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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

"On Being Certain," A Wonderful book by Robert A. Burton, MD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 5th 2011

Are you familiar with this phrase, "I know I am right and you will never convince me otherwise?" Even if you never heard anyone making that statement, you have experienced the attitude of certainty. Robert A Burton, the author of the book, "On Being Certain," is a neurologist who reports that we are neurologically wired to believe we are right. In Dr. Burton's words:

"There is a "hidden layer" in our brain whose neurons are influenced by genetics, personal experience, hormones, and chemistry. These factors influence all our thought processes without our conscious knowledge."

In other words, we think we know even when we do not. We are convinced we know even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Here is an example taken from a blog called, "Science-Based Medicine." The URL for this example and other information on Dr. Burton's book is:

"Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they'd heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, "That's my handwriting, but that's not what happened.""

According to Dr. Burton, this "knowing" is a result of each human being's need for purpose and meaning in life. He asserts that people turn to either religion or science to provide that sense of life's meaning. Evidence, pure and clear thinking and reasoning have little to do with this regardless of being scientific or religious. Often using science as their proof, atheists insist that they "know" God doesn't exist. Those with deep religious faith cite the bible as absolute proof of God's existence. Whether atheist or religious, people are certain that they are correct, much like the student given in the example above. Proof has nothing to do with knowing we are right. Presented with what he had written after the space shuttle exploded, he insisted that his description two years later was accurate.

The type of absolute or dictatorial thinking is what is found in totalitarian societies such as, China, Iran, and elsewhere. It would be a mistake to think that this certainty of knowing affects only people who are scientific or religious. Married couples argue with passion because each thinks they are right and the other wrong. Politicians are certain of the correctness of their point of view. Ultra conservative Republican congressmen venomously argue that making severe cuts in the budget is the only way to restore health to the U.S. economy. Liberal congressional members of the Democratic Party argue with equal venom that government spending is what stimulates the economy. The result of this squabbling is that the U.S. Congress is stalemated and work does not get done.

Dr. Burton suggests that, as a way of countering the impact of our being certain, we begin speaking with words like, "I believe," or "I suspect," instead of "I know." None of us are right all the time. Even while maintaining our religious faith, I believe it's important to respect those of different religious affiliations. In the same way, the atheist needs to be accepting of who are religious, something that, in my experience, does not happen very often. When arguing with your spouse, it's important to grasp the fact that you may not be right or that the other has a point of view just as you do.

Reading this book is a good way to learn how to stop ourselves from being rigid in our thinking. You are certain in your religious convictions but, isn't it possible that your husband or wife was right in this morning's heated argument about the family budget?

It's also important to ask the question, "Are personal growth and learning possible if you are convinced you know everything?"


Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD



Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Wrong on the atheist view. - Proud atheist - Oct 27th 2011

"Often using science as their proof, atheists insist that they "know" God doesn't exist. Those with deep religious faith cite the bible as absolute proof of God's existence."

Contrary to what Dr. Schwartz has to say, atheists do not "know" that God doesn't exist. Given that they take a scientific approach, they cannot 'know' something that is scientifically unknowable. However, having a view that there is no evidence for a belief in God, that there is no rational basis for such a view and no need to postulate such an entity, this is the basis of the atheist's stance. Unlike the religious believer who usually can be relied upon to insist that such and such is true, known, certain, etc., the scientist is more often to be heard saying, and willing to admit, "We actually don't know...". If only we lived in a world where those you claim to "know" would just reflect for a moment that although one may believe, it is not possible to know that which is unknowable.

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