A Short Guide to the Fine Art of Naysaying

by James Sellers

Dr. Sellers is David Rice professor of ethics at Rice University in Houston.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 29, 1986, p. 94. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Naysaying is ubiquitous, rooted in all our lives. Dissent, in the biblical tradition that commends fidelity to God and neighbor, is a universal alternative to it.

Some problems that at first seem peculiar to one’s own calling, neighborhood or social circle turn out to be ubiquitous, duplicated everywhere. Such is the case with naysaying. Just as management experts employ the same principles from business to business, so naysayers practice the same art in various situations and professions.

But what is naysaying? It must be distinguished from dissent, prophecy or civil disobedience. Unlike those activities, naysaying relies on conventional wisdom -- as found, say, in vote-seekers from the courthouse, certain regulars at the men’s Bible class or readers of old essays in medical ethics. Naysaying refers not to the anguished protest of a Kierkegaard but to the habitual assertion of a vested interest.

Examples of naysaying could be culled from many sources. A recent advertisement by a high-tech firm -- trying to put distance between itself and the naysayers -- made reference to some world-class foot-draggers, including the U.S. patent office director who said in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, was cited for his declaration that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Grover Cleveland made the list with his observation that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."

1. Never do anything for the first time. Medical ethicists who started as theologians seem especially attached to this precept. Let me mention, as an example, my own reaction to the first experiments at in vitro fertilization. Yes, I was an early exponent of naysaying in this area, deploring the experiments in a Christian Century editorial. " I have the uneasy feeling," I wrote, "that the first few hundred test-tube babies should have been simians" ("Test-Tube Conception: Troubling Issues," August 16-23, 1978) I was not only overready to foresee bad news for humankind if this new technique were adopted; I was also, as current animal-rights spokespersons might point out, a humankind chauvinist. I would now be less eager to suggest that the risks be fobbed off on our fellow primates; more to the point, I’d be more willing to say that at some point risks have to be run by someone if we are to keep at our mission of moving "from leeches to lasers."

Today, in vitro conception is widely accepted. The hue and cry I predicted from pro-life groups -- since some embryos are inevitably destroyed in the fertilization process -- has not come to pass, though I’m not sure why, given those groups’ convictions. However, my concern was not with inadvertent abortion; it was with the condition, physical and psychic, of the test-tube babies. Yet Louise Brown, the first in vitro child, is healthy and well today, we are told, and so are most of her consociates.

2. If someone else is already doing it, there’s no need for us to get involved. This axiom is actually, when coupled with No. 3 below, the first half of the "gemini gambit." The art of not doing something may call for the juggling of contradictory reasons. Usually an astute group of naysayers will select one or the other to put forward, but I have seen both used almost simultaneously in what can only be admired as sleight-of-hand in service of going nowhere.

This half of the gambit is a variation on Yogi Berra’s dictum that one can observe a lot by just watching. "Too bad we didn’t get first shot at this," is a common expression of this view. "Gee, those other fellows are lucky to have a go-ahead."

There are two explanations for this form of naysaying. One is that avoiding risk is a natural tendency for institutional gatekeepers. "Let the other team take the chances and, if need be, the heat; if things work out, we can always get in on it later." The other, more interesting reason is what Stanley J. Reiser, my Houston colleague, calls "avoiding me-too-ism." Reiser, a medical ethicist who is far from being a naysayer, is almost too kind to the species. It’s both "understandable and reasonable," he says, to wish to be the first in the research competition.

And yet, Reiser points out, "me too" status is highly important in health care. Medical research, like every other branch of human activity, is tinged with frailty and fallibility. "Recent revelations about the falsification of data in medical experiments," Reiser says, "have demonstrated that the need to verify and cross-check results remains a cornerstone of scientific activity." He goes so far as to describe "me-too-ism" as the "cement of experimental structures. The best ethics boards in health-science centers concur. Experiments need to be validated, often by "multi-center" tests, as when several teams are asked simultaneously to test a new drug.

3. Unless someone else is already doing it, we shouldn’t stick our necks out. Here is the second half of the naysayer’s daily double. If saying No because someone else is already doing it doesn’t work, then one can always say No because no one else is doing it.

