Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pseudoscience and the "Law of Attraction"

David Monk talked in a recent blog entry about a movie called The Secret. I haven't seen it, but I've Steve Pavlina's descriptions of its topic, the Law of Attraction: it's essentially a New Age, power of positive thinking message, sometimes expounded in terms of physical concepts such as quantum mechanics, energy, and vibration.

On one hand, I find the underlying concept essentially a good one. There are a lot of things we claim to "want", but we don't behave the way you'd expect a good wanter to behave. We say we want to drink beer and have six-pack abs -- and we end up frustrated one way or the other (you know the model in the photo at left dropped that beer like a red-hot snake after the photo was taken -- he knows which side his bread is buttered on). I think the underlying message of the Law of Attraction is about being conscious of conflicting goals and realizing that you have to clarify your desires or you'll be sabotaging yourself.

But why is it that this stuff gets couched in pseudoscience? You hear people talk about this in terms of vibrations, quantum mechanics, energy, force, even nonsensical combinations like "energy force". To be fair, a some of it is clearly metaphorical: it's common to talk about "vibes" and "resonance" as a metaphor for detecting having something in common with another person, in the same way that a tuning fork will resonate along with another tuning fork of a close enough resonating frequency. (I abused quantum mechanics myself in a previous post.) But there's also an element of snake oil, especially with quantum mechanics, in movies like What the Bleep that are seriously trying to sell us on the idea that quantum phenomena can be observed on the macroscopic scale.

How we think influences how we act, and how we act influences the world. I guess it makes sense that if you adopt a belief in a shortcut directly from our thoughts to the world, it provides a simpler conceptual framework that can make necessary introspection appear to be more rewarding in the short term. That's probably why some very effective people have had good luck with this kind of mental framework. But for essentially lazy people without the habit of getting their hands dirty, it allows for the possibility of a sterile sort of magick where you lie around on a couch wishing really hard for something good to happen. When nothing comes, it's because you didn't wish hard enough.

Monk also questions The Secret's emphasis on manifesting wealth and shiny consumer goods. I'm not sure that's bad in itself -- if someone is pursuing material wealth, and they're not succeeding because they're confused and conflicted, giving them tips for getting richer through introspection may be the spoonful of sugar they need to make the medicine go down. Getting clear with things is good for you whatever your goals are, although it will certainly cause you to reconsider what your goals are.

Thanks to taijofj for the cat photo: may he manifest a big bowl of tuna.

No comments: