Robert A. Burton

ON BEING CERTAIN: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

ON BEING CERTAIN is a revolutionary look at how we know what we know. At stake is the commonly held belief that we can logically and reasonably determine when our thoughts are correct.

If, after due rumination and deliberation, we decide that a thought must be correct, we presume that this conclusion is itself a conscious choice. ON BEING CERTAIN presents compelling evidence that this assumption is inconsistent with present-day understanding of basic brain function. Drawing from case studies and recent neuroscience advances, as well as such far-ranging subject material as the physics of baseball, high-stakes poker, and popular discussions of gut feelings and the nature of intuition, ON BEING CERTAIN systematically undermines certainty and conviction as products of reason.

The central premise:
Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.


ForbesLife March 10, 2008

The day after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, a psychology professor named Ulric Neisser had his students write precisely where they'd been when they heard about the explosion. Two-and-a-half years later, he asked them for the same information. While fewer than one in ten got the details right, almost all were certain that their memories were accurate, and many couldn't be dissuaded even after seeing their original notes.

For neurologist Robert A. Burton, the Challenger study is emblematic of an essential quality of the human mind, and evocative of the psychology underlying everything from nationalism to fundamentalism. In his brilliant new book, Burton systematically and convincingly shows that certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that can help guide us, but that doesn't dependably reflect objective truth. Evidence for Burton's fascinating insight is everywhere around us, and "On Being Certain" expertly weaves together studies from Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the front page of the New York Times, to consider the myriad ways in which the brain constructs a useful worldview -- often by manipulating details for the sake of consistency -- and sometimes, as in the case of schizophrenia, takes untenable liberties.

Faced with the inherent unreliability of the human mind, a lesser author might become cynical. Burton, however, is able to appreciate the cultural worth of unjustified certainty, which fuels the impulsive creativity of scientists and artists alike. Equally important, he argues that, "if science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas." In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election, "On Being Certain" ought to be required reading for every candidate -- and for every citizen.

--Jonathon Keats

Scientific American Mind April 2008

The day after the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident, psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to write down exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the explosion. When he interviewed the students two and a half years later, 25 percent of them gave strikingly different accounts. But when confronted with their original journal entries, many students defended their beliefs. One of them answered, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

In On Being Certain, neuroscientist and novelist Robert A. Burton tries to get to the bottom of the curious sensation he calls the “feeling of knowing”—being certain of a fact despite having no (or even contrary) evidence. Throughout his book, Burton makes the compelling argument that certainty “is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.” Instead, he says, that unmistakable sense of certainty “arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently
of reason.”

Burton thinks that just as we perceive our external world through our physical senses, our internal world presents itself in the form of feelings, such as familiar or strange and correct or incorrect. And he shows that these inner perceptions are necessary for us to function properly in everyday life, because our thoughts are subject to constant self-questioning. For example, even though reason may tell us that running up a tree to escape a lion is an excellent strategy, experience shows that great strategies can fail and that there may be better options. Because alternative choices are present in any situation, logical thought alone would be doomed to a perpetual “yes, but” questioning routine. Burton reasons that it is the feeling of knowing that solves this dilemma of how to reach a conclusion. Without this “circuit breaker,” indecision and inaction would rule the day.

One of the startling implications of Burton’s thesis is that we ultimately cannot trust ourselves when we believe we know something to be true. “We can’t afford to continue with the outdated claims of a perfectly rational unconscious or knowing when we can trust gut feelings,” he writes. On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought and provokes readers to ask what Burton calls “the most basic of questions”: How do we know what we know?

Seed Magazine January-February 2008

Doubt Thyself

If biology underpins human thought, can we still think for ourselves?
By David Pizarro


...Burton investigates the sources of the feeling of certainty. Why are people so sure of themselves despite overwhelming evidence that they are often wrong?

A neurologist by training, Burton mounts a scientific argument for skepticism of a very deep sort. By presenting a broad set of findings, ranging from the disciplines of neurobiology to social psychology, Burton argues that the feeling that we know something is most likely a biologically-based, involuntary, and unconscious process that cannot be trusted as a reliable marker that we are right. For Burton, the feeling of certainty is simply “…not a biologically justifiable state of mind....

Cognitive science has raised the possibility that “…the very building blocks of thought might be subject to involuntary, even genetic influences that make each of us ‘private islands’ of perception and thinking....

Burton provides a compelling and thought-provoking case that we should be a bit more skeptical about our beliefs. He guides the reader toward a healthy suspicion about any claim that is framed in absolute terms. Indeed, this seems to be one of his primary objectives, viewing an attitude of absolute certainty as the root of many societal ills. Along the way, he also provides a novel perspective on many lines of research that should be of interest to readers who are looking for a broad introduction to the cognitive sciences.

-- David Pizarro is professor of psychology at Cornell University.

Kirkus Review November 15, 2007

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.

Discover Magazine March 2008

Just like love or anger, certainty is an emotion. So says neuroscientist Robert Burton, whose engaging new work exposes the involuntary, physiological roots of conviction. Whether you're sure about political affiliations or alien abduction, that feeling of knowing derives not from rational thought, he argues, but from the brain's primitive limbic system; the gut feeling is more likely to emerge from careful electric stimulation than from careful consideration. Burton is convinced that being certain is not the same as being right. I'm not so sure.

Science-Based Medicine May 6, 2008

A gem of a book.

There are implications for politics, religion, and every sphere of human activity. The insights from this book can be applied to every human interaction from marital squabbles to terrorism. It may be frightening to recognize the limits of our knowledge. It will be hard for some to give up their cherished certainties, but Burton says he has gained an extraordinary sense of an inner quiet born of acknowledging his limitations.