The reasoning behind the second half of the option is pretty straightforward: "In case you forgot, you had better get the go-ahead from the old boy network" (and as for who the old boys are, look them up under ‘peer review’ or on the list of those who have published on the subject) Naysaying here is not just a matter of going to your own board of deacons; you want to make sure somebody else’s board has already approved the idea.

As this argument indicates, naysaying of this kind is a form of regression. To fail to act autonomously, Erik Erikson says in his famous essay on the life cycle (Identity [Norton, 1968]) , is to run the risk, by default, of succumbing to shame, of offering no resistance to the condemnatory gaze of others. But for naysayers, acting autonomously has just the opposite implication: it is to court shame, to be (in Erikson’s description of shame) "completely exposed and conscious of being looked at" (p. 10) Naysaying renders autonomous people -- researchers, writers or whomever -- susceptible to shame.

4. If everyone can‘t have one, nobody should. Theologians also seem fond of this one. It was formerly used to question organ transplants; now it is turned avidly against the implantation of artificial hearts -- not on the plausible grounds that it’s a dangerous procedure inviting strokes, but because so few persons can, at this point, receive this chancy benefit. Such experiments are criticized for wasting medical resources: Why lavish funds and skills on a minuscule subject group when the needs of many others are left untended?

This strand of naysaying is based on some dubious assumptions -- that limited resources may not ethically be concentrated and that resources first earmarked for one purpose can be easily transferred, without loss, to some other, more Christian or egalitarian purpose.

Health care, including its research options, has always been a relatively scarce commodity. Indeed, all of our resources are in some degree scarce or eventually will be. Thinkers from Adam Smith to John Rawls have assumed that the basic goods of our lives aren’t sufficient to go around. We should, of course, try to redress imbalances through distributive ethics. But we must not only live in the meantime with uneven shares; we must accept that uneven shares sometimes help to foster progress.

To fault artificial-heart research because of its high cost and few recipients is roughly equivalent to saying that Columbus shouldn’t have had access to the royal purse. Would King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have been better stewards of their funds if they had provided canoes, skiffs or punts for all of their subjects? Most of us, I think, would endorse their outfitting of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, even at an exorbitant cost. Concentrated resources are also needed when health-care researchers undertake -- as they do in the case of heart implants -- the contemporary equivalent of Columbus’s voyage. Critics who cannot distinguish between such cases aren’t even very good at naysaying.

5. Whistleblowing is to be discredited as naysaying. A close cousin of civil disobedience, whistleblowing has emerged in our time in the institutional setting. The movement already has its heroes, such as the civilian costing expert in the Defense Department who was almost cashiered by the bureaucracy before he made himself heard. According to Judith P. Swazey and Stephen R. Scher, "The whistle-blower may be -- and within his group usually is -- perceived and treated as a Judas Iscariot who has committed a disloyal, indeed treasonable act" (Whistleblowing in Biomedical Research [1982], p. 179) The problem is frequently compounded by a sort of double-agent masquerade: some nay sayers, looking for credentials, claim to be whistleblowers. They thus join company with other ersatz dissenters within institutions who act, says Herman S. Wigodsky, "from malice, pique, discontent, revenge . . . They often seek . . . to force institutions into reacting instead of acting" (in Whistleblowing in Biomedical Research, p. 71)

But the confusion goes further. Not only do naysayers claim, when it suits them, to be whistleblowers. In a master stroke, they often try to discredit whistleblowers by labeling them obstructionists and nitpickers -- viz., naysayers. Overobservant nurses, asbestos-damaged plaintiffs and Watergate reporters have all come under this opprobrium. Whistleblowing, of course, is the polar opposite of naysaying. Its practitioners wish to get at fraud, chicanery, neglect and incompetence. Whistleblowers want fresh air, whereas naysayers are anaerobic: they prefer to keep the windows closed.

Between naysaying and true dissent lies a gulf. The Judeo-Christian commitment to a faith that does justice tells us why. Naysaying says No to change; it is dedicated to stopping time in its tracks. Dissent says No, too, but to arrangements that deny dignity, health and truth. Naysaying is ubiquitous, rooted in all our lives. Dissent, in the biblical tradition that commends fidelity to God and neighbor, is a universal alternative to it.