Is being “certain” an intellectual conclusion?

February 24, 2008 | By | 10 Replies More

Robert Burton has writen a book entitled On Being Certain:  Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.   I haven’t read this book yet, but the topic Burton raises is a compelling topic to me (I called my prior post “I don’t know”). 

Here’s the thesis from Burton’s web site:

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.

Burton is a neuroscientist who has explored the roots of conviction.  He argues that the feeling of being correct does not spring from conscious thought and reasoning.   It sounds like Burton is arguing that the gut feeling of being correct is more akin to an emotion.  

Sounds right to me.  I’m putting Burton’s book on my reading list.

Perhaps a topic this important merits one-billionth of one percent of the research budget of the CIA or Department of the Defense, wouldn’t you think?  I’d require that all politicians take a seminar on this topic before making a single decision. 


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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. Pat Whalen says:

    I'm curious what the "so what" for this line of research is.

    Is certainty in this context the same as confidence in or comfort with a conclusion?

    "Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process."

    If certainty never arrises from a thought process does that imply that we can know nothing? In the extreme case it would mean we should disengage from everything because we have no way of knowing that what we do is correct in any sense.

    If on the other hand we are talking about the line between confidence and certainty, that we should always keep in the back of our mind that we might have missed something, be wrong in some way then there could indeed be benefit.

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    Great post – I want to check out this book now. It sounds a lot like "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)", which Greta Christina's been writing about lately, and it sounds as though, put together, these two books would fit like two halves of a whole.

    It's fascinating how cognitive dissonance operates: to the point where some people consider their subjective belief in their own correctness to trump any objective evidence. This is most common in religion, of course, but it turns up in politics and plenty of other places as well. Too often, we dignify that with labels like "intuition" or "gut feeling". We need to get more people to understand that guesses and hunches are worse than useless if they can't be supported with facts.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Pat: I'm attracted to this question because there are so many people out there who use the "confident" stamp as thought it is an intellectual calculation that adds value to the factual claims they have made. It is clear to me that one's claims that one is "confident" of one's claims means next to nothing, UNLESS that person is a self-critical skeptical sort of person. How many times, for instance, do we hear confident claims that Mary was a virgin or that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks? In many quarters of this country, confidence counts for something–it makes the maker of the claims more belief-worthy–but it often shouldn't.

    That's why I look forward to reading Burton's book. If it isn't a thought process, what is this feeling of confidence, and why is it so often effective, even when the content that accompanies that confidence is a bald-faced lie?

    Because certainty never arises from a thought process, it doesn't mean that we can't ever know anything. It just means that truth is often hard work, the work being that we need to be able to demonstrate connections between new claims and well-established claims. But then again, if the work is connecting new claims to well-established claims, isn't that another way of saying that we base our evaluations of new claims on beliefs in which we are "confident"? I've talked myself in circles, I'm afraid.

  4. HUH? says:

    "certainty never arises from a thought process"


    I just wrote down a column of figures (2 + 2 +2)

    then I added them up

    and thought about it

    and am certain they total 6.

    I don't get it.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Huh: Certainty comes from familiarity. If a new conclusion (6) matches your prior experience of the values {2,2,2} and the familiar operators {+,+}, then you feel that it is true.

    However, if you are using some unfamiliar operator, or hard-to-grasp numbers, then you will not be so certain. This is why simple arithmetic (and principles of calculus, and so on) must be drilled in to students, rather than simply explained.

    Can't picture an unfamiliar number? Quick, what is


    + 5974.64830926485076664295089218236

    How certain of the answer will you be the first time you work it out? If you confirm it a few times, then it will be familiar (certain). My grandfather was a calculator. He sat in the back of a bank churning out totals of columns of numbers. The old fashioned way: Without an adding machine. He was certain of his calculations, when the second total matched the first.

    Darwin was certain about evolution because he was familiar with theology, geology, and biology from years of study in each field. Everything about his theory fit with familiar ideas in all of his previous studies.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    I can't really comment further on Burton's book because I haven't read it yet. I suspect, though, that there are two kinds of confidence: A) confidence based on facts correlating highly with other facts with which skeptical people have ascertained through methods that use or resemble the scientific method; or B) false confidence, based on a "feeling" without careful reference to any reliable body of facts.

    My interest in Burton's book is why there are so many B's running around in the world (many of them in positions of power).

  7. Erika Price says:

    How funny that in a post on the topic of certainty and its pitfalls, Erich, you still felt compelled to say "sounds right to me"!

    I only jest, of course. We all rely on some degree of confidence and intuition to make it through our days. Usually these blind, confident guesses get us through life pretty well, so no wonder we have such "confidence" in our confidence!

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I'm laughing that I happened to use that phrase "Sounds right to me." My use of that phrase was not intended to be humorous–it just so easily slipped in. Good catch.

  9. I will wait for you to read it and then give us a full review. 🙂 My gut feeling is so irresistible and always seems so convincing (it makes me oh-so-convinced that I know the truth), but for a long time I have been wondering if it's not really bad.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    For those of you who have Salon Premium, Burton discusses certainty here.

    Certainty is everywhere. Fundamentalism is in full bloom. Legions of authorities cloaked in total conviction tell us why we should invade country X, ban "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in schools, eat stewed tomatoes, how much brain damage is necessary to justify a plea of diminished capacity, the precise moment when a sperm and an egg must be treated as a human being, and why the stock market will revert to historical returns. A public change of mind is national news.

    But why? Is this simply a matter of stubbornness, arrogance or misguided thinking, or is the problem more deeply rooted in brain biology?

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