ON BEING CERTAIN by Robert A. Burton


Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not
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A wide-ranging exploration of cognition, certainty and what we mean when we say we “know” something is true.

Certainty, argues neurologist and novelist Burton (Cellmates, 1999, etc.), is not a conscious choice, nor a thought process, but a sensation that can best be described as a “feeling of knowing.” As a feeling, like anger or fear, certainty does not rely on any underlying state of knowledge. What this means, Burton argues, is that we can be wrong even when we’re convinced we’re right. As an example, Burton describes the “Challenger study,” in which students expressed high levels of confidence, three years after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, that their false memories of the explosion were more accurate than descriptions they had written down one day after the event. Examples of feelings that seem like knowledge, says Burton, include so-called mystical experiences, the feeling that one has actually seen a fast-moving baseball prior to striking it with a bat and the conviction that taking a risk in poker will pay off. The tendency of an individual to have any one of these feelings—to be, for example, an inveterate gambler—is partly determined by genetic predisposition (in this case, the so-called “risk-taking gene”) and partly by prior experience. How, then, can we tell the difference between feeling right and being right? The answer, Burton argues, lies in accepting the limits of our ability to know and in “playing by the rules of scientific method”—believing we are right if empiric evidence and testing give us reason to do so, but accepting that subsequent evidence may one day prove us wrong.

A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-312-35920-1
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2007


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