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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

3.92  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,511 Ratings  ·  105 Reviews
You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certa
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published February 5th 2008 by St. Martin's Press
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Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer YudkowskyGödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. HofstadterThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas AdamsThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel KahnemanThe Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Ravenclaw's Rationality
22nd out of 63 books — 60 voters
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin LefèvrePit Bull by Martin SchwartzThe (Mis)Behavior of Markets by Benoît B. MandelbrotAgainst the Gods by Peter L. BernsteinFooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
BMT members' Recommendations
13th out of 168 books — 10 voters

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Dec 29, 2011 Richard rated it it was ok
Recommended to Richard by: Lena Phoenix
It is always somewhat astonishing when an intelligent author manages to make an interesting topic dull.

The unassailable certainty exhibited by ideologues of many varieties lies behind many of the world's political and cultural problems. One would expect that an examination of how such certainty develops and how one might avoid the traps this entails.

Burton has one good punch: he hammers home that the feeling of knowing is a feeling like any other: not really very amenable to rational understandi
Jun 15, 2009 Eva rated it liked it
I was totally in love with this book when I first picked it up. Just saw it on the shelf, started browsing it, and couldn't put it down. A neurologist who is also a novelist, who has a lifelong interest in existential questions and wrote essays on William James in college? Dude! It seemed like we should be BFF.
Unfortunately, I found myself increasingly irritated with the book, and have gone from recommending it to everyone I see to only giving it 3 stars.
The author starts with a fascinating pre
Mar 17, 2008 Lena rated it really liked it
I'll start this review with a quote from the back of the book, since it explains the premise better than I can:

"In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to th
Jacob J
May 17, 2009 Jacob J rated it did not like it
I really thought I was going to like this book because I enjoy epistemology and cognitive science. And yet, I only made it about 2/3 of the way through the book before I gave up. It was not so much that it was boring as that it was frustrating. The main problem I had was that this book does not present scientific evidence and talk about implications or possible interpretations. Rather, it presents the author's theory about the existence and function of what he calls "the feeling of knowing" and ...more
Feb 06, 2015 Popup-ch rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle
This book is based around an interesting question that I had never considered before:
What does it mean to know something?

The author points out that 'the feeling of knowing' is a neuro-biological reaction and not a logical conclusion. There is also a wide genetic variability in the population as to what criteria can elicit this reaction.

What I find lacking is a distinction between statements that are perfectly knowable (within a specific system), such as 2+2==4 on the one side, and statements tha
Mar 29, 2016 Erikka rated it really liked it
This was a bit slow, and a bit dry, in parts, but the overlying concept was fascinating. We are not purely mechanical creatures. We don't void our beliefs when faced with uncertainty; we take into account new information and either reshape our thoughts or, more often, stick to our guns. How do we know what we know? The short answer is: we don't. Admitting ignorance is the purest sign of intelligence--we have a general feeling of knowing something, but that doesn't mean we are correct. Being able ...more
This is one of the best books I've read in a while. I was doubtful it would be much good, but the more I read the better it got. If you're interested in understanding why it is that we think we know what we know and how our minds really work when it comes to the feeling of certainty, this is a great book. If you're familiar with Landmark technology, this explains some of the biology and neurology behind our overconfidence in our own knowledge. Great to read if you're a religious fanatic or a fer ...more
Jun 07, 2009 Kevin rated it it was ok
In the words of the author:
The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren't deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.
Unfortunately, once one understands this point, the rest of the book is rather less inspiring than promised. Although the discussions concerning the neural basis of experience is well-written, once the author turns to more speculative areas such as evolutionary ps
عبدالرحمن عقاب
الكتاب يطرح فكرة (الإيمان) بمعناه القلبي. هذا الإيمان الذي يولد قناعة راسخة ويحمل كمسلمات لا جدال فيها.
هل يسبق هذا الإيمان اقتناع عقلي ؟ أم هو حالة نفسية وعصبية تتولد نتيجة تفاعلات كيميائية في الجهاز العصبي. ثم يأتي العقل ليجد لها ما يفسرها وما يبررها؟!
السؤال على هذه الشاكلة خطير وعميق ومقلق.
يمضي الكاتب في هذا الباب بتطرف حقيقة؛ ولا أجده يحشد الأدلة الدامغة وإن أتى ببعضها.
أسلوب الكاتب أيضا مشوش وغير جذاب. مما يجعلك تفقد الاستمتاع وترابط الأفكار بسهولة .
Jan 04, 2009 Jeffwest15 rated it did not like it
This was given to me for Christmas, perhaps as a dig at my joked-about intensive defense of my own ideas.

