How do we know what we know? And how do we know that we are correct? Typically, when we feel that we are correct.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton argues that human beliefs about correctness (being right) are governed by a feeling a knowing – a spontaneous and involuntary mental sensation that arises in our brains. It cannot be willed into existence, and it cannot be brought about solely through logic, calculations, or mental discipline. It is something that happens to us.

We should not, however, always assume that the feeling of knowing something to be correct is always, well, correct. Sometimes what we are certain about is proven wrong – but we have a hard time accepting it (even if the evidence is overwhelming) because we cannot overcome our feelings associated with believing that we are right.

While I didn’t agree with everything he said – or better yet, I remain undecided on many of his claims – On Being Certain is well worth the read (272 pgs).

Reviews from

"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

Here is Burton’s official site. I am attaching a scan of chapters 1, 9, and 13 below so that you can sample the book.

Here is a TED video by Kathryn Schulz called "On Being Wrong" which is a good supplement to this topic.

Below is the first part of an article from that offers a good introduction into to the book.

The certainty epidemic
We all seem convinced we're right about politics, religion or science these days. What makes us
so sure of ourselves?

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? Since my early days in neurology training, I have been puzzled by this most basic of cognitive problems: What does it mean to be convinced? This question might sound foolish. You study the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and make a decision. If the evidence is strong enough, you are convinced there is no other reasonable answer. Your resulting sense of certainty feels like the only logical and justifiable conclusion to a conscious and deliberate line of reasoning.


Tags: beliefs, books, confirmation bias, feelings, knowing, knowledge, neurology, neuroscience, science

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Replies to This Discussion

I also agree with you Dallas - I did not agree with all of the book, especially some of the conclusions.


For me, I think he was a bit soft on religion, because theists are not making the simple, honest, human mistake of feeling certain about something only to be proven wrong. They're certain because they believe a load of rubbish that wouldn't even make sense to a five-year-old. That's not the same thing.


I think that they idea of certainty being an emotion had been kicking around in my head for years. 


I read something once that speculated that all thought is really feeling. If emotions are how we experience the world, then feelings are our subjective experiences of those emotions. And these feelings are not so different from what we think of as thoughts. IDK, hard to say for sure... 



It was worthwhile, and overall very informative.  As with the others, there were portions at the end where I felt it was a bit weak.  I have a difficult time remember what specifically, when he stuck with what he knew best (the science) I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Yes, very informative and important, I think. What science and pscychology are learning about how the emotions affect our attitudes, beliefs, and actions is quite insteresting.


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