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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  2,160 ratings  ·  135 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 fee

Hardcover, 272 pages
Published February 5th 2008 by St. Martin's Press
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Sep 23, 2009 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 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
Feb 28, 2008 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 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
Angela Juline
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
You read these brain books, and you just have more questions - even more so with this one, because the author is arguing against certainty. So how can I be certain he is right??? It really is something to consider and I think it explains a lot as to why people have such a hard time hearing new ideas. I'm going to try to be mindful of not being so certain...
Reza Amiri Praramadhan
In this book, the author tries to explain the answer to question, “How do we know what we know?” That is, the feeling, or belief that you are right or certain, even when the evidences are overwhelmingly against you. Taking a broad approach, the author explain this human phenomenon through many lenses, from psychological and neurological to philosophical points of view. While the biological explanations are mostly forgotten by me, I am particularly interested when he discussed secularism-religiou ...more
Alex Lee
Aug 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, 2019, psyche
I love this book. I bought it on a whim after hearing about it on NPR sometime back in 2004 or 2005. It has sat on my shelf for a long time.

I always wanted to read it but the topic of certainty seemed out of place. What does it mean to be certain? I am not sure I was ever in a place to really read this and get what it was saying but then again I don't know. How can I be certain?

What is radical about this book is that Burton addresses the very notion that certainty is nothing more than a feeling.
Jan 04, 2009 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
Feb 06, 2015 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
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
Jan 14, 2016 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
Jun 07, 2009 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
Adam Karapandzich
Jan 25, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm not sure if I've ever given a 1-star review before but I had to it for this book. It's the perfect (sarcasm) mix between science and incoherent rambling. Burton's attempt at providing examples and narrative descriptions fall short of his goal, leaving me bored and wishing there was more actual science. I understand the value of providing analogies, examples, and references people may understand better than the raw science, but in this case, it dilutes what could have been a good book.
Sep 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting but tough reading, as it's rather technical. I like the idea, but I have to be honest - I'm not really sure I completely understood everything I read. Much like the title, there's no way to be certain that it really was a good book.

Love the fact that the author had the same problem with Richard Dawkins that I did! This sentence had me nodding my head in complete agreement: "[Dawkins'] near-evangelical effort to convince the faithful of the folly of their convictions has the same zeal
Jun 22, 2010 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
Nicholas Moryl
Feb 03, 2016 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: relativist, brain
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
John Petrocelli
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Review: An interesting account of the feeling of knowing and certainty. Includes discussion of how certainty arises out mental sensations that happen to us, as opposed to deliberate conclusions or conscious choices. Also includes discussion of neurological bases of certainty. Overall, and interesting and sometimes insightful read. Comments on some contemporaries.

Favorite Quote: “Goleman believes in a rational mind that can know when it is being fooled. Schank sees the ability to be rational lim
Nov 29, 2018 rated it liked it

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.
---Alfred North Whitehead

We certainly seem to be living in a time when everyone knows they are right, about everything from politics to climate change, from vaccinations to the shape of the earth. How do so many people so fundamentally disagree?

Within the first few pages, author Robert Burton sets out his premise that a feeling of knowing, a 'tip of the tongue' belief that you have certain correct knowledge in your bra
Syed Ashrafulla
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book crystallized many of the preconceived notions I've had over the years regarding certainty. The author is able to properly formulate the Jerry blind spot in certainty: that it is unconscious but claims to be rational. Many of the resulting criticisms by the author reflect a characterization of this blind spot in scientists, fundamentalists, the confused, the depressed, etc.

The book has small holes in it, manifesting in trite sentences that mean nothing, like "what is the purpose of find
Matthew Green
Apr 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
I waffle on whether to give this three or four stars. The problem is this:
Burton does a fine job of laying out various neurological truths. However, he doesn't seem to do a good job of tying them together to successfully prove his ultimate thesis. I get what he's saying, but I had a hard time understanding why he was saying it, and the ultimate point of the book seemed to end up left out somehow.

After reflecting on it a while, I started to see why he made the particular points he did, and I unde
Sep 18, 2018 rated it liked it
very interesting. dense and at times rather abstract. I took away from it how relative rationality is as a concept and how our brains play fast and loose with reality to be able to give us a decent life. Only thing I didn't get is near the end the author has a plea against absolutism, while just spending most of the book telling the reader we're pretty much hardwired for baseless feelings of certainty, defeating the point of the plea for all except those who already feel like agreeing. so that's ...more
Daniel Lambauer
May 31, 2020 rated it liked it
This book starts well - but then peters out a bit in slightly randomnly connected philosophical discussions. It is at its strongest by summarising research into the feeling of knowing - most importantly the research that repeated acts of positive re-inforcement of the feeling of knowing has an impact on brain connections.

What would have interested me then is the connection to the modern social media world. Given we live increasingly in our own social media bubbles does this contribute, physiolo
Hemen Kalita
Aug 29, 2020 rated it liked it
The central topic was really intriguing - Why people stubbornly keep adhering to their believes; political, religious and so on; even in the face of definite contrary evidences?

The author introduces his hypothesis that "feeling of knowing"or being certain is a mental state per se with evolutionary benefits. Though he tries to explore neurology, genetics and even philosophy to bolster his radical claims, they often seem to be ill-conceived, shallow and boring. In the end, the book turns out to be
Oct 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jessie Heckenmueller
Really enjoyed learning about the concepts and many of the examples/research studies that were used throughout the book; however, occasionally his tone particularly related to some of his biases (which were generally acknowledged and I appreciated this) seemed unnecessary. I enjoyed his conclusion as a good wrap up of the book.
Connie B
Apr 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
I chose this book because of the author's last name! Interesting, but a bit "deep", scholarly, and technical (medical). The brain is what "drives" my behavior; I want to learn more about beliefs, habits, and the like. The book is not long. Favorite quote: I must learn "to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty."
Douglas R.
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"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."

"If this book has provoked you to ask the most basic of questions--how do you know what you know?--it will have served its purpose.

Very well written, and thought provoking.
Jul 09, 2018 rated it did not like it
Boring, couldn't get into it.
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is very outstanding.
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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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