Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

The Mind’s Siren Call

Being certain is a primrose path

Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


We all know the feeling. You’re sitting there trying to figure something out, but it just won’t come together. Frustration and annoyance grow until suddenly you get it — or at least you think you do. “Aha!” The relief comes flooding in.

Our brains crave certainty like a junkie craves a fix.

Neurologist Robert Burton talks about that feeling in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. Physiologically speaking, our brains crave certainty in the same way a junkie craves a fix. Satisfying those cravings activates the neural pathway responsible for pleasure and motivation. An aha moment feels good because it releases a lovely hit of dopamine in the brain.

It’s not hard to understand where our addiction to certainty comes from. For our evolutionary ancestors living on the savanna, often the worst possible strategy was to do nothing. The feeling of knowing frees us from paralyzing indecision. It enables us to act.

But feeling certain has squat to do with being right, Burton stresses. The feeling of knowing is not even a cognitive process. Rather, certainty is a sensation that need not be associated with any particular thought at all, he explains.

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

“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.” – Robert Burton, On Being Certain

Being certain can be a primrose path to self-delusion.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper argues that the foundation of knowledge is falsifiability. “I know” means that I have worked to discover that an idea is false, but so far have failed. If an idea can withstand that challenge, I am obliged to keep it, at least for now. But if the idea can’t take that heat, out the window it goes.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that certainty feels really good. So like any addict, our natural tendency is to do the worst possible thing — we try to score. We seek out information and people that reinforce our certainty, always craving the next hit of dopamine while turning our backs on anything or anyone that might call our certainty into question. Here lies a road paved with confirmation bias, groupthink, and a menagerie of other cognitive errors.

Once we embrace without question that deep, heartfelt, compelling sensation of certainty that we so desperately crave, we become blind to reality. We build ourselves a house of cards, believing the whole time that it is made of brick.

Knowing something (experiencing the sensation of knowing) and really knowing something (having reasonably justified belief) are two completely different things, even if we call them by the same name. The irony is thick enough to cut with a knife! Our brains crave certainty, but if we want real knowledge, certainty is the one thing that we can’t allow ourselves.

Intuition grounded in real knowledge and experience is a place to start, but only a place to start. 

Which is not to say that the feeling of knowing is always a bad thing! When mistaken for justified knowledge, the feeling of knowing can lead us down a primrose path. But when recognized for what it is, that sensation can be a valuable guide. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the way our brains rapidly and subconsciously combine even small amounts of information with our previous knowledge and experience to reach tentative conclusions. Those thoughts, accompanied by a feeling of knowing, enter our conscious minds as intuition. Intuition alone is never a substitute for justified knowledge. But if grounded in justified knowledge and enough relevant experience, intuition can suggest a path.

Science is all about justified knowledge, but intuition is vitally important even here. Scientists often rely on gut feelings to decide what ideas might be worth pursuing, or what approach might be likely to yield good results. The absolutely crucial caveat is that while intuition might be a good place to start, it is only a start. An idea might feel right, but that doesn’t matter to scientists until it’s put through the wringer. By the way, if you don’t look for the flaws in your pretty idea, rest assured that someone else will do it for you!

Being a bit too certain is a good clue that it’s time to go back and reassess.

Knowledge is a slippery juxtaposition of philosophical considerations and ages-old neurological imperatives buried deep within our brains. With that comes a practical challenge with profound real-world consequences for each of us. In a complex world where knowledge matters, how do we navigate treacherous waters filled with comfortable, specious ideas eager to abduct our all-too-willing brains? 

After decades in the trenches as a scientist, I can share what works for me. I listen to my intuition, but I’m gun-shy. When I start feeling too certain about something that’s my cue to get out the sledgehammer and start pounding on my precious idea to see if it breaks.

Only then can I talk about what I know.

The Mind’s Siren Call ^ Being certain is a primrose path  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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