Sunday 2013-08-18

On Being Certain by Robert A Burton

This book sadly reduces to Feynman's dictum:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

After teaching to regard certainty with suspicion, Burton leaves us there to hang: we must endlessly devise low-cost experiments to test what we think we know and don't know.

Mr. C, an elegant retired art dealer, was hospitalized overnight with a small stroke. The next morning, he felt well and was discharged. With moments of returning home, he phoned my office in a panic. He was certain that his favorite antique desk had been replaced by a cheap Levitz reproduction....
He ran his hand along the grain, repeatedly fingering a couple of prominent wormholes. "It's funny," he said with a puzzled expression. "These are exact replicas of the holes in my desk. But they don't feel the least bit familiar."
-- How Do We Know What We Know?
What startled me about the Challenger study were the students' responses when confronted with their conflicting accounts. Many expressed a high level of confidence that their false recollections were correct, despite being confronted with their own handwritten journals. The most unnerving was one student's comment: "That's my handwriting, but that's not what happened."
-- How Do We Know What We Know?