On Being Certain, by Robert Burton

Review by Dave Gamrath


One-liner:  author Robert Burton writes that deep down in the “hidden layer” of our brain our thoughts and beliefs are formed, that we are not objective/rational thinkers at all, and that we make many mistakes in our lives, communities and institutions by not understanding this.



The premise at the heart of the book is “despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice or even a thought process.  Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.”  I.E., feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices, but are rather mental sensations that happen to us.  Burton states that this nonreasoned feeling of knowing (key term in the book) is at the heart of many seemingly irresolvable modern dilemmas. 



Burton lumps together into “feelings of knowing” all closely allied terms such as certainty, rightness, conviction, correctness, etc.  Burton discusses many studies that showed how even though humans often “get it wrong”, they maintain their wrong belief in the face of the facts.  The more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Instead of acknowledging our error in judgment and abandoning our opinion, we tend to develop a new attitude (or “twist”) that will justify our erroneous belief.  People hold onto “after all, I know what I know” even when proven wrong, often using tortured logic to hold onto their belief. 


Burton dives fairly deeply into brain chemistry and mechanics to explain why this is, including the function of the limbic system, NMDA receptors, the amygdala and many others.  He writes about how the neural networks in our brain work to form thoughts.  I won’t try to summarize our anatomy here, but will stick to Burton’s assessment of what this functionality means.  Burton also gets into what scientists have discovered through their work with Artificial Intelligence (AI), including how AI has been developed.  AI scientists have been able to build artificial neural networks that can do all sorts of amazing things through a “learning process” that takes place in what they call the “hidden layer”, a virtual space where weightings take place and the artificial device “learns”.  Burton uses the “hidden layer” as a metaphor for how our brain processes information.  The hidden layer provides a conceptual model of a massive web of neuronal connections microscopically interwoven throughout the brain.  Such neural networks are the brain’s real decision makers. 


The brain relies on established ways, and once interneuronal connections increase, they become more difficult to change/overcome.  To do so, it is necessary to alter the brain paths chosen by the impulses to effectively force thoughts into different channels.  Implication:  relearning something ain’t easy.  Burton discusses the brain reward system (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, etc.).  These rewards help to “lock-in” beliefs, and once firmly established, a neural network with a feeling of correctness is not easily undone.  We get addicted to the pleasure of our “feeling of knowing.”  His key point:  VERY hard to truly change our minds. 


Burton gets into the difference between thoughts that require only memorization, semantic thoughts or memories, vs thoughts/memories that arise out of complex computations within the hidden layer, which are called episodic. 


Burton disses a bit on our educational system, which tends to promote right or wrong answers and has a reward system to “be correct” rather than teach how to acquire a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underlying paradoxes, I.E., how to keep an open mind.  We are taught black vs white.  The “feeling of knowing”, the reward for both proven and unproven thoughts, is learning’s best friend in our educational system, and mental flexibility is its worst enemy.  Due to how we grow up and develop, our brains are anatomically biased to preferentially hear what we are exposed to as young children.  Learn it young and it stays with you!


Burton states that there is no isolated circuitry in our brain that can engage itself in thought free from involuntary and undetectable influences.  And when a person is having clearly irrational thoughts (delusions), just exhorting them to be reasonable won’t likely work.  Rationality relies on us having free will over our thoughts, which is against Burton’s key point:  we don’t.  Burton calls the belief that we can truly step back from our thoughts, in order to clearly judge them, as a “myth”, the myth of the autonomous rational mind.  We cannot see the hidden layer in action, an any attempt at self-awareness must accept this.  Burton goes into depth to use this concept to discount other writer’s findings, such as Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Malcom Gladwell’s Blink.  Those authors, and many others, come to conclusions by giving credit to “the rational mind”, which Burton constantly discounts.  Again, his premise is that ALL thoughts (the good, the bad and the ugly) percolate up from the unconscious mind (or the hidden layer). 


