"All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure." Mark Twain
I loved this quotation so much that put it beneath my photo in my high school year book. It was a companion to another favorite quotation of Twain's: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
We are witnessing an epidemic of certainty. The politicians and pundits on the Sunday news shows artfully display certainty. One of the great contributions of John Stewart and The Daily Show is the inevitable montage of contradictory statements from a single individual over time.
Which is why the book, On Being Certain by neurologist Robert Burton is a welcome antidote to blustery surety.
Dr. Burton's book isn't a philosophical argument on what what we know or don't know, but a biological one. The heart of the book he says is: "Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of "knowing what we know" arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason."
Early in his book, Burton has an intriguing experiment about what he calls "the feeling of knowing." When asked a question, you feel strongly that you know the answer even it you can't immediately recall it. Like a mental Rolodex, you know it's there, but isn't spinning into view. A complementary feeling is "aha." It's a notification from a subterranean portion of our mind, an involuntary all-clear signal that we have grasped the heart o fthe problem.
This feeling of knowing is "commonly recognized by its absence. Most of us are all too familiar with the frustration of being able to operate a computer without having any 'sense' of how the computer really works."
Here's the experiment quoted directly from his book: (Copyright 2008, Dr. Robert A. Burton.) St. Martin's Press.
"Please read the following paragraph. Don't skim, give up halfway through, or skip to the explanation. Because this experience can't be duplicated once you know the explanation. Take a moment to reflect on what you've read and after reading the clarifying word and reread the paragraph, pay close attention to the the shifts in your mental state.
"A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is better than the street. At first, it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break lose from it, you will not get a second chance."
Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word:
As you reread the paragraph, feel the the prior discomfort or something amiss sifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. "The paragraph,:" reveals Burton, "has been irreversibly infused with the feeling of knowing."
Once imbedded in your mind that the above paragraph refers to a kite, the feeling of correctness cannot be consciously dislodged or diminished. We can consciously input new contrary information; but only the hidden layer of the neural networks can re-weight the values.
Burton adds, "The studies of blindsight demonstrate that knowledge and awareness of that knowledge arise from separate regions of the brain."
The lesson here is that we must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. We cannot afford the catastrophes born out of belief in certainty.
Of course, Dr. Burton could be wrong.