Robert Burton on Being Certain
May 13 2019

On-Being-Certain-200x300.jpg Neurologist and author Robert Burton talks about his book, On Being Certain, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Burton explores our need for certainty and the challenge of being skeptical about what our brain tells us must be true. Where does what Burton calls "the feeling of knowing" come from? Why can memory lead us astray? Burton claims that our reaction to events emerges from competition among different parts of the brain operating below our level of awareness. The conversation includes a discussion of the experience of transcendence and the different ways humans come to that experience.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


May 15 2019 at 11:17pm

Kasparov could tell you in (possibly excruciating) detail why he made the move he made at any given point of any given game. Chess grand masters study their moves obsessively and are usually forced to discuss their ideas immediately following their big match-ups in interviews. The most any GM will say, in terms of uncertainty, is something like, “I didn’t calculate every possible line, but I felt like the move would lead to a winning position because [inset chess reason here.]”

Chess engines can analyze past games and suggest improvements or point out blunders, and GMs take advantage of these computer programs to prepare for big games. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, seems happiest when he gets his opponent “out of preparation” early in a game. Interestingly, Emmanuel Lasker, a chess champion from 100 years ago, has had a lot of his formerly debatable lines endorsed by modern engines. The nice thing about chess is that his lines were, in a way, already proven before the advent of computers — as very few people could beat him! In Economics, no one ever seems willing to resign.

May 20 2019 at 9:46am

I agree that Grand Masters and other experts could tell why they made a decision, but I think Burton’s focus is more on how they knew it was the correct decision–it just felt right, given what they saw, and their vast expertise.

When you look at a photo and recognize a family member, you have a feeling of recognition–“Oh, that’s my brother”.  But explaining how you knew it was them is difficult.

It’s the result of a particular kind of brain processing, which occurs automatically without your choosing for it to happen.

People with prosopagnosia (face blindness) can’t recognize faces, even of family members.

You could “explain” to a person with face blindness how you recognized your brother: “I looked at each face, looking for the traits that I know are present on my brother’s face, until I saw a match”, but it wouldn’t really be an explanation.  It just happened in your brain automatically.

A Grand Master may be able to describe why they made a move or saw that it was a good move, but at some level it simply occurred to them, in the same way that recognizing a face just happens (for most people).

Rick Weber
May 16 2019 at 8:24pm

This might be my favorite episode of Econtalk. In fact, I know it is and not even Mike Munger could tell me otherwise!

May 17 2019 at 12:29pm

Reminds me of Kathryn’s Shulz’s TED talk on being wrong where she asked “How does it feel to be wrong?”.  When posed with the question the most common responses are along the lines of ‘humbling’, ‘ashamed’, ‘sad’, etc.  However, those answers are addressed to a substituted question: “How does it feel when you realize you are wrong.”  While we are wrong, it feels identical to that when we are right.

Jonathan Haidt brings this up as well in Coddling of the American Mind to caution against splitting people into “good” and “bad”.

Joel Stroup
May 17 2019 at 2:01pm

If you repeat something enough even other people’s memories can become your own.  A very enjoyable econtalk episode.  Reminded of an experience I had a couple of years ago.  I attended a college reunion and we all agreed to meet at the usual spot at the stadium on the side of a grassy hill.  So certain was I that knew that spot that after an hour of searching, I was convinced that my friends were playing an elaborate trick on me. Even after someone came out to find me, I was still debating that the location was correct.  This episode hit home.

Aubrey Fox
May 17 2019 at 6:47pm

A wonderful episode and I enjoyed the camaraderie between the guest and Russ, who clearly enjoyed the conversation. Interesting that the guest moved away from nonfiction writing to nontraditional forms, much like Russ and his novels! The other part I really liked was Robert’s discussion of how the pleasure of knowing and certainty is more than just a partisan act, it’s a part of the fundamental human condition. Makes it both more relatable and difficult to imagine changing.

May 18 2019 at 12:21pm

Interesting podcast.  I appreciated learning that the sense of knowing is a feeling.  I appreciated the reminder that humility is important towards our views.

This podcast also went far beyond the data.  We have a few anecdotes (people with brain damage get things wrong – hardly surprising) and some “data” supporting the long known notion that human memory is imperfect and supposedly one person for reasons unknown to us preferred his current version to his historical one (like maybe he was putting the professor on or liked to argue for its own sake).  This is thin gruel for much else besides ongoing skepticism about our own views.

How often does the feeling of knowing correlate with being right and wrong?  Does this correlate with knowledge or expertise or is it independent?  How strongly do we hold onto the things we know (do we persist in our materialism when having a transcendent experience during a religious service or does that make us question the things we “know”, to pick a random example)?   If the feeling of knowing doesn’t correlate with correctness what about other emotions?  Does the feeling of victory correlate with actually winning and how rapidly does it switch?


Stephen Eastridge
May 18 2019 at 10:05pm

Every once in a while one of these really vectors me off into a world of thought and introspection. This is one of those. Excellent job, Russ. I don’t understand how you can offer these for no charge. (Not that I’m complaining.)

May 23 2019 at 5:16pm

Russ, I think you and your community of listeners would enjoy a speaker on the subject of Giambattista Vico and his work The New Science


I have recently been engaging with the work.  It is a little difficult but I think it might be very profound.  Almost every day some news item or other item reveals how relevant his thoughts are.     For example, today it was when your guest said:

This is where science meets story. And I’m going to try and see if I can’t come up with some stories which kind of illuminate some of the difficulties with purely fictitious stories or vignettes, whatever. Because I dothink it’s an alternative route. Science is not the endpoint.




Kathryn Chalfan
May 27 2019 at 10:57pm

Contemplating the righteous and certainty all around us…. I was up at the cabin.  It had always been known that there are no bears or other dangerous animals there.  We tell our children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, this is a safe place, no bears.  As I was strolling up the trail, I saw….a largish black animal with a brown face, quite bear-like.  However, I KNEW it couldn’t be a bear, because there are no bears on the island.  The animal and I stared at each other for half a minute or so.  It didn’t seem aggressive, just curious.  I started an iPhone video.  I found myself thinking about your podcast.  Could it be a bear?  Perhaps I could get just a bit closer.  I very slowly approached it, video rolling.  It very slowly moved toward the truck, paused, and finally retreated into the forest.  The other islanders replied Holy Smokes, it IS a bear!  The first ever seen on our island.  Turns out bears can swim, and will do so when searching for a mate.  Revising our forever true knowns is hard.  Now the revised knowing is, there are usually no bears on the island.

Marilyne Tolle
Jun 4 2019 at 12:24pm


“…I’m always fascinated by our desperate attempts as human beings to find a metaphor for reality that helps us understand it. So, in the old days, the brain was a clock. Or, the world was a clock. Because a clock was the most advanced technological thing we had. In the 1950s, or 1960s or 1980s, the brain was a computer, like a standard computer.”

In this excellent Aeon article, psychologist Robert Epstein explains why the metaphor of the brain-as-computer is misguided and laments the fact that it is so “sticky”:

“The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.”

But he also comments on the fact that we can expect it to be transient:

“But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.”

Epstein wrote the article in 2016 but he was already onto something.

As Robert Burton tells Russ:

“Well, you know, that idea, the brain is a computer, I think has been replaced, at least metaphorically, as a deep learning mechanism. And, if you think about deep learning mechanisms, we don’t know why that input causes that output.”

Which is all a bit circular, since neural networks and deep learning are modelled on the brain, and as such are biological metaphors.

According to this MIT Tech review article, the idea of AI systems as a black box (where outputs can’t be neatly traced back to inputs) is now being used by researchers to create a new academic discipline called “machine behaviour”.