Burton's thesis that there is an innate biological feeling of knowing, i.e. of certainty, that is separate and distinct from reason and actual fact, is not so hard for me to swallow. Our ability to believe that we are right about something is a useful but not always failsafe attribute. And reasoning itself is beset by bias that will never be entirely eliminated. So what, one might ask, is th
Nicholas Moryl
Feb 11, 2016 Nicholas Moryl rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 22, 2010 Joe rated it it was amazing
Robert Burton has written a very accessible book that ends up spanning a much wider range of the biological limitations of the human mind than the title implies.

Robert shows evidence that feelings of rightness or certainty are one of our basic emotions, and the role that emotion plays in our decision making. But he also does a great job of discussing how much of our brain's work happens in parts of the brain inaccessible by our perceptual mind.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone with an int
Clark Hays
Jan 23, 2016 Clark Hays rated it liked it
“Thoughts are the shadows of our sensations …”

“…always darker, emptier, simpler than these.” -- Nietzsche (quoted in the book)

Certainty — that unmistakable feeling of “rightness” — is a tricky concept, existing in the shadowy borderlands between a self-generated emotion and a non-conscious biological response. The author sets out to explain what it is, where it comes from, why it’s important and what that knowledge can do for us.

Starting out of order, certainty is important because of the clear
Dec 08, 2014 Gimmeadollr rated it it was amazing
"I cannot help wondering if an educational system that promotes black or white and yes or no answers might be affecting how reward systems develop in our youth. If the fundamental thrust of education is "being correct" rather than acquiring a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underlying paradoxes, it is easy to see how the brain reward systems might be molded to prefer certainty over open-mindedness. To the extent that doubt is less emphasized, there will be far more risk ...more
Sep 20, 2015 Rossdavidh rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: blue
Subtitle: "Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not". Burton's book takes on the whole phenomenon of "I just know, that's all", that feeling of knowing you're right about something. He is associate chief of the Department of Neurosciences at Mt. Zion - UCSF Hospital. When he speaks about what is known in neuroscience, he is not someone who had to go only to secondary sources to figure it out. He starts with a simple but not often asked question: when you think something, you have an intuitio ...more
Andru Aesthetik
Within the realms of neuroscience and philosophy, it is often stated that it is impossible for us to be certain about anything. If that is true, then it is impossible that these scientists and philosophers can be certain that this is true otherwise they commit the fallacy of self-exclusion, i.e. "Certainty is impossible except this one thing that is certain" which is a contradiction. If certainty is impossible then how should we epistemologically treat such a claim from those who are telling us ...more
Apr 04, 2015 Nik rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, professional
This was a wonderful read. It addresses certainty, doubt, knowledge, knowing, epistemology, neuroscience, psychology and more. How do we know what we know and what does it mean to be certain. Can science give us certainty, can faith? Great questions to ponder through out this book.

"The most important product of knowledge is ignorance." - David Gross

Some of my favorite parts of the book:

"Can we learn to sense greater pleasure out of feelings of doubt in the way that some people derive more plea
Jason Meinig
May 03, 2014 Jason Meinig rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book really triggered a lot of thoughts. I don't agree with every point the author makes, but I do appreciate the constant barrage of ideas that forced me to think and re-think brain mechanisms and "how I know what I know" -type questions. A couple of things I took away from this book - Science & Religion, at their core, are really aimed at the same thing - knowledge of a mystery; everyone on this planet, even though they might claim otherwise, takes things on faith - for most people it ...more
Sep 13, 2012 Katherine rated it really liked it
I very much enjoyed On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. Robert Burton‘s ideas, theories and meditations on the ways in which we become certain of what we “know” provide an interesting insight into how our brains receive and process information. I did find some of the theories less convincing than others (e.g., the feelings of familiarity and certainty, although certainly related are not interchangeable, and the fact that one can be created [or removed] by direct brain ...more
Aug 27, 2009 Lynn rated it really liked it
I liked it even though there was a lot I disagreed with. Burton shows how tenuos our knowledge is , but he glossed over one of his stated goals, to clearly distinguish scientific knowledge from other kinds of knowledge. His excerpts from Darwin's autobiography made the point, but he seemed to ignore the significance of Darwin's ability to know likely truth and to recognize likely self-deception. He could have spent a lot more time and effort showing how scientific knowledge is substantially diff ...more
Oct 19, 2009 Cliff rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
David Bradley
YAWN. This book could have been presented in the length of a blog post, not a full-length book. The central point of the book -- that the feeling of certainty is separate from the content of that certainty -- is very well-taken, though, and for that reason it gets 2 stars. It's a deep insight. However, the vast majority of the book is spent in unrelated tangents about ways of knowing. I ended up skipping about half the book, in the middle, once I realized it was an off-topic repetition of things ...more
Nov 16, 2009 Igor rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: rcj
Do you know that feeling of being certain about something? Having a hunch? Having something no the tip of your tongue? Imagine a world without that feeling at all. Everything is a purely reason driven cost/benefit analysis. Do emotions or intuitive emotions driving you to make a decision. You would be paralyzed. Unable to decide what to do because you had no feelings that something is more important or desirable than something else. Imagine getting dressed in such a case. Having no inclination o ...more
Michael Brady
An area of deep interest to me is the nature of strongly held belief. Understanding how we come to know we're right and that others are wrong speaks to some very human impulses. It may also hold the key to moving beyond our current fixation with red state, blue state, conservative, progressive, abortion, gun control, religion, global warming, and other inflammatory topics playing out on the battle lines of the Culture War.

