Friday, March 30, 2007

A few words on a lot of words. And then we lay The Secret to rest, barring further developments.

Rhonda Byrne and the rest of Secretron Nation tout their brainchild as being chock full of "truths that have been taught" going back to antiquity. They quote the Bible, they quote famous philosophers and soothsayers, they quote historic statesmen, etc.

Let me just point out that a quote is not a "truth." A quote ain't nothin' but a quote. Regardless of how many people put stock in it.

No strings of words, no matter how inspiring they are or how integral a part of the zeitgeist they become, carry the weight of empirical fact. So don't tell me what Plato thought or Emerson wrote. Words, words, words. Magical, uplifting words, perhaps. And yes, in some cases, words that wrought wholesale changes in the way life is lived. Still, at the last, they're mere words. Consider arguably the most inspirational statement in American history and, some would say, the bedrock of democracy itself: "All men are created equal." It's a lovely thought—for which there was almost no evidence in Jefferson's day, and which remains scientifically suspect today (though of course, for PC reasons, one is generally proscribed from saying so). Clearly—quite clearly—all individuals are not equal. And as far as groups or blocs of people, the bottom line is that, for reasons having more to do with social justice than scientific virtue, we took a lyrical notion and elevated it to the level of a cultural theology. Sure, the idea behind "all...equal" made life sweeter. And it became an important rallying cry during the Civil Rights movement. But the precept remains, at this writing, a conceit; a triumph of poesy over substance. In terms of intelligence, for example, there's at least some credible scientific evidence of a hierarchy that goes as follows: Asians, then whites, then blacks. Though opponents of these findings tend to cry foul—if not "racism!"—no clear proof of any such biases is apparent in the methodology of the studies.* This is one prime reason why I'd prefer to dismiss the whole idea of racial identity. But remember, when I say that, I'm talking sociologically, not scientifically. It's what I'd prefer to do. It doesn't mean I'm correct in doing it.

It therefore doesn't matter to me if a Thomas Jefferson, or even a John the Baptist, once said, "You can be anything you want in life if you just set your mind to it!" I need more than words. I need hard evidence. (So should you, before you write the check or fill in the online credit-card form.) I want to examine the ledger; I want to see what ultimately became of the people who embraced that thinking from the outset (i.e. not after they became successful and looked back on their life), as opposed to what became of people who thought differently. I want to see it in a clinically valid format, with double-blind procedures and control groups and placebos. You say it's impossible to amass such data in this context? No problem. In that case, just admit the fallibility of your argument: You might be right, you might be wrong. Ergo, don't teach it as gospel, the way Byrne et al do. In other words, don't say all men are created equal when what you really mean is all men might be equal, or all men might not; we simply don't know!

P.S. And don't give me carefully selected individual testimonials from people who thrived after applying The Secret, either. Individual cases mean nothing, and are scientifically worthless. (Are you listening, Kyra Phillips?)

* The link takes you to the work of Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein, co-authors of The Bell Curve (1994). More food for thought on the relationship between race and IQ can be found in the career of William Shockley, the Stanford genius who saw his membership in the pantheon of the intellectual elite revoked after he went public with his very un-PC thoughts on race and IQ.


Anonymous said...

So what I take from this latest post is that you're a pessimist AND a racist. The good news just never stops with you, huh STeve?

Steve Salerno said...


Read the post again--or maybe a better idea would be to have someone who CAN read, read it to you....

Theresa Frasch said...

In May of 2005 I came across Jack Canfield's book The Success Principles. I was in a spot in my life where I needed a career change. I decided to follow each of the "principles" and do them one at a time. I had read many other self help books and knew the "principles" but since there were laid out in such a nice orderly fashion I made up my mind to start with #1 and do it before continuing onto #2 and so forth.

I did it religiously. I didn't move on to another "principle" until I had completed the last. I did everything he said. I blogged about it on my (now defunct) blog: Me 'n' Jack. My blog was my personal journey about my experiences as I put the "principles" into practice. I even wrote Jack and told him what I was doing.

I made it through Principle #39. I followed all of the rules, did everything the great master said, and yet look at my last post on October 11, 2005:

"Where do I begin? I feel like I need to start all over. I feel like I felt when I started on this journey with Jack: depressed, like a failure, like nothing I ever do turns out right, like I'll never really be what I want to be so why not just give up. This time I really thought it was going to work. I thought I would be able to begin fulfilling my purpose. I thought it would be a stepping stone to even bigger and better things. I thought wrong. Everything's gone haywire. I don't even feel like reading The Success Principles any more (sorry Jack)."

I read your book shortly after this experience and what a relief that was! Another book I read was Goal-Free Living by Stephen Shapiro. Between the two books I now have a much different outlook on life. Thanks!

BTW, I still have copies of my "Me 'n' Jack" blog posts if you ever want to see them.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Theresa, for sharing your personal journey to Nowheresville, with Jack Canfield as your travel agent...

The same caveat applies here, btw: Your story is just one piece of testimonial evidence. But remember, THEY'RE the ones who say that this stuff is supposed to work magic for everyone who takes it seriously. So, the more people who come forward--and I heard stories like yours all the time when I was researching SHAM--the more I feel confident in turning to guys like Canfield (or gals like Byrne) and saying, "That's a load of bull you're selling..."

