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Skeptic Fail #1: Michael Shermer fails to debunk the Law of Attraction

September 28, 2013

I probably should have started this series a long time ago. but I didn’t. I guess I wanted to “focus on the positive”. For many years I’ve only felt able to shake my head at some of the things that professional skeptics do, and simply focus on the good skeptic work — done mostly by amateur “skeptic” bloggers or by professionals who aren’t dependent on skepticism for their income.

I also don’t pay much attention to what professional skeptics and their organizations are doing, and I don’t see any reason to start. But some of their failures do need to be pointed out, as do the blind spots inherent in the usual skeptical approach to many issues.

So let’s start with a generally disgraceful piece of failed skepticism which looks more like a pathetic attempt at self-promotion by Michael Shermer. He attempts to debunk the — dangerous and wrong — “Law of Attraction” as presented in The Secret. Unfortunately he ignores one of the most basic rules of skepticism, in that he didn’t sufficiently research, and therefore doesn’t understand, the idea he is criticizing. The result is that he winds up making a video that would be more likely to reinforce the belief in the Law of Attraction. This is known in the business as a failure.

The segment starts with Shermer and another professional skeptic Brian Dalton having a mock argument about whether or not the law of attraction applies to sick people or people who have had an accident. Did they attract it? Dalton pretends to believe they must have done, and Shermer plays the role of the believer who says it doesn’t apply to sick people.

Had they done a modicum of research they would have discovered almost instantly that, yes, the law of attraction says that you will attract anything you focus on, wanted or unwanted. Every single law of attraction teacher on the planet insists that you do indeed manifest negative things if you are not careful. Thus — 

“The law of attraction works whether you believe in it or not, just like the law of gravity, so buy this product and learn how to use it for yourself.”

I’m stunned that neither Shermer nor Dalton have heard that line….. That’s the basis of the whole fucking scam!

They suck you in with promising to show you how to manifest your dreams and then try to scare the pants off you with the information that you are manifesting things all the time whether you like it or not, so you better watch what you think.

This is why the idea is such a trap. All criticism of it is considered by a believer to be inherently “negative” and therefore dangerous and to be avoided lest one attract negativity into ones life. And it is based on fear — the fear that your greatest fears will become a reality if you don’t strictly control your thoughts. The Secret was carefully designed both to disable critical thinking (by presenting it as if it’s a gift from a child) and to trigger deep-seated fears in people (with numerous images of people being hunted and burned alive), without the viewer realizing what they were getting themselves into.

And Shermer and Dalton missed all of that. They don’t know what they are up against. And they are clearly oblivious to the amount of damage this idea has caused to the lives of millions of people who have tried to use it.

These two have clearly invested a lot of time, effort and money in making this video. It’s filmed in a professional studio and has obviously been scripted. They even went to the trouble of queuing up footage of chickens for the exact moment in their scripted banter when Dalton calls Shermer a “chicken”. Really funny guys. Jeez, you blokes are a laugh a minute aren’t you.

4Skeptic humor from Brian Dalton: “You’re a chicken buckaaark”

More disturbing is their sequence in which they try to “manifest” a parking space.

Shermer introduces the sequence with a smirk: “So we’re here in a parking lot with Jen…. who’s a big believer in the law of attraction.”

6

That’s right, two guys, both of whom have a bad reputation for manipulative dealings women have got “Jen” in the back seat of a car in a parking lot and are leering at her from the front.

This pointless and unfortunate sequence has an added piece of stupidity from Shermer which is more in the realm of normal every day poor educational practice than sexism or incompetence. Namely, he says that with Jen visualizing a parking spot, that if they find one “then clearly something is going on.” For Shermer this is just a normal over-stated “strictly for TV” Penn & Teller style mock experiment for entertainment purposes only. But it is also exactly the kind of half-baked “experiment” that millions of law of attraction believers have carried out themselves and experienced “success” with. Any believer in the LoA will simply be nodding their head at this and wondering when Shermer is going to challenge their beliefs. Again, I am stunned that Shermer doesn’t know this.

The scene ends with an abrupt cut back to the studio, with the joke that Jen was so worried about Dalton’s driving that she manifested an accident. (A further bit of patronizing and sexist tastelessness has Dalton joking that the only reason she didn’t want to work with them anymore was because she didn’t like Shermer’s beret.)

