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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not Paperback – March 17, 2009
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“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
“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… In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election, On Being Certain ought to be required reading for every candidate -- and for every citizen.” ―ForbesLife
“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
“A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.” ―Kirkus
“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, futurist and author of Smart Mobs
“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
“Burton provides a compelling and though-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
About the Author
ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school. At age thirty-three, 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, CA.
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Whetted my appetite for more on the topic.
Burton backs up this hypothesis with numerous studies and by the end you are almost certain he is correct.
What to do with this information? Well, first of all, stop being so sure of yourself. Avoid dogma, eschew fundamentalism. Exercise a little humility. These changes are not only warranted by the data, but they may make you a better person.
Burton not only has a great scientific outlook, but he also comes off as unassuming, humorous and open-minded. We need more of his attitude in both the sciences and in religion.
Is it well-written? Yes, this is a very fluently written book.
Is the content interesting and well-supported? Yes, there are interesting ideas and (perhaps more importantly) the bringing together of ideas I'd read about elsewhere and examining the light and shadows they shed on one another.
And finally, does the book change the way I view the world in some substantial way? In this case, I'll have to say, yes, sort of. In other words, the author has put into more concise terms ideas and notions I'd picked up other places (Steven Pinker, among others), and drawn a couple conclusions I hadn't reached, but with which I basically agree.
Based on the answers to these three questions, I'd like to give this book 4 1/2 stars because the change to my world view was more a matter of bringing some stuff into focus than a matter of opening a new window. However, it's closer to 5 stars than 4, so I'm going with 5.
I found it was very important to read the early part of the book carefully, even though it was largely setting up the arguments of the second half. In that part of the book, we meet people who experience a disconnect between what they "know to be true" and what logic and empirical observation tells them. For instance, the woman who can see that her heart is beating yet believes she is dead. And the man who knows and understands and accepts all the evidence of evolution, but chooses to be a creationist because he believes that to be true. And the man who agrees that the evidence is that the furniture in his room is the same as it ever was, but lacks the ability to know it is the same, and so believes it must be different. Some of these examples go by very quickly, and then are referred to later.
The second half of the book is a solid analysis of the factual content laid out in the first half, and provides some startling insights into what it means to be certain of something (and also, what it does not mean). I suspect that this book will gradually change how I experience certainty in my own life, but I also suspect that will take some time. It's entirely possible that I will think this is a fully 5-star book a year from now, or that I will wish I had given it only 4 stars. All I know is that I am not certain how that will play out.
In the meantime, it's a good book with lots of food for thought in it. Recommended as a fairly light non-fiction read.