Friday, March 16, 2007

The Secret's secret danger? Tony's secret envy?

Tonight, ABC News joined the ranks of those in mainstream journalism who've "discovered" The Secret, now that the DVD/book tandem only has about 5 million copies in circulation. Though many have riffed on the fundamental silliness of Byrne's Boondoggle, ABC was among the first broadcast outlet I've seen to take things a step further, musing on the actual harm that The Secret may do to unsuspecting positive thinkers. The segment featured Columbia professor of behavioral medicine Richard Sloan, who wondered about the wisdom, say, of implying to women that they can prevent cancer by simply wishing it away. "If you think that you're not going to get cancer, you don't want to get cancer, you believe you're not going to get cancer...are you not going to get mammography?" posed Sloan. "Are you not going to have colonoscopy? Are you not going to quit smoking?" They're reasonable questions because, after all, entertaining the idea of mammography is in essence a form of negativity: It allows for the fact that you may be harboring a tumor. That's one of those "limiting beliefs" and/or "blocking messages" that you're supposed to purge from your customary thought patterns in order to give yourself fully and unconditionally to optimism.

Sloan's observations echo my own concerns, in SHAM, about one of the most dangerous epidemics in today's America: the growing popularity of so-called alternative medicine. I say "so-called" because I'm reminded of what one of my sources, Dr. Wallace Sampson, told me during the research phase of my book: "There's no such thing as alternative medicine. It's either medicine or it isn't. It's either scientifically validated or it's bogus." In any case, alt-med is causing millions of Americans to shun proven, orthodox health care in favor of mind-body protocols that emphasize self-healing through willpower and PMA.* No pun intended, but it's hard to see this as a positive development in public health.

Speaking of positive developments, I think Tony Robbins may be at least mildly jealous and put off by the white-hot societal spotlight focused on The Secret these days. I say this, having just received TR's latest mass-mailing. On the surface, it's another of Tony's attempts to make hay out of every holiday, occasion or anniversary—in this case St. Patty's Day. But his rhetoric appears to have been tweaked to play off the sentiments peddled in The Secret. It starts with the very title of the mailing—"Luck on Your Terms"—and proceeds to the following headline quote from Robbins himself: "There is no luck unless you believe you have it." The ad then goes on to include this bit of Emersonian pithiness: "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common." Maybe it's just me, but the whole thing sounds a lot more New Agey than what I'm accustomed to hearing from Tony.

* See SHAM chapter 11.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
Perhaps it would help to more clearly define "alternative." My own perspective is that it represents an alternative to accepted Western medical practice, and while there are certainly many charlatans in the field, there are also genuine practitioners, some who practice forms of treatment that predate our standard regimen by many centuries, and are only recently being investigated as sources of potential good by the Western medical establishment.

My own personal experience is with a classically trained acupuncturist & herbal physician. Trained in China, he has been highly regarded by a number of physicians in the Texas Medical Center here in Houston.

About 15 years ago, my old family physician diagnosed a spot on my arm as being a melanoma, and was insistent upon my having surgery, followed up with supplementary therapy. Having seen first-hand the "progress" of two family members after receiving mainstream cancer treatment, I opted to pursue treatment from the Chinese physician recommended to me by a Buddhist monk friend.

He prescribed a terrible-tasting tea, which I was to brew and drink twice daily. After a few weeks, while sitting with friends who had been very concerned about my health, the "spot," which had dried to a scab-like appearance, simply fell off.

I have had no supplemental treatment, and there has been no re-emergence of symptoms. Given the mortality rate for patients with melanoma, I am convinced I made the correct decision. I am also certain that my old family doctor, were he alive, would concur.

Bottom line is that I agree that any alternative treatment needs to be researched, following the strictest scientific procedures. But I am not ready to state that "alternative" is necessarily synonymous with "sham." Summary dismissal might sound more astute than blind belief - and might well be advisable in cases where one's well-being is at stake - but they are both just different sides of the same coin. We need to learn before we pass judgment, one way or the other.

Steve Salerno said...

I fully expected you to weigh in on this one, Rev, and you didn't disappoint. In a sense, I feel that we've already had most of the dialogue on alt-med per se, so I'll just say here that I appreciate the points you make as well as the genuine dilemma that they reference (i.e. "where do I go when I can't seem to get answers from 'traditional' medicine?") The nagging problem, to me, is that most consumers are not as savvy and rational as you and I are. Not even close--and putting false modesty aside, you know that as well as I do. They're easy pickins' for scammers, and as we see with a guy like Trudeau, in a free-market society, it can be very, very difficult to keep the wolves away from the sheep. It's a tough balancing act: We don't want to deprive people of choices. But nor do we want to allow (indeed, encourage) a climate wherein desperate, gullible consumers quite literally are killed by snake oil....

Cosmic Connie said...

Leaving aside the alt-med discussion for a moment, it's good to see ABC taking such a strong stand, especially after the non-critical piece ran last November 26.

Here's the link. (I inserted a line break; you'll have to delete it. I'm sorry I haven't yet figured out how to put a live hyperlink into a comment.)

This article focuses on health as much or more than wealth, and in fact it appears under's "Health" banner. In this piece, Rhonda Byrne said she didn't even plan to get a flu shot this season because "if you're feeling good, how can you attract any illness to you?"

(Doesn't that just make you WANT the Universe to say, "Oh, yeah?" Oh, bad, bad Connie.)

Anyway, it's about freakin' time that the mainstream media got on the critical bandwagon. Maybe they realized there was money in it, because a growing number of people are getting disillusioned with New-Wage crap.

As for Tony's envy...well, I can't imagine he's suffering all that much. But I'm sure that the success of "The Secret" galls him a little.

RevRon's Rants said...

While I agree that there needs to be additional regulation of non-standard medical treatments, I think that there also needs to be some restructuring of the medical / pharmaceutical industry lobby, which has been very effective at impeding the progress toward objective evaluation of "alternative" therapies. Whether through an honest concern for the well-being of patients or defensiveness about the future esteem and profitability of their endeavors, both the health care professional and pharmaceutical industries structure their criteria for research and approval to their own mutual benefit, and to the exclusion of what they frequently perceive as interlopers.

Treatments that do not require immersion in the AMA structure are fought tooth and nail, rather than being objectively investigated. And pharmaceutical treatments, be they compounded synthetics or organic/herbal elements, are researched and evaluated as much based upon their profitability as their effectiveness. Compounds which show little potential for profit are overlooked in favor of more lucrative products, sometimes despite their effect upon patients. We saw this first-hand while following the FDA evaluation of breast implant devices. After thoroughly researching the studies performed and attending the last FDA hearings, I was left feeling very uneasy about the regulators' willingness to look after consumers' best interests.

In short (I know... too late!), I feel we do need to be more judicious in our choices, but need more consumer-oriented objectives in the regulatory process.