By Amy Willis
How do we know what we know? While this question may initially seem trite, this week’s episode will surely convince you otherwise. EconTalk host Russ Roberts sat down with neurologist and author Robert Burton to discuss his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. In it, Burton explores our apparent need for certainty, what leads our memory astray, and how our brains facilitates awareness (or not).
Do you really remember where you were when the space shuttle Challenger exploded? When planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11th? Why do you and the person right beside you during these moments remember things differently? These ‘tricks’ our brains can play on us, and these “feelings of knowing” we’ve all experienced provided ample fodder for a fine conversation between Roberts and Burton. And now we want to continue the conversation with YOU. When was your last “feeling of knowing?” And… how did you know???
1- What’s wrong with thinking about the brain as a computer, according to Burton (and Roberts)? How is Burton’s characterization of the brain as a ‘deep learning mechanism’ more appropriate?
2- Revisit another recent episode with Gary Greenberg on the placebo effect. How did Greenberg explain why some people get better in medical trials even when knowing they were getting a placebo? How do Greenberg’s and Burton’s explanations of this phenomenon compare? How does Burton suggest that Keynesian economics might be a sort of placebo? To what extent would you agree?
3- How is “cognitive dissonance,” a “cardinal belief of the last half-century,” misidentified, according to Burton? Does he find the phenomenon more psychological or neuro-functional? How might cognitive dissonance provide a feeling of pleasure? Are you more or less likely to experience cognitive dissonance as you get older? Why?
4- How does Burton use the analogy of a neural network to explain the divisiveness over President Trump in United States today? Why does Burton see this divisiveness as so unnecessary? What does he mean when he says, “if they can learn a little bit about what they think their tendencies are, they might be able to accept that other people with another set of tendencies are likely to see the world in entirely differently.”
5- Toward the end of the conversation, Roberts brings up his recent conversation with Michael Pollan on the use of psychedelic drugs in describing the ways in which people seek feelings of transcendence. Why would evolution give us a taste for the transcendent? To what extent are the “feelings of knowing” Burton describes a similar means of seeking purpose? Are you satisfied with the ways of achieving a sense or purpose described in this episode? Why or why not?
Bonus Question: Who knows how I came up with the title for this Extra?