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The Glory of Uncertainty

Certainty on Parade

On Sept 9, 1990, a fascinating example of human behavior occurred due to a question asked by a reader in the newspaper column Ask Marilyn. This is a column in the Parade newspaper supplement in which readers ask questions about science, math, logic, etc. (sort of a Dear Abby for nerds) and certified genius Marilyn Vos Savant would answer.

The question was a counter-intuitive logic problem (which you can read about here) which she answered correctly. But when she published her answer she was inundated with thousands of letters from across the country, many from people with PhDs in math, telling her she was wrong. Even after several attempts to explain the logic she still received forceful and sometimes rather rude correspondence from mathematicians.

Here is a small sampling of responses from the PhDs:

- "You blew it! ...confess your error and in the future be more careful."

- "There is enough mathematical illiteracy in this country, and we don’t need the world’s highest IQ propagating more. Shame!"

- "Your answer is clearly at odds with the truth."

- "May I suggest that you obtain and refer to a standard textbook on probability before you try to answer a question of this type again?"

Why would so many very intelligent people be wrong and yet so certain they were right that they would write into a newspaper columnist to badger her?

And how can WE avoid that kind of embarrassment?

Thought Tags

Robert Burton is a neuroscientist who wrote the book "On Being Certain - Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not". He contends that every thought we have has a "feeling of knowing" attached to it, separate from the thought itself. Think of it as a price tag dangling from the thought. Instead of $4.99, it says "certainly true", "certainly untrue," or "don't know."

The trouble is that we have hidden impulses and biases that cause us to attach the wrong tag. Most notably, we assign "certainly true" to many thoughts when we need more information to be certain.


When a thought has the negative feeling of "don't know" attached to it, it feels bad to us. But when we feel certain about a thought or idea, our brain rewards us with a shot of yummy dopamine (one of the brain's pleasure chemicals).

Our primitive "lizard" brain rewards certainty because certainty can get us to act faster than uncertainty, and in the wild speed means survival:

Certainty = fast = survive

Uncertainty = slow = get eaten

Fortune Teller

I am always amazed at how people want me to be a psychic. As a mentalist, I am an entertainer and do not claim "supernatural" abilities, but I get questions from people wanting me to tell them their future. Why do they want that? Because they have the discomfort of "not knowing" and want more certainty about what lies ahead.

What Kind of Fool Am I?

Remember those mathematicians who were so smug in their certainty? How often do we feel we know something when the facts are still out? What does that do to our trustworthiness? How about our relationships as a team member, leader, spouse, parent, or friend?

What can we do to avoid the unconscious tendency to feel (and express) certainty when we are not really certain?

Take a Moment

Metacognition is a big unwieldy word, but its meaning is simple: thinking about our thoughts. Most Invisible Mind Blocks can be vaporized by simply taking the time to pop the situation up to our conscious mind so our subconscious lizard brain isn't guiding our decisions.

As George Carlin said, we should question everything. He meant we should question what others tell us, but I think we should also question ourselves. Do we really know what we think we know?

Dr. Burton has an excellent suggestion. Before saying you are sure about anything, take a moment. Reflect. Be thoughtful. Be mindful.

The great thing about our brain is that our big conscious brain (neocortex) has VETO POWER over the unconscious feeling of certainty. So use that power! Be proud to preface a statement with “I think…” or “I feel…” or “It is likely that…”

Remember that uncertainty fuels curiosity and curiosity fuels growth and discovery.

“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” – Margaret Atwood

Open up to the wonderful world of uncertainty and you will not only come out looking better, but you'll make better decisions and discover more truth and beauty along the way.

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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