Robert A. Burton, MD came to my attention by way of Dr. Ginger Campbell's
Jul 26, 2012 Laura rated it liked it
This is just okay. There were some thought-provoking questions (p.ix, "What does it mean to be convinced?" and p.2, "What kind of knowledge is "I know myself and what I would do?" Is it a conscious decision based upon deep self-contemplation or is it a "gut feeling?" But what is a gut feeling..." and p.70, "When does a thought begin?"). There are also a lot of examples in the book to clarify the intangible topics discussed. Some of the examples are great and some are less so. There are some fasc ...more
There are some interesting ideas in this book, all of which can be summarized as follows: The feeling of knowing or meaning is a sensation of the brain that serves an evolutionary function and that is often unrelated to external, objective, rational factors (similar to, as I told M., the feeling of love!). Thus, feeling like we know something for certain doesn't mean that it's true - it's just a cute little sensation that our brain makes up.

Okay, sure, great, but the book fails to make sense in
This book took me a long time to read because I borrowed it from the library and couldn't renew it, so I had to return it and then borrow it again. Even so, it was worth it. Burton, an acclaimed neurologist, asks what's going on in our brains when we believe we know something (he calls this the feeling of knowing). He makes a strong case for the biological weirdness of that feeling, and its disconnection from actual knowledge. A few highlights:

Burton highlights my two favorite perception stories
Dec 26, 2011 Tucker rated it it was amazing
What do we know about what we know? "Metaknowledge," knowledge about knowledge, is addressed in this book under "the feeling of knowing," into which Burton collapses the feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction and correctness.

You know what he's talking about: The sense that you know the answer, that the answer is "on the tip of your tongue," in the seconds, minutes, or hours before you are actually able to access the correct information. The conviction that you've found the same street you
Janet Eshenroder
Sep 02, 2013 Janet Eshenroder rated it liked it
The author carefully lays out current research showing that certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. "Because this 'feeling of knowing' seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason." It rapidly becomes evident that true wisdom requires a willingness to challenge what makes us think we are certain. Could we be ignoring other options? Most fascinating is why people will chose conclusions based on the feeling of certainty despite all fact ...more
Jonathan  McGaha
Nov 10, 2015 Jonathan McGaha rated it really liked it
Truly a fascinating subject, but there's a reason why I bought this book several years ago and only just recently finished it. The writing is very dry. Frankly, this is a subject which could be delivered in a lively, humorous way but this author didn't choose that. I think it would be better served with a more lively tone.

That said, I still highly recommend it. It's a thoughtfully written book.
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Robert Burton, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaime ...more
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“Though not necessarily aware of when we feel purpose and meaning, we are nearly always aware of the sickening feeling when we don't possess them. This isn't an intellectual misapprehension; it is a gut sense of disorientation and a loss of personal direction. Rarely are brute mental effort and self-help pep talks able to rekindle the missing feeling. For most of us, we simply wait patiently, knowing from past experience that the feeling will return in its own sweet time . . . Of particular interest is [Tolstoy's] conclusion as to the inability of science and reason to provide a personal sense of meaning.” 5 likes
“Compassion, empathy, and humility can only arise out of recognizing that our common desires are differently expressed.” 4 likes
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