Burton discusses risk-taking genes, like stathmin, and how if you have more if it, it can drive not only your behavior to do more risky things, but also your politics.  “Why not drill in the Artic; what could happen?!!”  Whereas a Conservationist will naturally feel “we need to be careful”, an aggressive business-type will “feel” those concerns are silly.  Burton states that for partisan subjects, political thinking is often predominantly emotional.  It takes “ruthless self-reflection” to overcome our biases.  The best we can hope for is partial objectivity; true objectivity is not possible.  Unfortunately, Burton doesn’t address what it may take to changes someone else’s mind on politics, but from what he writes, it’s clear he would think it would be very, very difficult to do, and using reason and logic won’t work.


Burton dives into how all this impacts medicine, and the friction between traditional vs non-traditional medicine.  Non-traditional medicine, by definition, encompasses those treatments that have not yet been proven effective by traditional medical techniques.  They are forms of “felt knowledge”.  Good science requires distinguishing between felt knowledge and knowledge arising out of testable observations.  But Burton gets on scientists for not recognizing their own biases and filtering ideas through their own felt knowledge.  Burton goes on about how there is really no absolute certainty; how new knowledge can crop up and change even the soundest practices/beliefs, and goes on about how Western docs/scientists can be pretty darn arrogant for not seeing this.


Burton spends a fair bit of time on religious beliefs, and goes into how people are genetically predisposed to being religious or not.  He calls faith the “F word”.  In a way (to my reading), Burton disses on both religious/faith feelings and those of reason, saying that both come from our hidden layer that we can neither see or control.  No matter how hard scientists strive for objectivity, they can never truly work with dispassionate observation.  Thus, the rules of scientific observation can be challenged per Burton.  (as I guess also can even Burton’s conclusions!)  Burton thus concludes that scientific theories, such as evolution, should only be granted “provisional assent”, and that alternative explanations, such as creationism or intelligent design, might possibly be right!  “To elevate evolution to an unequivocal fact is to perpetuate the biologically unsound myth of the autonomous rational mind.”


Faith-driven arguments, by invoking irrefutable diving authority what will always be right, do not have to make the same concession.  And this uneven playing field is not going away.  Burton states that scientists need to back away from “all-knowing” scientific findings, to acknowledge that the evidence for a visceral need for a sense of faith, purpose and meaning is as powerful as the evidence of evolution.  He also states we must factor in that irrational beliefs can have real adaptive benefits, from the placebo effect to a sense of hope.  Burton points out that 90% of Americans believe their souls will survive their deaths, and that this belief provides us with a sense of purpose.  When forced to choose between reason and a sense of purpose, the sense of purpose wins, and that this isn’t even a conscious choice, so forget about trying to change someone’s mind on this. 


Reviewer Opinion: 

As far as the book’s structure and content, my opinion is that the book’s points could have been clearly made in about 1/3 of the pages.  Burton’s many side-tracked examples distracted as much as helped to get his points across.  I constantly felt the expression “huh?” after I finished a chapter, and only going back through and doing this summary brought out how his key points are really quite straight-forward and not complex.


Regarding his findings, some I felt very useful and well presented.  But I think Burton misses it on others.  His attempt to dis on scientists and to have them water down their findings, and stating that doing so won’t have any impact, doesn’t jibe with reality.  Non-believers in scientific findings are always looking for any excuse to not believe (“hey, it’s just a theory!”) and thus to water science down even more will do damage to trying to get the masses to behave in more sustainable ways.  Plus Burton seems to give equal balance to rational vs irrational thoughts, and one could even say he disses on rational thoughts much more for even remotely believing that we could have a truly rational thought.  I found this argument pretty irrational (pun intended).  OK, I get it:  humans can never be perfect (except for my 7th grade crush – she sure was) and thus our thoughts and beliefs are never perfect either.  But our trying to work through problems in a rational way is our last, best hope for surviving a planet with soon to be 10 or 12 billion people.  Falling back on “just doing what we feel” won’t solve our problems.


And that’s probably the main point I got from Burton:  for all of us, our thought process can’t be perfectly rational and we will always bring our humanness into all we do. 


But I was disappointed Burton didn’t directly address why most people would rather be right than happy, but it’s easy to draw from his book the reason’s why:  it’s biologically hard to change a mind.


Rating:  thumb sideways