The idea is to study AI systems through empirical observation and experimentation – the tools already used to study humans and animals as “black boxes”:

“In this way a machine behavorist is to a computer scientist what a social scientist is to a neuroscientist. The former looks to understand how an agent —whether artificial or biological— behaves in its habitat, when coexisting in groups, and when interacting with other intelligent agents. The latter seeks to dissect the decision-making mechanics behind those behaviors.”

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Intro. [Recording date: April 9, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is neurologist and author Robert Burton.... Today we are going to talk about his book from 2008, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not.... I loved you book. It hit on many, many themes that we here at EconTalk talk about: how do we know what we know; the power of uncertainty; and the often overwhelming power of being certain. I want to start with a concept that's at the heart of the book that you call a feeling of knowing. How would you describe that?

Robert Burton: Its most extreme form, which is a way of starting to think about having an 'Aha!' You are thinking about an idea or a story or something you've been studying, and it doesn't make sense. And all of a sudden, it does make sense. And it makes sense in a profound way. You feel, 'Ahhh. I know that.' And that's a feeling that overcomes you. And, in neuropsychological jargon that would be considered a feeling of knowing--in other words it's a involuntarily produced, spontaneous sensation that welds together the feeling of understanding along with some information that comes into your conscious mind.

Russ Roberts: And, of course, it's an incredibly powerful and necessary part of life. If you were uncertain about everything, you'd be paralyzed. You'd be constantly trying to figure out what to do next. So, it's an enormously important part of human experience.

Robert Burton: Correct.

Russ Roberts: Now, you tell a story early on which kind of haunted me about the Challenger--the NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] tragedy. And, tell the story of it, what was done by students in the day after and the two and a half years later.

Robert Burton: And actually, that story is one of the initial triggers for me writing this book. In Emory University, on the morning of the Challenger explosion, a psychologist asked all of his students--there were 120-plus students--to write down exactly what they experienced at the moment of the shuttle: where they were, how they felt, all the details. And then he collected the notebooks. And then two and a half years later, he interviewed them again to see how their memories stayed the same or morphed over time. And the vast majority of the people got the information wrong. They had an experience of what happened to the Shuttle that was quite different from the actual facts. But what stumped me was that there was a note from one person that indicated a situation A and then, two and a half years later he stated B which is contrary to A. And the teacher said to him, 'Well, you wrote this right after the explosion. Isn't this more likely to be correct than the newer version?' He says, 'Yes, I know I wrote that then. I know it's my handwriting. But, no, the new version is the correct one.' And what struck me is the utter certainty that his new version was correct and the old one was just almost certainly more likely to be accurate, it was dead wrong. As though he know in a cognitive sense that he should answer that the initial journal was correct, but he couldn't get over the feeling that the subsequent one was correct. Which meant that the morphed experience, morphed memory, had replaced the initial memory. And, the sensation of knowing had gone from the initial memory to the new memory. And I thought, 'How is this possible? There's no psychological reason why he would stick up for something which he knows is wrong.' It just made no sense. And you realize, it's something more profound. And it was the thing that led me to first think about, 'Well, maybe the feeling of knowing that has changed the feeling of memory about his memory isn't within his voluntary control.'

Russ Roberts: So, I found that story very powerful. And I'm going to put myself on the couch here--and it won't be the first time. I've retold it, I think at least twice to people, who are fascinated by it. And it--I realize, if I thought about it that the story kind of plays to my own epistemological humility: my eagerness to be uncertain. And, the more I thought about it, I thought, 'Well, there was one kid who, maybe even being facetious,' right? Maybe he just said, 'Well, it's my handwriting, but I know what happened.' Maybe it wasn't a well-run survey. Maybe--right?

Robert Burton: Right--

Russ Roberts: There's so many questions about it. But once I read the story--because I was so prone to be eager to believe it, my feeling of knowing was invoked by it. And I just said, 'Not only does that confirm what I already know; I now have a really dramatic, beautiful example. Because, surely, two and a half years later is less accurate--in my memory, by the way of your book it was the day after, not the day of--

Robert Burton: Maybe a week. Maybe--yes--

Russ Roberts: but close enough. But, isn't that interesting? I mean, when I read your story, I thought, 'Yes! We have trouble knowing, and yet we have trouble admitting that we don't know.' And, of course, that's my own challenge that I face, is that--pardon the phrase, 'challenge,'--is that I'm a little bit addicted to not knowing.

Robert Burton: Correct. And you might ask me about that, because I think part of this, once you realize that this is in fact an involuntary sensation, then you might start to think in terms of: I wonder if some people are biologically more predisposed to enjoyment of uncertainty and ambiguity and others are more predisposed on a biologic, even perhaps in part genetic basis, to desire a greater sense of certainty. And I explore that in the book in some detail. We have to talk about that later, maybe.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah; no; it's fascinating.


Russ Roberts: One thing I thought about, you didn't mention this, but: It may only be in my marriage; it may be just, we're different. But, in my experience my wife and I have different memories of what happened at different, various incidents and episodes in our past, of what was said, what was felt, what was on the table, and so on. And, we're both pretty adamant about what we were--and I think it's a useful bit of marital counseling to be aware that these memories are often not accurate.

Robert Burton: Well, this is actually why in the book I explored what they call in artificial intelligence 'the hidden layer.' And, if you think about it in the very simplest of terms, let's say you and your wife are standing side by side watching a car accident. And your inputs are exactly the same. You have the same angle, as if your eyes are superimposed upon hers. And, once it gets into your brain, all bets are off as to how it's perceived. What you see at the retinal level is not what your brain interprets at the conscious level. It goes through various layers, hierarchical layers, in the visual cortex and then throughout connecting neural networks. And so, your perception is not my perception. It's why your 'red' isn't my 'red.' Even if we see the same angstrom length, incoming light, it isn't the same. Then if you start to think of why your wife and yours might be different, which I'm sad to say is true of most people, including in my 50-year-plus marriage, we see things differently. And then you say, 'Well, how does that start?' Well, it starts in part with the things that we can sort of assess, like is difference in genetics. For example, if you have a biologic predisposition towards fear and your spouse does not, or one's got a higher degree of innate optimism or pessimism, that's going to shade how you see the same automobile accident. And now we know that there's, if you think about all the variables in perceiving an event, it would be extraordinarily unlikely that you would see the same thing. If you think, in fact, that your perception is based on all your prior experience and your biology--I mean, you read now about epigenetic studies where something that happened to your grandparents might affect you, modifying your gene expression--and, let's say, your wife doesn't have that, then your two brains are just going to see it differently. And there's no reason to expect you to see it the same. I think that's one of the big fallacies about the concept of rationality, is that two people, given the same initial inputs, should get the same outputs. That's simply not true.

Russ Roberts: Yeah: I think the temptation is to see the brain as a computer. And, in general, not every single time, but most of the time an algorithm yields the same result--almost by definition--of when the data is inputted. And we expect our brains to do the same thing. They don't.

Robert Burton: Well, you know, that idea, the brain is a computer, I think has been replaced, at least metaphorically, as a deep learning mechanism. And, if you think about deep learning mechanisms, we don't know why that input causes that output. In other words, we can look at what happened to the--let's say that in the early stages when Kasparov lost to Big Blue [Deep Blue, supercomputer that beat Garry Kasparov in a 1997 chess match--Econlib Ed.]. Nobody knows why Big Blue made the moves that it made. In fact, one of the telling moves that it made, which apparently made Kasparov want to rip his hair out, turned out to be a glitch in the software. But nobody really knew why it did what it did. And certainly when it made--the Go people, the world's Go champion--they can see that it won, but they don't know how it won. So, if you look upon the computations in the brain as not being fixed algorithms--which the old computer model dating back from the Norbert Wiener, you know, cybergenetics and that kind of thing--

Russ Roberts: cybernetics--

Robert Burton: Yeah. Cybernetics. It isn't like that. So, but if you take the new deep learning one--which may or may not turn out to be closer to a truth--input doesn't equal output. Same input into two different neural mechanisms won't give you the same output. And, so, I think that you could still think of the brain as a computational device, if you get away from the idea of fixed algorithms and start thinking about it as no fixed algorithms but deep learning techniques, which, positive feedback according to results, etc.

