What does science have to do with negative thinking?
The scientific method has been the characteristic process of natural science since The Royal Society helped establish it in the 17th century. The method defines the conviction that knowledge—like justice—should be blind. The method includes these steps:
- Observation—Choose a problem and research it
- Hypothesis—Express the problem as a question
- Prediction—Propose a testable answer to the question, based on the research
- Experimentation—Perform a test to prove or disprove the prediction
- Conclusion—Analyze the results of the test and determine their meaning
Thomas Sprat described the Society’s commitment to the method as an ideal:
“They have never affirmed anything, concerning the cause, till the trial was past; whereas, to do it before is a most venomous thing in the making of Sciences: for whoever has fixed on his Cause, before he has experimented, can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment and his Observations to his own Cause, which he had before imagined; rather than the Cause to the truth of the Experiment itself.”
The biggest difficulty in practicing the scientific method is that our biases do relentlessly prompt us to jump the gun and influence our conclusions (“a venomous thing”!). But applying the scientific method on a personal level can help mitigate a tendency to jump to negative conclusions.
How easy is it to be biased toward thoughts like, “I’m just unlucky,” “Nobody respects my opinion,” or “I’m not good at anything” without sufficient data to support the conclusion? The most effective way to eliminate bias is to recognize it and call it out. Doing an experiment by keeping track for a while would allow the data to prove or disprove our premature negative conclusion. In fact, the extremes that are common in negative thoughts (never, always, no one, everyone) rarely stand up to analysis.
Science and the scientific method may seem to be cold and impersonal life guides, but being truly “realistic” (a favorite rationalization of the negative thinker) most often proves the opposite to be true. The Royal Society’s Latin motto, “Nullius in verba” can be roughly translated as, “Take nobody’s word for it.” Sometimes, the one whose word we most need to avoid taking is us.