Are you certain? Really?

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By DON VOWELL

You should believe what I say because I am right.  I hang out with people who think like I do, listen to shows that repeat my own views, and read articles that reinforce the ideas already cemented in my head.  With that sort of diligence, I am certain of my beliefs. Or, maybe you shouldn’t believe me.

From this point forward it will be hard to believe anything I believe, having seen pieces of a new book called On Being Certain – Believing you are right even when you’re not, by Robert Burton, M.D.  I think he is trying to convince us that certainty, like love or anger, functions independently of reason.

One startling example from the book is a psychology professor that asked 106 students, on the day after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, to write about where and when they heard the news, and how they reacted.  Two and a half years later he asked the same group of students to write about the same experience.

Only one in 10 answered the same as before, yet almost all were certain that their memories were accurate.  Many of them could not be dissuaded even after being shown their original notes.  “That’s my writing, but it’s not the way it happened.”  Their certainty had grown to a level that forced them to deny their own witness.

The idea here is that certainty is a mental state that doesn’t dependably reflect objective truth.  In wondering why we desperately cling to our beliefs, my own non-scientific thought is that if you are certain of nothing you might be paralyzed by indecision.  If you are not sure you are doing the right thing it would be safest to do nothing at all.  You can feel pretty vulnerable if you don’t trust your own heart.

There can be nothing wrong with believing that you are right if empiric evidence and testing gives you reason, but it’s best to accept that evidence may one day prove you wrong.

I think Burton wants us to be more suspicious of absolute truth.  It is no great leap to think that absolute certainty can lead to heartbreaking societal damage.  Al Qaeda suffers no doubt.  Congress is stuffed with people of one true path.  Many faiths view all others as deluded.

Dr. Burton himself has said that he gained inner quiet by acknowledging his limitations.  One reviewer of the book said, “If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas.” Imagine the effect of that humility on, say, nationalism or fundamentalism.  The best unattributed quote contained in reviews of this book—“Being certain is nice, but it’s doubt that gets you an education.”

Applied to my life, I may have instinctively understood this.  Some time ago I learned that you can be a better husband if being right, or believing you’re right is nowhere near as important as being tidy.

So.  I leave you with the certainty that you know better than I how to enjoy your own joyous and peaceful Christmas.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer. )

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