Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

On Being Certain


That was the title of the book that I just finished reading. It was one of the best of 2011 recommendations by Vinod Khosla. Normally I do not do book reviews on this blog, but the premise of the book seemed apt to so many things in life, so it seemed worthy of a post.

In the book, Dr. Robert Burton discusses what it means to know what you know. How the brain perceives things, the neuro-biological processes around “feeling certain” and the “feeling of knowing”. Unlike the talking-down tone of Nassim Taleb in his groundbreaking book Black Swan, Burton keeps the tone even keeled, presenting concepts without driving them in as certainties. A welcome section of the book was where he found inconsistencies in the reasoning presented in books like Gladwell’s Blink. Luckily for Tom Friedman, the author spared him and his attempts at writing sensible paragraphs in English, maybe for fear of devoting the entire book to that.

In today’s world, a revisiting of certainty is a welcome call to action. The fundamental tension between science and its findings over time and religion and its axioms that people take on faith is presented well in the book. But even beyond that, today’s technologists think that technology is the be-all and the end-all for problems as diverse as poverty, education and healthcare. Social entrepreneurs for years would swear on how microfinance was the answer to rural empowerment and SKS, their poster-child, until the recent past when the true nature of SKS’s business was revealed. Philanthropists and grant-making agencies think that their vision of how hunger can be eradicated or how a particular solution can be scaled, is THE vision for the world and force that upon groups that they support internationally.

The reality is that while the problems and issues are non-corporeal, the people that cause them or the ones that try to fix them are like us – made of flesh and blood. The premise that if something is rational it will be accepted, or even that there is such a thing as something that can appeal to pure reason is called to question well in the book as well.

All-in-all, a great read. Highly recommended.

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Comments on: "On Being Certain" (4)

  1. Anand, thank you for posting this. Validates my vacillations and concern when I hear equivocal presentations of point of views as dogma.
    Will be sure to grab this book – and not worry about moments of self-doubt 🙂

  2. […] in the interplay of body and mind that drives our daily actions. I had written earlier about “On Being Certain”, where Dr. Robert Burton  explores how the body perceives the world around it and the mind adapts […]

  3. […] that we believe with certainty that something is true or that it is false. I wrote about that in an earlier blog post. When consumed correctly, knowledge should disabuse us of our orthodoxy and provide us […]

  4. […] but have their own “half-life” that can be measured in many spheres of knowledge. If “On Being Certain” spoke of how our brain decides that we know for sure that something is a fact, this book looks at […]

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