Russ Roberts: Of course, Kasparov couldn't explain why he made the moves he did. Or at least many of the times he couldn't.

Robert Burton: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: And you talk in the book--we've talked many times on this program--I just think it's extremely unintuitive for most people so I don't mind re-telling these stories. But, so many times, great geniuses have insights they can't explain. Just "came to me." It was the 'Aha' moment you are talking about. I've used a number of times Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's last theorem, where he just said he was just sitting at his desk, looking off in the distance, and suddenly 'I saw the right answer.' It's very moving. But we don't understand that the person closest to it doesn't understand it. When you said 'deep learning,' I just wanted to--I giggled, because I'm always fascinated by our desperate attempts as human beings to find a metaphor for reality that helps us understand it. So, in the old days, the brain was a clock. Or, the world was a clock. Because a clock was the most advanced technological thing we had. In the 1950s, or 1960s or 1980s, the brain was a computer, like a standard computer. And now it's like a neural network with deep learning.

Robert Burton: Right.

Russ Roberts: I just find that--I don't think that's progress. I think it--it sounds like progress. But I think it's more like--it's a little bit of self-deception there, in my view.

Robert Burton: Well, you know, I think that one of the things that science does is it provides temporary metaphors.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Robert Burton: [?] replace. And, I should just say as an aside: I wrote a little piece, an op-ed piece for the New York Times about Donald Trump being a beta version of a neural network deep learning machine. And the reason I wrote that is that you watch on television every day, people speculating on what makes him tick. But if you think about it from a completely different standpoint--if your only goal is to win, then you would be more equivalent to the Deep Blue, and neural learning machine of Deep Blue, in which, if your goal is winning then you might try outrageous maneuvers in order to win because you don't have any underlying ideology, preconceptions, etc. And if you look at Donald Trump from that light, you'd say, 'Aha. If his sole goal is winning, then we don't really know why he does what he does.' And I thought: It serves as a great metaphor for saying, 'The old metaphors are wrong; and then someday maybe this one will be wrong, too.' And you can look back the same way. That's the history of science.

Russ Roberts: Well, if I'm trying to figure out what makes somebody tick, I'm definitely going to use a clock metaphor.

Robert Burton: Very funny.

Russ Roberts: And I joke, of course, because that's exactly where that comes from. Right? That's exactly where that comes from.

Robert Burton: And that's why people write about twice a day.

Russ Roberts: For a stopped clock, anyway.


Russ Roberts: I want to go back to that--you mentioned briefly the hidden layer. A very interesting part of the book. And again, I'll confess that when I read it the first time, it overwhelmed me. I went back and read it again. And I realized I was a little more enthusiastic; and you were less enthusiastic than I remembered when I reread it. The idea is that, by definition, almost, a lot of things are going on under the surface that we don't have access to in our brain. The example you give in the book is you go to bed trying to think of the name of a comic strip that's just outside of your memory; and you wake up and the word Pogo jumps in your mind. You don't will it; you don't say to yourself, 'I wonder what that comic strip really was called.' It just: There it is. Your brain worked on it while you were asleep. And, we understand--that happens all the time. It happens when I drive home from work. You know, I can be daydreaming; and all of a sudden I realize, 'Oh, I'm still on the road.' I wasn't paying attention. My eyes weren't closed. But my brain was doing the driving: I've done it so many times, that route, and it's just kind of second nature. But we don't really understand what's going on underneath, there. And you posit--again, a neural-network type approach, what we've learned from artificial neural networks--and speculate that it might be what's going on in our own brains. Talk about that. Because, the sort of--it's almost Bayesian. It's also a little bit of a voting or wisdom-of-crowds approach, an emergent idea that runs all through economics. Talk about what your thoughts are on that, at least when you wrote the book. Or now, after you've thought about it for a few years.

Robert Burton: So, first of all, all of your explanations make perfect sense. Whether or not they are true is, as you know, I can't attest to. But, if you just imagine all of the types of inputs that affect your decision-making, from the very learning of language as taught to you by a parent, by school, by friends, etc., different experiences; the biology of whether your family is by nature religious, non-religious; risk aversive, seeking out risk; etc.--and a lot of these are on genetic basis. And then the early environment, ones that you can't possibly remember. Etc., etc. So, there are myriad factors involved, and any single thought or decision, now, they have to be instantiated in the brain in some mechanism. And it's thought that they are somehow embedded--'embedded' shouldn't be a physical term, but more of a concept--within the neural connections. Within the neural network. So, imagine that each one of these traits is a person. Just for the point of discussion. And, now, you are saying, 'Okay; we've got 5000 traits that are going to be influencing this decision. And we'll give each one a vote.' Some vote yes, some vote no, some vote maybe, and some never--etc., etc., etc. And out of those comes a final output. Which would be an idea. And then, in order for that idea to reach consciousness, there has to be some reasonable likelihood that the idea is correct. So, in the example that you gave me on, about, the Pogo: You don't wake up in the morning and say, 'Yes! It was Charlie Brown.' What happened was during the course of the night you gave your brain the intention to, subconsciously, give you the name of that comic strip. And it remembers the pictures; it remembers the possum talking and the, maybe remembers Walt Kelly eventually, and remembers this, that, and the other thing. And then it votes on--all these people vote. And then you get a sensation or a determination at least that the likelihood that it's Pogo is 10%, 70%, 90%--you have a sort of cut-off in your mind. When the feeling of knowing becomes sufficiently great, it comes into consciousness. Then you say--if that feeling of knowing is profound--you go, 'It's Pogo!' And you go, if it's maybe 80% likely you say, 'I think it's Pogo.' And if it's 50-50 it may not even come into consciousness. If it's 20%, so your brain won't even give you the possibility of thinking about it. So, when you wake up in the morning, your brain has calculated, based upon all these individual factors' putting in a vote, that collectively create an output that has then separately determined the likelihood of its correctness. And that's where the feeling of knowing arises. And then, if the two[?] reach whatever in your mind as sort of the cut-off point to reach consciousness, there it is. So, when you wake up in the morning, it's been done for you. The intention was put into it prior to the start of it in the same way that a creative and artificial neural network might set the initial conditions. But it doesn't set in the--all the various questions you ask. It figures it will learn on its own. And then, it separately, it gives you biologically--a way of knowing the likelihood that is correct, which is the feeling of rightness or wrongness. And that leads to the major question of how much is done unconsciously, which is: What, if anything, is part of conscious thought?

Russ Roberts: And, we don't know--I mean, we do know there are things we call neurons in the brain. As you point out, we don't have a lot of knowledge of this unconscious level of thinking. And I assume--let me ask it a different way. Do you think we'll ever be able to do a brain scan and find Pogo, or find my memory of being 6 years old in Moses Lake, Washington? Excuse me--7 years old, in Moses Lake, Washington? Because when I said, 6, I said, 'Nyah, I'm not so certain about that, 6. Oh, yeah, it's 7.' Do you think we'll ever be able to know enough about the brain to find those kind of memories? And also leaps of imagination, intuition--that we call intuition now--that are--maybe we'll uncover how they can act?

Robert Burton: Um, you know, in my second book, A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, I tried to address this as best I could. I don't know what 'ever' means. In other words, down the road I can imagine that there will be scientific discoveries that are far beyond what I can conceive of now; so I wouldn't put--if you ask, 'Do I think during our lifetime, or in the near future we are going to discover this?' I think the answer is No. And part of the problem is really in scientific method. In other words, in order to know that there's a change in the brain, it has to be compared to some other brain state. In other words, very simply, if you are doing an x-ray of arteries in the brain and you want to see them clearly, first you get a picture of the skull without the injection; and then you get the picture of the arteries when you inject a dye, and it's called an arteriogram. And then you subtract one from the other. And you get rid of all the surrounding stuff. And you have only the difference between baseline and when the dye flows through there. And, it's the difference from baseline that determines how we understand changes and activation of any area of the brain. So, if you think about this: If you are 70 years old and you have spent a lifetime of accumulating data, what point would you want to compare the new information with the old? There isn't such a thing as a static baseline.


