The problem of proving a negative

The martenitsa is on the table beside me. Tomorrow it will be tied around my wrist and will not be removed until I see a stork, a swallow or a blossoming tree, lest its removal cause another calamity.

On 1st March last year, I was sat in the staff room and a Bulgarian teacher came in and tied pieces of red and white cord bearing little medallions around the wrists of each person present. Being told it was Baba Marta day, I wore the cord for the day, and then removed it, only realizing too late that the tradition was that it should have remained.

“Zdravie,” I said, when I next saw my colleague, “I took off the marternitsa, will that mean something terrible will happen?”

“Ian,” she laughed, “you could have brought terrible luck on yourself.”

The past year, which included the death of my father, has been a truly horrible time. Were I someone of a very superstitious inclination or someone very susceptible to spurious explanations of phenomena, I might have wondered what consequences I had unleashed when I took off the martenitsa.

The problem with many claims is that it is difficult to prove a negative.

Each Christmas when students in school tell me that there is no Santa Claus, I challenge them to prove his non-existence. Sometimes, I talk about the idea from theoretical physics that the closer one moves to the speed of light, the slower time goes, using this idea to explain that Santa moves very quickly so has all the time needed to deliver presents. One girl looked very crossly at me, realizing the argument was ridiculous, but could not be refuted.

It is challenging to conclusively prove that something is not so. The philosopher Christopher Hitchens devised a concept that has become known as Hitchens’ Razor. Hitchens believed, “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens was an atheist who believed theistic claims were made without evidence and therefore no evidence was required for them to be dismissed. Of course, a theist would respond that atheist claims are without evidence and can be dismissed.

So the martenitsa sits ready for the morning because I cannot prove that Baba Marta will not be nasty to me if I do not wear it. Like the tales of ghosts and magic I heard as a child, it is a ridiculous idea, but, on the other hand, you never know.



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4 Responses to The problem of proving a negative

  1. Timbotoo says:

    A Spanish saying is, roughly translated: I do not believe in witches. Do they fly, you ask? Yes, I think that they do.

    • Ian says:

      In Ireland, there are farmers who would declare they have no belief in fairies but would leave untouched fairy thorn trees in the middle of cornfields.

  2. James Higham says:

    I’ll have to remember never to take off my marternitsa.

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