On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not [Book Review]

I think that perhaps the worst thing we can do, not only as fitness professional type or athletes, but in all aspects of life, is to become stale. We lock ourselves into ruts of habit and comfortable familiarity, walling ourselves off from people and places and ideas that threaten our worldviews. We convince ourselves that we’re right, wrap ourselves up in a filter of certainty, and ignore, dismiss, or explain away any factoid or data point that challenges our established thoughts.

Politics and religion, the two time-tested hotspots of interpersonal conflict, are obvious symptoms of mental rigidity. Bring up either, or both, and your company quickly becomes impolite. Why does this happen? What is it about people that make them so absolutely certain they’re right — even if evidence to the contrary is right in front of them?

That’s what Robert A. Burton, MD, sets out to answer in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

Burton kicks off with a story citing the Challenger study as a working example. Within a day of the space shuttle disaster, a psychologist asked his class of 106 students to write down all the details they could remember — where they were, how they’d heard about it, what they’d been doing, how they’d felt, and so on. These students were interviewed again two and a half years later, and twenty-five percent of them had accounts drastically different from their original journal entries with more than half having some degree of lesser error.

What’s most interesting about this study is the response from the students confronted with the conflicting accounts. Many disregarded the original entries and stuck to their new false memory, with one student commenting “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.” Even when confronted with their own journals, they still accepted the false memory over their own written accounts. This is not the behavior of rational brains.

From this, Burton enters a fascinating discussion of knowledge and certainty, questioning the very basis of our knowledge — how do we know what we know? He describes the human feeling of knowing, the conviction that we are right, as an artifact of invisible neurological processes. The unconscious mind mills away, beneath our notice, but shapes our thoughts all the same. Burton suggests that, like hunger or tiredness or other neurochemical actions which modulate our rational minds, the feeling of correctness is subliminal and out of our control. We can’t choose what we feel strongly about, in other words.

The feeling of knowing has a good side, even so. Burton argues that these traits are adaptive when they lead us to new insights or encourage learning, or as in cases of the placebo effect improve a patient’s quality of life. Speaking for myself, I know that the AHA! moment which comes from new understanding can be a powerful motivator.

The problem is, like most of our legacy biology, it can exhibit quirks and downright odd maladaptations in our modern civilized world. For some, self-doubt and introspection is ruled out — and may not make a difference anyway. Burton makes a strong case for certainty being yet another genetically-linked trait. Your tendency to be certain — with or without evidence — is biological.

Even worse, our very thoughts are constrained by our bodies and our perceptual capabilities. Can you imagine how you’d describe the color red to a blind man? How would an alien describe an exotic phenomenon when you don’t have the sense organs to detect it? The idea of an embodied mind is not new, and we often forget how connected we are to our physical form. Our sense of self makes us feel distinct and separate from the flesh, though in reality we’re inseparable from the meat-bags. Because of this, any pretense of objectivity flies out the window. Humans come with built-in biases, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We will always see the world through the filters of our senses and our gene-fixed neurochemistry.

That may sound depressing, but he offers up hope. While the very idea of true objectivity is gone, Burton suggests, almost heretically, that we should shift away from the language of certainty and knowing, and towards paradigms which acknowledge belief. He humbly acknowledges that that this will be difficult for those of us used to thinking in scientific and rationalist terms, but he makes a strong case:

But substituting believe for know doesn’t negate scientific knowledge; it only shifts a hard-earned fact from being unequivocal to highly likely. To say that evolution is extremely likely rather than absolutely certain doesn’t reduce the strength of its argument, at the same time as it serves a more fundamental purpose. Hearing myself saying, “I believe,” where formerly I would have said, “I know,” serves as a constant reminder of the limits of knowledge and objectivity. At the same time as I am forced to consider the possibility that contrary opinions might have a grain of truth, I am provided with the perfect rebuttal for those who claim that they “know that they are right.” It is in the leap from 99.99999 percent likely to a 100 percent guarantee that we give up tolerance for conflicting opinions, and provide the basis for the fundamentalist’s claim to pure and certain knowledge.

We must learn to tolerate uncertainty and our own conflicting natures, because certainty is inconsistent with our very biology. This slots right in to my own recent paradigm shift, trying to move towards understanding rather than conflict. The ideas Burton lays out were not all new to me, but enough to make On Being Certain worth the read. There’s a lot to digest here, most of it worthwhile given that we live in a culture where absolutist notions of Being Right and Being Certain define status and ego alike.

This outlook inverts our entire notion of ‘stupid people’ or ‘irrational people’. People aren’t rational creatures at all; only some people are better at questioning themselves. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being well informed aren’t free of irrational bias. The best we can do is be aware of it and strive to work around it. As Burton says, “We can strive for objectivity; we cannot reach the shores of dispassionate observation.”

Learning to let go of the absolute certainty, to question our feelings of correctness and conviction, and to embrace the fact that we can only do the best we can do, would be a positive change for most all of us.

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