“On Being Certain”November 17, 2008 at 6:13 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment
This book is so stunning that it should be required reading in schools. Not just schools, but perhaps every organization in the world. I wish to God I’d written it myself.
Robert Burton wants to tell us all about how our brains convince us that we know things, that we’re right, and that we are behaving rationally at all times – even though this is so often not the case. It’s fascinating to read, but it’s also far-reaching in its implications. If people were to admit that 99% of the time we do things like make up fake statistics so we can pretend to be the experts we are not, what a different world it would be! Ah, but it’s worse than that. It turns out we can’t really even trust our own perceptions and memories.
The beginning of On Being Certain talks a great deal about brain anatomy and various experiments. It’s in the latter half that Burton stretches out and makes his more intriguing observations. In one chapter he discusses how different people tend to have a greater or lesser built-in tolerance for risk. Interesting, no? Then he puts this in the context of politics. For example, a politician with a greater predisposition to risk will take a different attitude toward drilling for oil in the Arctic than one with less of that predisposition. Neither will ever be able to convince the other, because they were born with this natural tendency to evaluate situations at opposite extremes. By implication, part of the reason for the terrible polarity in American politics today would be that the more risk-averse and the less risk-averse tend to group together and remain totally unable to see the other side as rational. The more I think about this, the more I think about it.
In another chapter, Burton does the incredible and explains religion, too. It appears that our inherent desire for a feeling of certainty also places us along a spectrum of belief or skepticism. He offers two examples of spiritual conversions, one of a skeptic embracing evangelical Christianity, the other of a Christian embracing skepticism, to show how these two opposite poles connect to each other. It’s a perspective on religion I’d never seen addressed before – that we’re born with a certain attitude toward belief itself, regardless of what specific beliefs our family holds.
I don’t want to spoil the entire book for you, so I’ll leave the rest for you to savor. If you like reading books like Blink and Freakonomics, you’ll most likely enjoy this. Though it’s a bit more cerebral, it’s not overly long. It will definitely blow your mind.