on November 1, 2008
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.
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!
on April 27, 2011
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.
on January 29, 2010
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.