Russ Roberts: But it also seems to me that there's a great deal more belief these days in an interactive, synergistic--again, emergent order--to the brain. Somewhat equivalent to what I see happening in the field of genetics. That, it used to be, in the early days: Oh, there was going to be a gene for anger. Or, a gene for--even height. And yet it turns out it's more complicated. And I assume the brain--in the early days, 'Oh, that's where this happens.' But it turns out there's a lot going on at the same time. It's kind of complicated.

Robert Burton: That's right. Well, if you are thinking about the one that's the most politically charged, is the nature of, the genetic nature of IQ [Intelligence Quotient]. And they've studied that: for each gene, its contribution to IQ is just above negligible. In other words, there's no gene that gives you a 2-point IQ differential. Uh, and yet, it's pretty clear that there's a genetic component to IQ: Within families, there's a smart family, and with smart kids, and I mean--so there's no question that genetics plays a role in intelligence. And best examples are, like, identical twins raised apart. But, at the same time, you can't identify any gene with any significant contribution. It's because there is a massive number, and there are interactions. People, in talking about genes, for example, but they are up-regulated, down-regulated, one [?]--'any enemy of my enemies is my friend' concept. Etc. And so it--the question is, could you ever isolate all these individual entities enough to get your coherent picture of how the brain works well? That's what the people who are studying Human Connectome and those who wish things they can uncover, the location of thought, etc. But, to me, it's, um, it's a wonderful ludicrous endeavor Jonathan Swift might have written about.

Russ Roberts: I remember we had Gary Greenberg, the psychiatrist, on the program talking about mental illness. And, you know, at one point he said, 'Well, of course it's chemical.' Like, because, we're talking about--a brain has got chemicals in it. But, we don't understand what the chemicals are. It's not--I read an article recently that said that when doctors talk about antidepressants, putting some chemical, fixing a chemical imbalance, they say, 'Well, it's really a metaphor.' Because they don't really understand it.

Robert Burton: That's right.

Russ Roberts: But it is chemical. But, that's not so helpful.


Russ Roberts: We've had--Gary Greenberg, as fate would have it--talking about the placebo effect. I think you mentioned it a couple of times in passing. And you talk about people who get better--knowing it's a placebo. Which is unbelievable. What are your thoughts on that?

Robert Burton: Well, it's funny--I recently subscribed to that on a personal level. There's been a lot of debate about CBD [Cannabidiol] Oil and whether it has any biologic effect. And I said, 'But you know, and I understand that it may have none, in terms of getting to sleep at night.' But on a few occasions when I've been out later or played poker and I'm all revved up, you know, and I would like to get to sleep, I take the CBD, and I say, 'I hope this has a placebo effect.'

Russ Roberts: Hehh, hehh, hehh. How's it working for you?

Robert Burton: And, you know, you go to sleep. Because you feel reassured. You know that placebo is even--there is a drug for kids who demand to take something for the common cold, and it's basically sugar water. It's actually--the name of the drug is Placebo spelled backwards in some way. I've forgotten how you pronounce it.

Russ Roberts: Hehh, hehh, hehh.

Robert Burton: And, it's sold as a placebo. And you go--how is that?--so that's sort of a second-order--usually in economics that's a second order effect.

Russ Roberts: Yeh. Yeah.

Robert Burton: But, yet, it still works.

Russ Roberts: Well, we've talked on here a number of times about the procedure for back pain--where you inject cement into the vertebrae--

Robert Burton: Right--

Russ Roberts: and observational trials show it's quite successful. A good friend of mine I've mentioned on here before is a pain doctor. His nurse told me it was the best procedure in the entire office: it was wonderful how many people were, who would walk out with no pain. And, when that was in my, in the interview with Adam Cifu, in his book, Ending Medical Reversals with Prasad, the--the randomized control trial of that procedure versus injecting saline into the back, into the vertebrae, while opening a container of cement to let them smell it, had the same effect. It was clinically, at least, had no clinical significant difference. So, you are suggesting: We could just say to people we are going to do that great thing. 'It's going to be saline; we're going to let you smell the tube. And you'll be better.'

Robert Burton: Yes. Because we don't understand even simple concepts like reassurance. I mean, I think, if you take in the very big picture, even things like Keynesian economics are in part based upon placebo effect: If things are bad, you try to encourage people that it's good, because if it's good then they will have more capital expenditures and they'll bring themselves by a bootstrap out of economic bad times. Placebo is functional in every single phase of modern life, not just medicine.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm not sure I agree with that. But it is widely--

Robert Burton: I understand--

Russ Roberts: But it is widely believed. Which is another feeling of knowing. Which I think--this one, I think, is correct. But it is widely believed--it was widely believed, for a long time, that the Great Depression was cured by optimism. What you are talking about. They forget about the relapse in 1938. But that's okay. You know, a lot of people credited FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] with saving the country because he got people to feel good about themselves. Which is--I never thought about it--it's a placebo-effect argument. When confronted with the data of the relapse in 1938 and other problems, 'Oh, yeah, yeah. It wasn't FDR. It was the War. The War stimulated the economy.' And then when you point out that there's a lot of evidence that that isn't true, then everybody says, 'So, what was it?' As if there has to be like a magic switch or knob or dial that had to be turned to the right setting and the economy would function again. It's just--the idea that it's too complicated--we don't understand it--is not acceptable.

Robert Burton: This is actually why I explained--over the 10 years since I wrote On Being Certain, I've spent a little bit of time down at Google talking with, chatting with, and maybe consulting with the neuroscience people. And, this is one of the reasons that I find that this idea of deep learning is helpful at every level. In other words, we get an output; okay, the economy got better, and then it got worse, and then it got better again. Okay, and that's the output. We don't have any idea what the underlying mechanisms were. But we attribute, we attribute whatever makes us feel most likely that it's correct. In other words, we use our feeling of knowing to explain something that is essentially beyond our understanding, sort of black-box event. And unfortunately I suspect that that applies to most of history and economics, even though--I'm sure you disagree--but history is oftentimes interpreted by the winners, you know; and all these other phrases, basically, they are interpretations of black-box events for which psychological--the implication there's a psychological explanation implies we understand what went on in each person's mind that allowed this to happen. Which we have no evidence for. That's--

Russ Roberts: Why do you think I disagree with that?

Robert Burton: Because you do it for a living.

Russ Roberts: Nope. Not really. No. I just play one on podcasts. No; in fact, one of my favorite experiences as an economist was when a journalist asked me how many jobs were lost because of NAFTA [North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement], and I said, 'I don't really have any idea. I also know that, I suspect, many were created.' And so, the general economists believe that trade doesn't increase or decrease jobs. It changes the kind of jobs we have. So, that's what I told him. And he said, 'No. I'm asking you a question. How many jobs were created?' I said, 'I have no idea. It's so complicated. So many things were happening at the same time. Why do you think you can tease out the independent effect of a very small part of the American economy?' And he said, 'But you are a professional economist!' I said, 'Yeah: The kind who doesn't lie to journalists, though'--

Robert Burton: That's right--

Russ Roberts: 'about what they don't know.' He said, 'You're ducking my question.' I said, 'I'm not ducking it. You just don't like the answer. That's all.' So, I've often argued that economics is more like history than it is like physics. Which economists hate to hear. But, I think--no one pretends to say what the cause of WWI is. They also--they can talk about the precipitating moment. But they can't talk about the underlying cause. They can talk about a number of things. You can weave a story around all of them. Some are more convincing than others. Nobody pretends to say, 'With 27% the interlocking alliances and 33% economic self-interest and 14% the bellicosity of the German--you know. It's fake science. It's scientism masquerading as science. And we have a deep desire, I think, to have answers to those questions that can't be answered.

