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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Certainty - Why Knowing and Being Sure Doesn't Matter

Another Scientific American article points me at a book I'd be interested to read: On Being Certain.

I too find myself often surprised at how certain people are about things. I frequently don't trust my own judgment, and even more frequently find out my opinion was wrong after the fact. So while I'll argue my point of view, I'm almost always willing to set aside my opinion for someone who is far more certain about their opinion. But this may not be the best policy.

But beyond that, the whole question of certainty is interesting in how it plays out socially. I see it causing weird issues between friends of mine because one *knows* something about another and reacts badly to the other as a result. Or when one person *knows* how things should be done and is offended when others disagree. Then there's the standard of politics and religion and how intensely certain people are of their beliefs in those arenas and how it causes them to interact badly with others who hold differing opinions. Even when the differences are small and seemingly trivial, folks will frequently get so wound up in the details that they end up disliking each other.

I also see this on campus a lot. There's the classic Sayre quote, "The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low." But here, you've got people who are the noted experts in their field. Their livelihoods depend on their expert knowledge and certainty, so of course, they know what they know and will live and die by it. This habit likely influences how they interact even outside of their area of expertise.

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