well established that Austin (either knowingly or in ignorance) used the incorrect radiometric dating methods. The various types of radiometric dating are accurate for varying (and overlapping) ranges of time. They are validated not only against each other, but also by other dating methods, such as dendrochronology, which uses tree rings.

Wait a second, it says here that God created humanity, not Darwin...

Of course, the creationists weren’t the only people we met whose beliefs took a sharp right turn when confronted with reality. A young woman who seemed very interested in our booth asked me, “Do you guys believe in energy?” “Sure!” I said. “Energy is the capacity of a system to perform work.” She seemed a little nonplussed by this. “No,” she said. “How we’re all connected by energy. It’s all about science. There’s this movie you should see…” “Ah!” I said. “You’re talking about What the Bleep Do We Know?.” And then I told her, as gently as I could, precisely what I thought of that particular quantum fantasy film.

We spent much of our time at the Ex promoting SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, which is coming up on September 17th at Aqua Books, and the MASH Film Festival, on August 14th at the Park Theatre. Both events garnered a lot of interest.

We also did a few demonstrations. I’m told that the fellow hawking “Energy Balance” bracelets ($30 rubber bands—with “ions”!) threatened to call security on Ashlyn as she calmly explained to his marks how all of his tricks could easily be faked. Hypothetically, of course. She wasn’t calling him a fraud. It’s all about the consumer protection, folks! (Richard Saunders explains the tricks here.)

On Thursday night, Scott and I went to get “stress tests” at the Dianetics booth run by the Church of Scientology. There, we were asked personal questions while we held tin cans connected to a volt meter. I found that if you squeezed the cans, the needle would jump, which led to some amusing shenanigans.

Pictured: Science.

There, we learned that L. Ron Hubbard had apparently been both a renowned physicist and a research psychologist. “Through his research,” I was told, “he discovered that humans are spiritual beings.” Fascinating! We were told that Scientologists were first responders in Haiti and Japan. “Oh,” I said, “that’s great! How did they help?” I was informed that these “first responders” were trained in Touch Assist, a form of energy healing.

The recruiters told Scott and I that one of the greatest boons that Dianetics has to offer is increased mental discipline and help to those who suffer from mental illness. “You know how Einstein said that you only use this much of your brain?” my recruiter said, holding her hands about an inch apart. “Well, with Dianetics…” She spread her arms wide, presumably indicating that Dianetics would allow me to meet my intellectual potential.

“So Dianetics is about mental health,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly right,” she told me.

“Oh,” I said. “Like psychiatry.”

She stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Recovering quickly, she launched into a conspiracy-mongering diatribe about drug dependency and the Big Psychiatry smear campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologist successfully trolled. I’m such a bastard.

My favourite quotation of the night: “Dianetics is a science. It’s like gravity. You can’t disprove it.” Fact.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped out with planning and staffing the booth, and to those who stopped by for a chat!

Book Review: The Secret

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

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 startle morass of insane 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: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

* Vaccines do not cause autism. I know that you know this. Everyone who knows how to put on their own pants knows this. Don’t you think that it’s sad that I can’t just let irony stand on its own? I do. (If you want to read the original version of this footnote, it’s available here.)