Robert Burton: Correct.


Russ Roberts: Now, you mentioned, talking about, Keynesianism. A lot of people are guilty--myself included, of what's called confirmation bias. We believe, cherry-pick, and take as true things that confirm our ideology, our politics, our tribe--whatever it is. What your book alerted me to--I have to say, it was exciting and disturbing--is that it goes way beyond that. We just like knowing. It's not so much that it confirms 'I'm on the right team.' It's that, 'Oh! I know and I can move on.' I can put it in a box called 'Things I don't have to think about any more.'

Robert Burton: Correct. And, you know, the word 'confirmatory bias' has a negative connotation. The word 'bias' always has a negative connotation. But, I think, if I get this right, because it's been a while--let me give you an example from the book that I used. Imagine that you are going to visit a friend that you saw 20 years ago, Joe Blow. And, you remember his house as being on such-and-such a street, and looking like such-and-such: It's a two-story house, and whatever. And, if you think about it for a second, that is based upon having been there 20 years ago. Having seen the house. And having a very strong feeling that it is in fact Joe Blow's house, because in fact you had dinner with Joe Blow there. And the memory is correct. So, you recall the house; you recall with 100% likelihood that that's Joe Blow's house. And now, you, 20 years later, you and your wife are going to go visit him again. And you go driving over to where you think his house is. And you are driving down the street. And you say, 'That's Joe Blow's house.' Now: How did you say that's Joe Blow's house? Because you had a combined memory of the previous visit to his house, and the very strong certainty, sense of feeling of knowing, that it's Joe Blow's house. That's combined together in the old[?] memory. Now, you ring the doorbell; somebody else answers the door. And you say, 'Where's Joe Blow?' And, 'Oh, he doesn't live on this street. He lives two blocks over.' And now you know you were wrong. But you had the feeling of knowing--that it was his house, before you had any outside evidence that it was his house, based on the old memory. So, if you think about that, this looking for Joe Blow's house, is already embedded with a confirmatory bias. You are going to look for those houses that are most like what is already in your memory. And this isn't a bias, in the sense of it being some psychological predilection or a personal belief system or ideology. It is simply the way you store information. So, the confirmatory bias makes you say, 'That's Joe's house.' And it made you look for that house. And then you were wrong. So, when scientists do experiments, you know, they say, 'Get rid of confirmatory bias.' But it's the confirmatory bias that drives experiment in the first place.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; and you talk about that, the challenge of science without bias. It's not really a meaningful statement, in my view. Or, science without theory. Or just 'letting the numbers speak for themselves'--

Robert Burton: Right, right--

Russ Roberts: That's an illusion, in my view.

Robert Burton: Right.


Russ Roberts: The interesting thing about the Joe Blow example is: When the guy answers the door, your first thought can be: Where are you keeping him?--

Robert Burton: Yup--

Russ Roberts: 'Where's the real Joe Blow? Where's Joe?' 'Oh, he doesn't live here.' 'No, come on, come on.' You start looking around. I find it fascinating how you give some very disturbing examples in the book of what's called--I don't know how to say it, Cotard's syndrome, where people confronted with extraordinary evidence that they are wrong will not change their mind.

Robert Burton: Well, you know, it's interesting to me that one of the sort of cardinal beliefs in the last half-century is about cognitive dissonance. And it was originally predicated upon holding in your mind a belief that's wrong even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it's wrong. And it was thought to be a psychological mechanism. But, in the, in these misidentification, delusional syndromes you see in neurology, particularly people who have parietal lobe injury, they will lose their ability to properly identify things. And the case I think I had in the book was, I think, I remember very distinctly, was a rather elegant antique collector who lived near Mount Zion hospital. And he had a very small stroke; recovered within a few hours, or whatever, a short period of time. And then he phoned me in a panic in his house, the next day, and he said that somebody had replaced his wonderful antique refectory table with an imitation. And he was really upset. And I went over there; and the table was, like, I don't know--gigantic table. It would take several men to lift it to get it out of the room. And he understood that. And he said, 'But somebody's taken it and replaced it with an imitation.' And he said to me, 'Rand[?] is handling the tail-estimate'--the memory, then, he was an old, elegant man with slender fingers and, you know, polished nails; and he [?] says, 'You know, um, these are the same worm holes and this is the same patina, and this is the exact same dimensions. But it's not my table. It's a different table.' And, he knew that it was practically impossible to take the table out. It met all the dimensions. But it no longer felt the same. And it was then that I understood that cognitive dissonance wasn't simply a psychological aberration. It actually occurs as a result of a neurological malfunction. It's one of the things that prompted me to think about why it is that people hold these beliefs to be true in the face of overwhelming evidence. And it goes back to the Challenger comment, about the student: that, 'Yes, that's my handwriting. But that's not what happened.' And so, there are a zillion examples. And, in fact, there are studies that show that you can stimulate that feeling of knowing in people undergoing brain surgery even when they are not having a thought to which they attach the feeling of knowing. In other words, they have a feeling of knowing even though there is nothing that they are thinking about that would be what they would know. And so, I started to realize that this whole concept of confirmation bias, of holding beliefs all for psychologic reasons, is, was, is a metaphor that has arisen out of our belief in psychology as an explanation for everything. And maybe, perhaps, even at a Freudian level, about the power of the unconscious. But if it is a power of the unconscious, it's not at the psychological level. It's at the neuro-, functional level.

Russ Roberts: Of course, the--as you said, I mean, it's why it's such a good story. And it's possible you mis-remember it, Robert. You've added those indentations at the desk, because it makes it so much more convincing; and there's hand-running, as, the man running his hand along the top saying, 'Wow, they did such a good job imitating the table.'

Robert Burton: And you know, what you know, I might remember: I might remember the story I've told about this.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Of course.

Robert Burton: I have no idea that I remember this story versus the actual event. And, you know, your memories are constantly upgraded; are not labeled as Version 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Russ Roberts: It's a shame.


Russ Roberts: But I wanted to react to that. Because, at one point I think you said 'cognitive dissonance.' You know, the evidence is overwhelming. I would argue that in most of the intellectual part of life, we argue about, say, Keynesian economics, the minimum wage, income inequality, tariffs, who should be the next President of the United States--all the things that we scream about on social media--Both sides has tons of evidence to choose from. There's no shortage of evidence. So, unlike the Desk, where evidence is "overwhelming," in most of social science there is no such thing as, and even in medicine, even, and we'll talk about that in a minute--but there's no overwhelming evidence. And yet, instead of coming to the view that, 'Well, we really don't know much about these issues. I should be probably be cautious in what I say,' We get very certain. And so that 'feeling of knowing,' I think one of the things that I draw from the book is that that is a powerful human urge. And it's not just--as you say, it's not just sort of, 'Oh, I have to hold this view close to myself because it's part of my identity.' Or, 'I have to hold this view because otherwise it would mean my whole life has been a lie.' It's just: I like holding the view. I like knowing I'm right.

Robert Burton: Well, so there's, so the pleasure aspect of it, which is, and there's no question that the greater the sense of pleasure you get out of knowing, the harder it is to overcome it; and so, these people--I see people on the far Left and Right, I don't mean just politically but in anything, where they are firmly convinced but they have a smile of conviction that's almost beautific. Almost religious in nature--

Russ Roberts: oh, absolutely--

Robert Burton: I mean it's--and, um, it is a very strong power, pleasureness; and it probably comes in some area of the brain that causes cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addictions, etc. And I think people get addicted to knowing. And, I mean, to me, the most, the ugliest person around is usually the Mr. Know It All. And, it's hard to say, is that, there's this, for whatever reasons that it developed, it becomes a way that his brain responds to new information.


