The cult of negativity spreads
Published March 15, 2004

Have you ever talked to someone about something you believe? Chances are, especially if that person didn't believe the same thing that you do, that they grilled you about why you held your belief, why you thought it was right, why you were so dumb as to believe something like that, something only a truly gullible person would ever take for the truth. Maybe you then asked them to give you some evidence of why your belief was so very wrong? Did they tell you? Did they have any reason at all, other than, "Oh, well everyone knows that?" I wonder.

It seems like these days a cult of negativity is spreading through our society, and we are all, to some extent, in the guilty party. Perhaps it's unfashionable to believe in things, or to defend truth with facts, but it seems that there is a much lower standard of proof for disbelief than belief these days, for anti-truth than for truth. If I believe something is true, I am constantly asked to defend my stand, to prove beyond any doubt that I am right, even if there is doubt, even if there will always be doubt. By contrast, if I disbelieve in something, if I merely attack someone else's stand, I need have only a single piece of evidence, and suddenly my position becomes as believable as my opponent's.

Let me give you an example. Evolutionary scientists have reams of good data to support their theories of evolution and the development of various species. They do not, unsurprisingly, have the answer to every question on the subject however, nor are their theories perfect. That, of course, is how science works, but let's not move off the topic just yet. Instead, let's take a look at so-called "creation scientists," or supporters of theories of intelligent design.

These folks have no evidence to support their theory, literally none at all. Only a hunch, the idea that some structures in nature just seem too complex to have developed through gradual evolution. No, their main argument is a negative one: they are constantly on the lookout for slip-ups in evolutionary sciences, careless words, unsuccessful research, failed experiments. Then they latch on to these gaps, ignoring the otherwise vast body of strong and compelling evidence, and present them as irrefutable proof of evolution's central flaws.

Negativity doesn't just extend to science, however. The same unfair standards are applied to religious beliefs. Say you don't believe in Jesus, and everyone will shrug: that's your right, your choice, whatever. Say you do believe, and suddenly everyone will start wondering and asking why, how you can prove He existed, when you were first duped into thinking in this close-minded, old-fashioned way. Alternatively, the situation may be completely reversed, and you may be pushed to defend your belief in the non-existence of God, while those who do believe say they do just "because it's true."

Maybe this is an artifact of our legal system, where even a shadow of a doubt disproves a case. That artifice is a construct built into our trial system, however, to protect defendants from all but the most solid evidence. What the architects of the system foresaw was that in a situation where lives were on the line, there could be only the most stringent standards of evidence. I do not mean to excuse the rest of us from having strong evidence to support our views and opinions; quite to the contrary, we should hold those with a negative view to the same standards--it's time for the free ride to end.

Why am I talking about this? What's so important about it? Frankly, I think that negativity in this sense is a serious problem in out society. Instead of coming up with new, original ideas, we are spending all our time and energy tearing down other people's ideas. It's true that this is the easier approach; it's not hard to ridicule, nor to find gaps somewhere in almost any argument, if you look hard enough.

To be fair, attacking your opponent's position is a necessary part of debate, but not only should we back our negative views with as much rigor as our positive ones, we should also be willing and able to offer an alternative, a positive idea of our own in place of the one we are attacking. Otherwise we will be simply spouting hot air without any purpose and without anything to gain. Let's try not to go there.