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, you racist pessimist, you! :-)

Don't know if you've seen it yet, but Skeptical Inquirer has published a great piece by Connie on the Secret that bears reading (and I'm not biased at all!).

Since blogger tends to cut off long URLs, here's a TinyUrl to the article:



Matt Dick said...

Steve I think you've turned a misinterpretation into a blog entry on this one. I remain, as always, an admirer of yours for calling a sham a SHAM.

In this one example, "...all men are created equal..." was not meant to, nor do I think in context it says in any way, that all men are created equal in their abilities. It says that all mean are created equal in their value and standing before the law. That's why the Declaration of Independance is the mission statement of the United States -- we presume that the equal value of every man (and hence the equal rights of every man) and the rule book (the Constitution) flows from that. Now thankfully we've extended the word "man" to mean "human".

By the way, since you mentioned there being no evidence of equality, there was at least very old precedent. The major theme of our Constitution of course comes from the Magna Carta, which in turn come from a document written in 1100 called the Charter of Liberties. Those documents (and the Magna Carta is not just one document) laid out the basis for rule of law superceding rule of the king.

That principle strengthened over time as each new king re-affirmed the Magna Carta, and then finally Edward Coke came along in the late 1500s and interpreted the law as extending to the common citizen -- until then this all had applied to the nobles and the king, but did not extend to the rights of the common man as equal before the law. Coke saw to that (he was the Speaker of the House of Commons and later the Lord Chief Justice).

Eh, more than you wanted to know, I'd guess.


Steve Salerno said...

Yes Ron, I've seen it and sent Connie kudos. Very nicely done.

Steve Salerno said...

And no, Matt, actually, you're wrong. There's no such thing as "more than I wanted to know." Thanks for the historical perspective. I guess what I was trying to communicate was that we have a tendency in this culture to take "grand poetic notions," posit them as facts, then use them as the basis for legislation, social policy, etc. Now, that's fine--as long as we recognize that we're doing something that's logically and scientifically invalid. But when people take those notions and try to justify them AS FACT--that's when I have a problem.

And if you think about it--really think about it--why SHOULD all men be equal before the law, if they're not equal in fact, i.e., in what they bring to the table? Who says every life is of equal value? Are all people equal in pay? Are all men (and women) able to find top-quality suitors, or lovers? You see, this is where we run into problems--when we begin with a flawed premise and try to extend it across all of society. But maybe that's another blog....

RevRon's Rants said...

I firmly believe that all men (and women) should have an equal opportunity to rise to their highest level of incompetence, and to make the fullest use of their abilities. Beyond that, it's all PC hokum.

Of course, Sam Colt had different ideas about the path to equality. :-)

Highly Amused said...

Pal, you couldn't stop talking about The Secret if your life depended on it. You are a man with little else in your life besides ragging on the successes of others.

Steve Salerno said...

If by "success" you mean the kind of success that, say, the boys at Enron enjoyed for a while there--until they were finally unmasked and revealed as heartless frauds--then you're right. I'll keep on ragging...pal.

Matt Dick said...

You are a man with little else in your life besides ragging on the successes of others.

This is a funny statement. Steve wrote a book on the subject -- a professional effort -- and now has a blog, and if my back of the envelope estimate is correct, probably spends 4 hours a day now writing blog entries and keeping up on this professional committment. Even if he needs 10 hours of sleep, he's got another 10 hours to commit to something that might actually feed his family. And I recall something about baseball playing too. Because he is publically frustrated with Self-helpers hardly implies "little else".

My baseball season starts up in about a month, and I'm looking forward to it. Steve, do you play hard ball? I play in a vintage baseball league, which is tremendously enjoyable.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Matt! I can use all the support I get, as I don't think I've done too good a job of coming to my own defense lately. What you say is altogether true; in fact, there are periods when my actual investment in SHAMblog far surpasses your offhand estimates. (I am a ponderous, painstaking writer, not that it always shows in the end results.)

My baseball season starts the weekend of April 14: my 16th consecutive year of men's senior baseball. "Life begins again," as Thomas Boswell put it--though, being almost sickeningly sentimental, I've always been more partial to the Giamatti quote.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this blog just another string of words? Consider the following theoretical statement: All spherically symmetric bodies are attracted to each other by a force of a strength which is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Such is a statement of Newton's Law of universal Gravitation. Is such a thing more than just a string of words? Is it a "fact"? Much experimental evidence does support such a theory, but plenty of evidence also show that Newtonian Gravity is not in general accurate. General Relatvity describes more general kinds of gravitational phenomena, but can we then simply dismiss Newtonian gravity as false? Its not completely right or wrong. It is a good approximation of General Relatvity in certain situations(our solar system for example). One must be careful even in the labeling of certain scientific statements as pure fact or fiction. A similar approach should be taken with the quotes of Philosophers. When Jefferson says "All Men Are reated Equal", that does not mean we are all of exactly equal size, weight or intelligence. Such a superficial quantitative analysis completly misses the point of the statement. While people have many differences, certain feature of human culture, biology, intelligence, and human nature make humans similar to each other and distinct from the other animals. It is these commonalities which give one man the same natural right that any other person has. If some book is quoting philosophers, we must ask ourselves: does the quote strengthen the authors argument and give us a better understanding of the book's message, or is the quote just some irrelevant window dressing that only distract us from the book's otherwise bland content? I suspect the latter is the case with "The Secret"