Russ Roberts: I just want to mention in passing and get your thoughts, is that, I used to be closer to that person when I was 20 than I am now--at least I like to think so. Have you thought about that? I don't think you write about it in the book: the role that age plays--it's almost a clichŽ, that as we get older, we get wiser and understand how little we know. But, that is an interesting phenomenon to me.

Robert Burton: Well, you know, it really is. You learn from your mistakes. In order to learn from your mistakes, you have to remember them.

Russ Roberts: Hehh, hehh, hehh. Yeah.

Robert Burton: And so it works both ways. You see, some old people are fossilized, who think that their view of nostalgia is exactly the way it was. And other people say, 'Boy, I screwed up so many times. I made so many wrong judgments and wrong turns that I've got to be--'. And to me, for example, the thing that's driven me with age is more you understand the history of science, you understand the history of excess. And, if scientists, trying to use evidence better than most, just--morals, things for which you can't get much evidence--if they are that wrong that often then you've got to hold at the top of your list of things: 'I could be wrong about this.' Just, it seems to me the process of learning. So, if wisdom is understanding history as a succession of mistakes that may--mistakes and interpretation, and then you have a sort of more open-minded view, I think. Maybe.

Russ Roberts: I like the Feynman quote: 'The first rule is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.' I try to keep that in mind. And I think we have a lot of romance about science, that they just--scientists just sit around trying to figure things out. We're, even when we're mere social scientists: we have egos. We have biases that are, you know, counterproductive, and easy to fool yourself. A lot going on.

Robert Burton: I don't know if I mentioned in this and that On Being Certain or the other book, about [?], a cardiac surgeon of some repute, who did a study of whether or not hands-off massage--I have forgotten the name for it now but it's when you run your hand over the patient's body but don't actually touch them--will improve cardiac surgery. And, when they asked him why he came up with this idea, he said, 'Well, I had no a priori opinion on this.' Then, I would say, 'Why would you do this study?' I mean, that would be the equivalent of saying a mother eating lasagna helped cardiac surgery. You'd say, 'Why?--' and this was sort the plea that I have in my second book, is that: Scientists initiate almost all research. And I mean, I say, 'almost all' I'm just trying to be generous, from the point of view of some preconception. Often one that they don't understand at all. But it's just one that tweaks them. And I was--you think about Albert Einstein and the theories of relativity, and he was working at the Swiss patent office, and one of the big issues at the time was with the nature of time and getting railroad scheduling. So, trying to arrive on time. And he wasn't the only one thinking about it. Now, the question is: If he hadn't worked in the patent office, would he have come up with the same idea? Maybe. Maybe not. But did thinking about time and getting it so the trains--triggered an experiment about the man on the train? Well, you never know. I wouldn't call that a bias. I would just call that prior experience and his native temperament have shaded the way he starts thinking about the experiment. And that's not overcome-able.


Russ Roberts:

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Although, you can, I think--and you say this, as well in your book--it's hard to fix the brain using the brain. We understand that. I think it's possible to become more aware of your unconscious world and its impact on your conscious world even if you don't understand it fully, and even if you can't do it reliably every time. The example I'll give is that--I already confessed that when I saw your Challenger story, I was so taken by it. I immediately had the feeling of knowing, and shared it a bunch of times; and only when I prepared for this interview did I think back and say, 'You know, maybe it's not a good study.' But, I think we can be more--and what worries me is that, given how conscious I am of it, that I don't think of it all the time as really scary--but, I think you become more conscious of it, more aware of it, more sensitive to the world that your priors/experience/predilections play a role than you think is right.

Robert Burton: Well, you know, if nothing else, if you accept the fact that our knowledge of our--in other words, the unexamined life isn't worth living is one extreme which I happen to nearly completely agree with. And I'm always--I've written several novels with the idea of some degree of introspection. But, as I go along I recognize that this introspection are 'Just So'-stories--

Russ Roberts: yeah--

Robert Burton: They are ones that I tell myself about myself that preserve my sense of integrity, even as I write a chapter in a book about the sense of self as an illusion. And I go, 'Well, okay, so I got self is an illusion.' On the other hand, meanwhile, I'm telling myself, 'Aren't I smart that I know that self is an illusion?' I mean, how ridiculous is that? But, once you kind of see yourself as being trapped like in a huge Escher diagram that happens to be your self-perception, then you can kind of enjoy--you can laugh at your own behavior. And you can say--you know, like I see people that act completely off-base to me, and I go, 'Well, I'm going to ascribe the worst possible motives to them because it's personal.' No, it's not personal, in many cases. Maybe they've--you know--and it allows me to see--I watch this present division of America over Trump and I go, 'Golly, this is unnecessary.' If people could only understand that they are operating under a bunch of principles they don't understand, and hidden layers that are firing off in ways that they can't--but that they can get limited insight and recognize that they are more or less prone to feelings of certainty, more or less prone to risk aversion and a sense of optimism--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. Without that, you are really lost. But at the same time, you still don't understand much about yourself. You understand that you've maybe been asking the wrong questions and using the wrong answers.

Russ Roberts: So, I love that. Of course, I also love the idea that I'm above the fray; and I'm not subject to those pitiful, emotional responses and superficial conclusions engendering all that anger. And, you know, when I say things like you just said, people say, 'But don't you understand? Both sides aren't equal.' And I say, 'Of course they're not. That's not what we're talking about at all.' But they just double down, usually. And I feel smug if I'm not careful about how deep and thoughtful I am. So, it's a little bit tricky.


Russ Roberts: The reason I found your book is that, on Twitter, Julia Galef hosts a podcast, Rationally Speaking, suggested it would be useful to have a survey of parents anticipating whether to have children or not, follow them for 20 years, and then see if they felt they'd made the right decision--either having children or not having children. I think I'm summarizing what she said. And my view was that was not a productive survey to run. And we went back and forth; and one of my themes was that after you have children you are a different person. It's very hard to know how that should complicate your analysis of the data: Even if the data were gathered in an accurate way; even if people in surveys don't lie; even if people had the same meaning of what 1-to-5 meant on a scale of happiness; even if you are a lot like all the people they happen to survey--I mean, there's just so much there that is not as scientific as it looks. But the part that really struck me is that: I started to think about the headline that would come out of that survey: '92% of Parents Glad They Had Kids.' And, I realized--this is where your book--I didn't realize it till I read your book, which sort of brought it home--which is that, when you read that sentence in the newspaper that's not what's there. What you read is, 'Oh. A fact.' Like, 'It's colder in the winter than in the summer.' Or, 'Wilt Chamberlain is taller than me.' Or, 'It's farther from my house to the capital than it is from my house to my neighbor.' Those are facts. Those are things that get confirmed over and over and over and over and over again. But, when I read '92%,' I just put that in the same box as those facts. Especially if I'm eager to have children. If I'm not so eager, I might think, 'I wonder if that survey was done by Gallup or the American Council of Christian Families [hypothetical organization, not an actual group--Econlib Ed.],' or, 'I wonder what was the question was that they asked them? I wonder if they had more than one kid?' Right? And yet, we consume numbers, I think, in a very strange way.

Robert Burton: Let me just give you an anecdote, which--and maybe two. When I was working at Mount Zion, UCSF [University of California, San Francisco], I was--I use the word 'forced' advisedly--to be the consultant to the Pain Clinic there. And they had a medical anthropologist, well-trained, who did surveys on people who came through: It was a one-week, intensive-pain-evaluation clinic, where they were seen by multiple specialties--neurologist, orthopedist, nurse, surgeon, whatever--for chronic pain. And afterwards you wanted to see how they did. Now, we know, just historically, that in any kind of pain treatment, you have to judge it against placebo. And just for sake of discussion, most people accept as a ballpark figure, 30% placebo effect. Okay?