This well-written book is the result of many years of cogitation by a wise clinician. He supports his arguments with tales of neurology patients, recent research into brain function, and examples of how our senses constantly fool us.

--Harriet Hall, MD

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review March 3, 2008

--The possibility that knowledge for the feeling of knowing is biologically based rather than the result of thinking... will get the epistemologists and everyone else up in arms.

Best Books I Read in 2007-- David Dobbs
(Editor of Scientific American's Mind Matters)

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not A favorite subject of mine -- how we know what we know. Burton, a neurologist and novelist, looks at how and why certainty feels utterly the same whether we're right or woefully wrong about the thing we're so certain about. I got a pre-release copy of this (and many other books), and this one stood out. There are many books lately about fascinating neuroscience these days, but few are as fascinating as this one, which eloquently marshals a strong argument about something important on both personal and societal levels.

Skeptical Inquirer September-October 2008

If there’s anything you think you’re certain of, read this book and you may change your mind.

Madeleine L. Van Hecke Author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

As an avid reader of authors such as Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works), Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Richard Restak (The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own) and Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), I found Burton's book On Being Certain a riveting read. Trying to understand how the mind works feels to me as if we are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, knowing that we only have 20 or 30% of the pieces. On Being Certain provides a key piece that for me shifted all the others into a more meaningful pattern.

Burton argues eloquently for the power that the feeling of certainty that we are right has over us. I agree; and also find that this book triggered the reverse in me: a sense of uncertainty, the feeling that I'm not sure what I believe about some of the issues Burton raises. And that can be an exhilarating experience as well. As one wit said, "Being certain is nice, but it's doubt that gets you an education."

Burton uses very creative analogies, practical examples, and reader-friendly illustrations to convey the intricacies of what he is describing, and he links what might otherwise seem to be esoteric issues to questions about self and the meaning of life that have haunted humanity for eons. I thought this was a super book.

John Campbell, Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley

Philosophers have long puzzled over the nature of knowledge. Burton has a sharp rejoinder: "Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children to learn) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. Science has given us the language and tools of probabilities. We have methods for analyzing and ranking opinion according to their likelihood of correctness. That is enough."

Anyone hearing this is likely to protest there are plenty of things about which they feel perfectly sure. What is really new in what Burton is doing is his analysis of this 'feeling of certainty'. It is biologically grounded, and has a definite biological function: to stop reasoning and the estimation of probabilities running on forever. It is rewarding: the feeling of certainty is one of the things we humans crave. Addicts are all around us, but even sober citizens find the taste irresistible. It's one of our basic motivations - it's only because we want this feeling that we reason and argue as passionately as we do. But Burton is devastating on the idea that this feeling of certainty is any guide to truth. The schizophrenic convinced his dustbin controls the universe, you or I trying to recall what we were doing on 9/​11, the scientist with an unproven hypothesis, can all be equally in the thrall of the feeling of certainty and all quite wrong. It's somehow less of a surprise that other people can have the feeling of certainty yet be wrong, but it's always shocking when it happens to you. Burton's argument is that we have to liberate ourselves from this dependence on certainty, and live with ever-changing probabilities.

There are plenty of incidental pleasures along the way: Burton's notion of a 'perceptual thought' like the thinking involved in episodic memory, which involves reconstruction and decision, as opposed the flat recitation of facts one has learned, is part of his picture of the iceberg of brain processing of which only a tip is conscious. And there are some unforgettable vignettes. 'Just before my mother died at age ninety-seven, I asked her what she had learned from her long life. Always circumspect and non-committal on such subjects, she answered tersely, 'So what?'. I asked her again. "You must have developed some philosophy of life after all these years.' She shrugged and repeated, 'So what?' I persisted and asked again. She looked at me and said, deadpan and enigmatic, 'I just told you what I learned.'

It's a wonderful book, easy to read, full of ideas and its highlighting the 'feeling of certainty' as a topic of study is quite new, fertile, and genuinely unsettling.

Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of Smart Mobs

“This could be one of the most important books of the year. With so much riding on ‘certainty,’ and so little known about how people actually reach a state of certainty about anything, some plain speaking from a knowledgeable neuroscientist is called for. If Gladwell's Blink was fascinating but largely anecdotal, Burton's book drills down to the real science behind snap judgments and other decision-making.”

Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal

“A fascinating read. Dr. Burton’s engaging prose takes us into the deepest corners of our subconscious, making us question our most solid contentions. Nobody who reads this book will walk away from it and say ‘I know this for sure’ ever again. Burton brings to the public arena a much-needed discussion about the true nature of certainty—a topic incredibly relevant in an era when good vs. evil divides nations based on some peoples’ assumptions that they ‘know ’better. Burton deconstructs the process of knowing in a gripping way, making neuroscience read like a mystery novel.”

Tuscon Citizen March, 2009

This is a fascinating view of how we construct our own realities, and the passion with which we will stand by them once created - no matter their veracity. This highly readable book is written with a scholarly grace by a California-based neurologist.

Columbia University Klingenstein Center

In an age when news by assertion has supplanted news by verification, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ line that “certitude is not the test on certainty” has never seemed so relevant. Now, along comes neurologist Robert Burton’s book which contends that “knowing” is nothing more than a set of feelings (involuntary brain mechanisms, he argues) which derive not from rational thought, but are “sensations that feel like thoughts.” A book that plumbs the unreliability of the brain and the kind of thinking we attribute to reason will certainly challenge those of us trying to teach the difference between subjective belief and objective proof to classrooms of students! For faculty and students alike, an examination into the nature of our thinking and the meaning of knowledge will at least get us to review some basic assumptions about learning.

Oxford University Centre for Practical Ethics

"A crucial piece of information in any moral discussion." July 06, 2010