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

Robert Burton
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 17 2009

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 shows that feeling certain—feeling that we know something--- is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. 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. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

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


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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not + Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts + Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average
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Review

"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

 

From the Back Cover

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

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. Visit his website at http://www.rburton.com/

“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

 

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Certainty is chemistry Nov. 1 2008
By Amazon Customer TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book was full of 'ah ha' moments. Things which, once thought about, are surprising and important, but which in some ways are so obvious that they literally go without saying. So it is that being certain about something (or doubtful, for that matter) is akin to an emotional response to a belief - which in the end is a matter of brain chemistry. Although we sometimes become certain of something because we have weighed all the evidence, it can also be so just because we believed it for a long time, or heard from someone we trusted at the time or even just because we have a chemical imbalance in the brain (the lunatic who believes she is Napoleon). This is a scientific investigation of the nature of certainty, taking in neuroscience, evolution and literature. The book itself is literate and easily readable, although I found myself stopping and thinking every few sentences because of the implications and associations of each paragraph. This book is well worth reading two or three times.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By Oliver TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
We all know that our minds are limited. I cannot understand string theory; others might be smart enough, but I am not. And no one can perform calculations as quickly as even an old computer. Our minds are not infinite.

This book is about an even more fundamental limitation on our minds: we do not even know when we are right about something. The feeling of being correct is not the same as actually being correct. The two usually happen at the same time, but not always. Sometimes, we have the right answer, but it does not feel right, and we have no confidence in it. Other times, we are certain that we have the right answer, but we are wrong. As a result, it is impossible to be completely rational, no matter how hard we try.

If you've read and enjoyed Consciousness Explained and How the Mind Works, you'll like this one, too. The concepts are difficult, but the author is good at explaining them in plain English, without dumbing it down. Five stars!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and accessible April 27 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have always had a reverence for books and leave them in pristine condition. Despite this life-long habit I found myself repeatedly reaching for a highlighter as I made my way through On Being Certain. I'm in the business of helping professionals improve their analytic skills and have read extensively in the areas of critical thinking, cognitive biases, risk assessment, etc. This book contained so many useful revelations that I was compelled to mark it up so that I can easily retrieve the gems for incorporation into my work. The author (who has written several novels) was able to translate what could be very dense, dry content into an engaging read. If you are interested in how people think, move On Being Certain to the top of your reading list.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Feb. 14 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An excellent book, good explanation of how some people enjoy being right when in fact all they are doing is
ignoring none confirming evidence to the contrary. This is expecially true amongst older men of which I am a member.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars On writing off the top of your head Jan. 29 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Burton's book has some pretty interesting ideas near the beginning, but does not have a lot to offer in later chapters. He sets out the notion that certainty is a feeling that is ultimately rooted in biochemistry -- something changes in your brain when you are certain. We confusion this with "fact" or "true knowledge."

But after that, the book bogs down and ultimately leaves you wondering about the fuss.
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