Russ Roberts: Only 30? Not 30.7.

Robert Burton: Yanno, yeah.

Russ Roberts: I'd feel more confident if you'd said 30.7. But we'll just go with 30.

Robert Burton: Hah. So, we'll just go with 30. So, this guy asked the question, um: 'Did Mount Zion Pain Clinic help you?' And he got a 60% positive response. These are the exact questions. And the other question was, 'Are you physically better as the result of your experience at Mount Zion?' And he got a 30% response. And, so, you got them arguing for more funding, claiming that they were--the clinic was twice as good as placebo. Then the question was, 'What was better?' Were the people better physically? 'No, they didn't feel better. But they felt the Clinic helped them.'

Russ Roberts: Heh, heh, heh!

Robert Burton: Now, that's a fabulous observation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it really is. Fantastic.

Robert Burton: And, it was--there is one--I have a skeptic's guide to mine, which is more alarming for a different reason: That there is there is this neurologic syndrome called 'Locked-In Syndrome' in which people get a brainstem injury and which leaves them completely paralyzed but able to communicate through varying degrees through eye movements. But they are fully conscious. Because this is a brain stem injury and doesn't necessarily affect the cortex. So, this, this fellow, who, as far as I could tell was a religious man living in Belgium but very well-trained neurologist, M.D., Ph.D., did a questionnaire on these people. And he determined by asking them, 'Are you happy?' The degree of happiness. 'Are you satisfied with your life?' 'Are you, do you wish you were dead?' Came up with the conclusion that people with Locked-in Syndrome were as happy as ordinary people and they had no desire to end their lives. So he came out very strongly against any concept of euthanasia, in this group. And I'm thinking to myself, 'How can you ask somebody who is completely paralyzed, and you are their caretaker, how they feel?' It makes absolutely no sense at all. And yet, it becomes the basis for him being an advocate against euthanasia.

Russ Roberts: You are saying that makes no sense at all because they are going to lie to him--they are going to feel bad telling him--

Robert Burton: [?] They don't even know that they're lying. If someone says,--you go to a doctor even though you're not better, 'How are you doing?' 'Oh, I think I'm better.' You don't want to disappoint your doctor, especially when your life supports depend on it.

Russ Roberts: My parents don't like to get a second opinion. I say, 'Why not?' 'Oh, it might hurt his feelings.'

Robert Burton: Yeah; no; and--

Russ Roberts: Please get a second opinion.

Robert Burton: Yeah. So, what you're really left with in this case, this poor guy who is paralyzed is being asked questions about his life. And you could see, even the way he says it, because it's, 'Hey, Mr. Jones. How're you doing? How're you feeling? Feeling okay? You happy?' Well, what's the guy going to say? And he's trying to blink it, make an eye movement? I mean, it's the impossible situation in which to get an accurate answer. And yet this is referred to as evidence; and the evidence is translated into the number of people that were asked versus the number of people that responded positive; and then it's given a number. And this is, unfortunately, one of the fallacies of social psychology is translating subjectivity into numbers.


Russ Roberts: So, my claim--and I don't know if it's true; it's just sort of interesting speculation--is that, when it's translated into a number, because it sounds more scientific, people are more likely to believe it. So, if I heard that 92, or even better, 92.4% of parents who had kids are glad they had them, I think, 'Oh. Oh, well, that's truth[?]'. As opposed to: A lot of parents who have kids are happy about it. Which is like, 'Oh, that's just a feeling.' It just seems to me we are somewhat, either culturally or physically hardwired to find those kind of, that kind of evidence persuasive. And I've become increasingly interested in what I would call other forms of knowledge. So, if you want to decide whether to have kids or not, instead of looking at that survey, maybe you should read a novel about people who have kids. Family life. Maybe you should talk to your friends. There's other kind of evidence that aren't just survey responses or measured with decimal points. You should be introspective. Maybe read some philosophy. Think about the purpose of life. There are just many, many other ways to come to decisions besides running regression, or parsing the numbers.

Robert Burton: Well, let me--two things. First of all, this is the problem with scientism. I mean, this is an outgrowth of Enlightenment and evidence-based thinking. And, the good point is that when evidence is available, such as, 'Does lowering cholesterol prevent heart disease?'--even though there's obviously some dispute and you can argue the numbers--there is good-evidence-based stuff, and there is bad-evidence, and there is no-evidence. Unfortunately, they are all lumped together and people--so, people now, for example, I see there's a measles outbreak in Brooklyn because of the shabby evidence about the relationship between measles and autism.

Russ Roberts: Yep. You mean vaccines.

Robert Burton: Yeah. That's what I meant. So, what we're left with is that scientism has assigned us the job of trying to evaluate evidence even when the evidence is based upon total subjectivity such as the case of the Mount Zion Pain Clinic. Conversely, you made the comment about either other modes of learning; and I should say that after having written these two books I have become convinced that further exposition--by footnotes, etc., etc.--is unlikely to convince anybody of anything. And I've actually pretty much, except for the occasional essay and op-ed piece, have abandoned nonfiction as a way out of it, and been publishing--for example, I published a couple of, to my amazement, a couple of [?] poems in the American Academy of Neurology's main journal of neurology. And, what I've tried to do is point out the ambiguities and subjectivities of various aspects of neurology. And now I've done some short stories. And I'm going to start, as of now--I was asked to write for this bio-ethics journal, the Cambridge Quarterly Journal, bioethics. And I said, 'I'll only do it if I can make it fiction.' And they agreed. Based on some stuff they read. So, I'm actually going in these journals filled with all these numbers, there's going to be a little section saying: This is where science meets story. And I'm going to try and see if I can't come up with some stories which kind of illuminate some of the difficulties with purely fictitious stories or vignettes, whatever. Because I do think it's an alternative route. Science is not the endpoint. Even though you've got guys like Sam Harris telling you that science could determine morality. That's just bunkum.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's not my--I find that--I don't agree. I agree with you. I don't agree with him. And, of course, I love science. Good science. There's good science; there's bad science.


Russ Roberts: We had Michael Pollan on the program talking about psychedelics. And, you touch on this--not literally; you don't talk about his work or the work he's discussing. But, I would call it--you could call it a religious feeling, a feeling of transcendence. It appears that there are perhaps three ways to get there from here. One is to have what has traditionally been called a religious experience--discussed by William James and others. Sometimes experienced by us as human beings where we are overwhelmed and have a feeling we are part of something much larger than ourselves. That feeling can come from drugs--from LSD [lysergic acid diethylamide] or mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms. And, it appears from your book that it also can come from stimulating certain parts of the brain. And it raises two questions for me. As a religious person who is sympathetic to the religious impulse of the feeling of transcendence and the sublime, one, you suggest that it could be genetic. One's interest in and ability to feel those things. And secondly, I'm curious, if you want to speculate on why evolution would create such a thing. Why we would have a taste for the transcendent?

Robert Burton: I--I can't answer anything about why evolution might do that. I think, though, the other senses--feelings of knowing--may, are not quite the same as a religious experience but they have some--they don't--they aren't the same but they rhyme. Yanno--is that, there is--life without purpose is, is, is, it's meaningless. It's hopeless. And, you know. And no purpose is despair. So, you need some neurological basis for--once you understand--I don't know if they go together--once you know that you are going to die eventually or that life is fleeting and all this, you have to have some kind of counterbalancing mechanism for recognizing that, uh, you can still have purpose or at least try to figure out how to, you know, get some meaning out of life. Okay. So, that's--but that doesn't explain how evolution works. But I would imagine those people who have a strong sense of purpose are more likely to survive than those with a weak sense of purpose. And purpose, somehow, has a religious fervor to it. Now, by that, I mean, you take the most ardent, skeptical, atheist, rationalist--the enthusiasm with which a Christopher Hitchens approach, his final days--um, enjoying his atheism. You read about Daniel Dennett, his pleasure at not invoking any extra corporeal something-or-other, when he had an erruptured aortic aneurism. There is still--they are getting a sense of purpose out of denying religion. There is a same kind of glee that people have, who have religion. And I think that there is a sense of some--you have to have a sense of something greater to move you along in the world. But that greater thing could be as much as building a boat in a bottle. Or, you know, or solving the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Which doesn't do it for me. Or something truly transcendent. And, again, that would be in part dependent on your basic physiology, I guess, or how you are wired.


