Sunday, May 20, 2007

Self-help quack makes a fortune

She was named by Time as one of the world's 100 most influential people, but there are some secrets Rhonda Byrne would rather not divulge to the universe. She has amassed a $48.5 million fortune sharing The Secret with the world, but the overnight self-help guru and former Channel Nine producer, who claims simply asking the "universe" and using the "law of attraction" can do everything from cure cancer to create fortunes, has become increasingly secretive about her roots back home in Australia.

Late last month reports surfaced in Britain about Byrne's mother, Irene Izon, 74, who lives on Melbourne's outskirts. "She has made so much money that I have to pinch myself," Izon told a British journalist, David Cohen. "We talk on the phone most days. I miss her. I am so proud of her. Last week, she told me she'd made $20 million in just a few months, which just blows me away, and that she was giving away 10 per cent to charity. She said she wants to fly me over to visit her in Los Angeles in the summer. Though when I asked her last week, she said she hadn't bought the plane ticket. She is very generous giving all those millions to charity, but I have to admit she hasn't given me a single dollar, though I'm expecting she'll send me some financial help soon. That's what she told me. In the meantime, I'm OK. I get by on my state pension of $1050 a month."

Since Cohen's piece ran in London's Evening Standard and in Edinburgh's Scotsman, Izon and family have gone to ground. Izon's number has disappeared from directories and her mobile is permanently switched off. "You have to contact her publicity people ... The entire family has been instructed by Rhonda not to talk to the media," a family member told PS.



It is an ominous sign that the prestigious scientific institution has changed its motto from 'on the word of no one' to 'respect the facts'. Nullius in Verba, the motto of the prestigious Royal Society in London, is usually translated as 'on the word of no one'. When it was coined back in 1663, it was intended to distance science from the methods of the ancient universities, which relied heavily on the personal authority of the scholars. 'On the word of no one' highlighted the independent authority that empirical evidence bestowed on science; knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

Lately, however, the Royal Society has dropped any mention of 'on the word of no one' from its website. Instead, it talks of the need to 'verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment'. Lord May of Oxford, erstwhile president of the Royal Society and former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, offers us a whole new translation: 'respect the facts.' This provides the title of his recent review in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), in which he gave the scientific nod of approval to seven recent publications on climate change, including books by George Monbiot, Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern (1).

The Royal Society's 'motto-morphosis' - where it has gone from saying 'on the word of no one' to demanding that we 'respect the facts' - points to an important shift in the way that scientific authority is used to close down debate these days.


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