Then it gets even more tasteless and disturbing with a sequence in which they get a small child to visualize a bike, and she winds up (fictitiously) getting hit by one and taken to hospital. Again, a believer would be nodding at this and saying, “Yep, that’s why you gotta learn to do it right.” Why are they doing this?

They sum up.

Shermer:

If good things happen because people will it, doesn’t that mean bad things also happen because people will it? Do you really think that things like disease and terror attacks happen because people will it on themselves? I don’t think so.

Excuse me, is this supposed to be skepticism? Is this the best you guys can come up with against the most malevolent, ruthless and above all most successful piece of spiritual mass manipulation in decades? — An unwitting confirmation of its main premise; a replication of exactly the kind of experiment that appears to confirm it; and lamely countering it with the phrase “I don’t think so”?

It’s so easy to assume that the only reason why people believe “weird things” is because the human brain tends to make logical fallacies. But that is to ignore virtually the whole of behavioral psychology. It also underestimates the role of manipulation and above all the ruthlessness of people willing to exploit others by what ever means are possible. Shermer and Dalton are way out of their depth with these issues.

Part 2 looks more closely at manipulation

Posted by Yakaru

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13 comments

  1. I’m facepalming. They didn’t know that the LoA does include negative things? They don’t know how the idolatry of positive thinking has long been used to psychologically control those who fall for it?

    That’s kind of like someone criticizing homeopathy without knowing about the law of similars. Sure, it’s nonsense, but if you’re going to do something more than casual ridicule, you really do have to know your way through the minefield of fallacies and thought-stopping cliches if you want to reach people.

    Skeptical media targeted for other skeptics is only a good thing if it seeks to inform the audience how to analyze beliefs skeptically or understand and deal with the opposition, otherwise it’s just an insular echo chamber. I’m not interested in collective back-patting for being in the in-crowd.


  2. It’s certainly a bit of an own goal, followed by a victory lap! It also shows how little Shermer understands his fellow humans. He’s really missed a chance there, because The Secret is kind of the Grand Central Station for manipulative woo. I expect a professional to be paying a bit more attention.


  3. What does science tell about the Law of Attraction? It tells that LoA doesn’t work. Do you need a proof by scientific evidence? Read this:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-van-edwards/law-of-attraction_b_2082921.html
    http://www.heatherkappes.com/?page_id=68

    But if you are a hard die believer in LoA, affected by cognitive bias, then please refuse to believe in science. For instance refuse to believe that your personal computer was built by using science knowledge, refuse to believe in Newton gravity law, refuse to believe in scientific evidence in general. Program your brain with positive thinking like a robot. Don’t accept your feelings as they are. Don’t love yourself as you are. Throw your life experience and your own judgment into the trash. Never desire to save your emotions.

    “Quantum willness” is not in our brain. It doesn’t depend on our observation. The universe matter is not distantly “interconnected”.“Spooky actions” is a term badly used by common people because entanglement has a different meaning for science. Instead, it is linked to the concept of correlation. Interactions among particles are out in the blue and ontic (deterministic).

    http://www.nature.com/news/quantum-theorem-shakes-foundations-1.9392

    epistemic theories shared by new agers seem wrong:

    http://www.nature.com/news/a-boost-for-quantum-reality-1.10602

    All those quantum mystic myths have been widely debunked, but real scientists have never had doubts about that. I’m sorry, but this seems the beginning of the end of the “age of aquarium”, even including LoA. Science looks more fancy than the speculation of many narcisistic new agers. The real “magic power” of mind is intelligence and imagination, which leaded us to the moon and made our dreams true. No “quantum vibrations” connected by the “infinite intelligence” coming from our brain.

    http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/measure-of-things/4418902/Quantum-wave-functions-come-alive–May-the-Bohr-Model-rest-in-peace

    LoA is good for people who want to satisfy their desire without using their intelligence.

    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/

    Let scientists make their own work. For the sake of the truth, for the evolution of our specie and our culture,please, don’t mix science with religion or mystical woo. Nevertheless science is falsifiable. Thus day by day New Age would be forced to falsify its statements too. That’s a nonsense for a religion.

    Cheers!


