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

Robert A. Burton, MD

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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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 think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

Bringing together cutting-edge research in neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. On Being Certain, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.


Praise for On Being Certain

"A fascinating read. 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."—Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal

"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 'We can't afford to continue with the outdated claims of a perfectly rational unconscious or knowing when we can trust gut feelings,' he writes.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?"—Scientific American Mind

"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 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' . . . On Being Certain ought to be required reading."—Jonathon Keats, Forbes

"Burton provides a compelling and thought-provoking case that we should be more skeptical about our beliefs. 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."—Seed Magazine

"Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book. The author is a neurologist who is also a novelist and a columnist for Salon.com. This well-written book is the result of many years of cogitation by a wise clinician. If there's anything you think you're certain of, read this book and you may change your mind."—Skeptical Inquirer

"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."—John Campbell, Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley, and author of Reference and Consciousness

"What do we do when we recognize that a false certainty feels the same as certainty about the sky being blue? A lesser guide might get bogged down in nail-biting doubts about the limits of knowledge. Yet Burton not only makes clear the fascinating beauty of this tangled terrain, he also brings us out the other side with a clearer sense of how to navigate. It's a lovely piece of work; I'm all but certain you'll like it."—David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

"Burton has a great talent for combining wit and insight in a way both palatable and profound."—Johanna Shapiro, PhD, professor of Family Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine

"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."—Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs

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

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

On Being Certain

The Feeling of Knowing
I AM STUCK IN AN OBLIGATORY NEIGHBORHOOD COCKTAIL party during the first week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A middle-aged, pin-striped lawyer announces that...

Read the full excerpt



  • Robert Burton Talks about On Being Certain at Google

    Dr. Robert Burton visits Google's Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss his book "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not." This event took place on June 9, 2008, as part of the Authors@Google series.



  • Robert A. Burton, MD

  • 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 acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California.

  • Robert A. Burton M.D.


    Robert A. Burton M.D.

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