  4. Thanks for your comment and the links, Focault. Yes, the LoA stuff is wrong in every single way that it could be.


  5. Most people who criticize the Law of Attraction have not “sufficiently” researched the subject and do not understand the Law. The movie, The Secret, got the message out to the masses about LOA, but it does not really teach what one needs to know in order to apply the law for your benefit. It is more than wishing for a parking place to appear. Believe in it or not, but successful people have applied Law of Attraction techniques in their lives for hundreds of years. One of the beautiful facts of life is that we have freedom to choose–and I know, from personal experience, that when I choose to believe and act positively, then I attract more positive into my own life.


  6. @LOA Works,

    You have asserted that the law of attraction works but unfortunately — or rather, negligently and greedily — you are already selling it to people without having understood the problems and dangers your “frauduct” poses to your customers.

    Had YOU spent five minutes researching it before endangering your customers with it, you would have been confronted with the fact that all your “success” stories are accounted for by confirmation bias, among other things. You don’t have clue, and you don’t care because you are too busy taking other peoples money. You are greedy, dangerous, and willfully ignorant.

    I have removed the link to your scam site because you have contributed nothing to the discussion here. All you have done is repeat a bunch of assertions presented as fact, and efectively written a piece of advertising. This is a site for people to explore ideas honestly and sincerely. It is not for people like you.


  7. Not very good skeptics. Researching what the hell you are talking about would help.

    You’d think The Secret “teachers” would avoid subjects like the Holocaust or other horrible human rights abuses in history as much as possible, but seriously, they can’t shut up about the Holocaust. According to James Ray, “I know people of the Jewish faith and heritage who don’t necessarily believe the Holocaust was bad. Now that might be shocking to you but I have people on record who have said, hey there’s a lot of good things that came out of that, a lot of lessons, a lot of opportunities for the world.”

    I kind of lost respect for Michael Shermer when he passingly called the people who died in James Ray’s sweat lodge an example of human stupidity. He didn’t go into anything in detail, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had any real information about the circumstances that lead to their deaths.

    Well, that and the video you shared, and then some other incredibly mind-blowing sexist shit were the final nail in the coffin for my respect for both Shermer and Dalton. Very callous, cold people with no clue.


  8. I didn’t know Shermer said that about Ray’s victims. Doesn’t surprise me though. I’ll google it as soon as I’ve got the stomach for it. He seems to think the only reason people “believe weird things” is because they don’t understand logical fallacies. He seems ignorant of what motivates people, and indifferent the plight of those less privileged than him.

    He also keeps on insisting that he “really likes” Deepak Chopra — “he’s a really nice guy.” I know of no good evidence for that assertion, and like most of the things he says, it seems more aimed at keeping his career as professional skeptic in line, by being the diplomatic, reliable go-to skeptic for CNN etc. I don’t know but I’d bet he has media agents and keeps one eye on public reaction to his statements.

    With LOA and the Holocaust, yeh it’s every bit as weird as it is shocking. James Ray can say that without blinking, but ducks the issue as soon as it’s about his own fate. Now his imprisonment is a mysterious part of God’s higher purpose — even though the mundane and purely materialistic explanation for his conviction and imprisonment is rather more compelling.


  9. You stated “the amount of damage this idea has caused to the lives of millions of people who have tried to use it.”

    I came to that realization my damn self….that this law of attraction foolishness was actually ruining my life. When I analyzed the situation, I found that I was doing better before I’d ever heard of the law of attraction. After learning of that crap, I placed unrealistic burdens on myself and when these things didn’t manifest, I felt as if I had to be attracting the mishaps. I finally grew a pair and began to hear the anti-LOA side of the argument for the first time and I haven’t looked back since.

    I’ve met many people over the years when I was high on that bullshit, who are staunch believers in the LOA and will defend it to the death but I’ve never met anyone of them who were successful.


  10. I think Shermer was trying to promote electric cars in this too.


  11. Ure fucking retarded theyre all successfull instead of you. Even the celebrities are talking about it.You just want to pass away your failures and i bet you re threatened by it


  12. Ure fucking retarded theyre all successfull instead of you. Even the celebrities are talking about it.You just want to pass away your failures and i bet you re threatened by it you should kill yourself faggots


  13. I decided to turn comment moderation off two weeks ago. Since then I’ve had one racist anthroposophist and the above believer in Rhonda Byrne’s Secret Law of Attraction.



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