Russ Roberts: I don't--I think that's a common view. I don't--in part, where I'm going to disagree with--

Robert Burton: Okay--

Russ Roberts: I happen to have. I do have some purposiveness in my life, in the sense of meaning. And religion is part of the reason I do. I'm open to the possibility that just being the host of EconTalk would be enough for me. Certainly, I appreciate all of you out there who are listening, and it really gives me incredible satisfaction to hear from you, in ways about how EconTalk is helpful or useful or interesting or entertaining to you. That's nice. But, you know, the fact that life is temporary: I don't go to a football game, or a show on Broadway, and say, 'Ach, what a waste of time. It doesn't last forever.' Right? There are a lot of things we experience in life that are glorious, that are short-lived--

Robert Burton: Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: And life is one of them. And if you don't believe in God, and you don't believe in morality from the Divine--you just believe in finding the most satisfying life, whatever that means to you as a human being--and it means very different things to everybody--why wouldn't you just enjoy it while you can, and not--why would that lead to despair? Right? I don't--so, I agree with you that people who have purpose in life, whether it's building a boat in a bottle or serving God or whatever it is--tend to seem, they often are more content, and less full of despair. Maybe. I'm not sure. Maybe. But, I don't understand why despair should be the natural product of a finite life. And yet, that does seem to be the case.

Robert Burton: I would agree with you. I--and, I think that's correct. In other words, I've confused that with the sense of pleasure. In other words, um, if you are building a boat in a bottle and it gives you a sense of pleasure, and you have a succession of pleasures and your life is over, that's just fine with me. But, uh, I--when you asked, 'Why is religion--?' Well, religion for some people is meaning--well, I had a religious experience. I'm not religious. But I had one where I was invited by a friend to go to a Gospel meeting in Harlem. And I had one of these experiences, without going into detail, where it made my hair stand on end. It was like, one of those really rare moments, you are lucky if you have one or two in your lifetime--

Russ Roberts: Yup.

Robert Burton: And, um, this week, the New York Times, Simon Critchley, who edits the Stone section, the philosophy section of the New York Times, describes a similar one when he was visiting a monastery in Mount Athos, in Greece. And, I wrote a little note, as telling what, you know, as I've written for him a few times. And, anyhow. And we were in agreement that these are transcendent experiences and that are not associated with group; that are associated with religion but are not religious. They are experiences that occur under the, um, setting of religion. Follow me?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Robert Burton: But it's not--and those things really do enhance your life. They are not necessary, but they do enhance it. They give you a sense of something beyond just being yourself.

Russ Roberts: Nope, true.

Robert Burton: And you ask me, why it is that that's happened, it's evolved evolutionary. I should say I'm very reluctant to ascribe evolutionary causes to all human behavior. Because some of it simply not explainable that way. But, perhaps this is explainable in some way; and it gives comfort. I don't really know.

Russ Roberts: Well, Alan Lightman was on the program. I don't know if you read his book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. But, he talks about having transcendent experiences. Also not a believer. But, he said it does jar you. And, his answer was, some of those feelings--I think this was his answer--was, some of those feelings they came along with other evolution stuff that wasn't necessarily--I just find it--you can go back and listen to his episode. Listeners, I don't want to try to do justice to it because he said it very well. But, I find it--I find it interesting that we are creatures who want to understand why we are here. The other creatures just go about their business.

Robert Burton: You see. That's actually one of the things that I was referring to in this particular, um, episode that I had in Harlem. It really wasn't--it wasn't a question I was asking. It really wasn't associated with an answer. It was just a feeling that overcame me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Robert Burton: And, it--I didn't feel like it needed an explanation.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm sure it was chemical, Robert. But, that doesn't mean it wasn't transcendent.

Robert Burton: Yeah. [?] I enjoyed it for whatever it was, without it. So, when you, when people talk about religious experience, I, I just, say, 'Okay, I had an experience.' And, you sometimes will hear that with music, or different things trigger it--a walk in the woods, whatever.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yosemite National Park does it for me, sometimes.

Robert Burton: Yep.

Russ Roberts: There's a beach in California I like, takes me to a different place. For me, it ties into my religious beliefs. But I can understand that if you weren't religious, you could still have a religious experience there--just wouldn't be based on God or anything--

Robert Burton: But, you see, and this is actually what I was referring to earlier in the conversation about the hidden layer. So, I have no religious beliefs or as close to none as imaginable--

Russ Roberts: That you know of--

Robert Burton: But that doesn't mean that I don't have a strong urge for spiritual, you see. So, those are separate mechanisms. In other words, so, to me, I love certain kinds of music, poetry, the well-written sentence, things that, you know, look at my wife's smiling face, or whatever--that are spiritual but not religious. And people tend to lump them together. So, I can have the same experience maybe that you might have, or similar. But it would have a different explanation for me than it would--no explanation is necessary at all. Someone else might say, 'Oh, [?] or Mohammed,' or whatever--it's ways of trying to explain and the desire[?] to explain is yet a separate mechanism. I don't find much joy in explaining the plusses and minuses of life, because I always know that I'm most likely going to be dead wrong, incomplete. So, explanation has never been a great pleasure for me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I think there should be a fundamental agnosticism about all of this. And agnosticism is really the opposite of what your book's about. Right? It's saying, 'I don't know,' as opposed to, 'I'm pretty sure.'

Robert Burton: Yah. That's true. And it's interesting--they've ruined a lot of modern drama by trying to create shortcuts to belief. For example, I remember seeing a Jodie Foster movie about why she became a--I don't know, a policewoman or whatever she was, FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] agent or something--because, they said, because her father was the sheriff and he got killed in action. I mean, this kind of--I mean, it sounds like nonsense. But, you know, it's that kind of A leads to B and therefore, too, must be cause of it that leads people to understand the human condition, which is far from the truth.


Russ Roberts: So, let's close on this question of what to do about all this. I often counsel people with my writing or on this program to get into the habit of enjoying saying, 'I don't know.' And I would say it's analogous to drinking beer: first glass is a little bitter, and you think, 'Why would anyone want to do this?' But eventually you can develop a taste for it. And the way I look at what we've just been talking about is that there's some fundamental mysteries to human existence that you should savor, not figure out or know that you are going to figure out. You may not be able to figure them out. It's part of the human experience. Alan Watts has a very interesting book: the title is The Wisdom of Insecurity. And I think that's--you know, that's a great way to live. But, most people don't want to live that way. It's hard to sell books: I suspect On Being Certain didn't sell a million copies. It probably was somewhat successful. But, not everybody wants to be told that they don't know everything. And I worry about that for my own work. So, how do you--having written that book and a successor, how do you interact with people now when they ask for your thoughts on these matters? Do you try to convince them to be more humble? You did at the end of this book. Which I loved. But I'm sure a lot of people go, 'Nah. I'm kind of happy where I am.' How do you deal with that?

Robert Burton: Well, this is where, I say, in the last 10 years since I've written this, why I've come to see that if there's a fundamental disagreement, or they say, 'Nah,' I don't see that I can change things. And I don't really try any more. I do occasionally. I might harangue my wife because I feel like I've got a captive audience. But not really.

Russ Roberts: I know what you mean--

Robert Burton: But, under--I've kind of given up the idea that I can influence other people through argument. I think this, because argument really suggests that we are sufficiently rational that we can overcome our innate biases and put aside whatever our beliefs are and just [?]. But, what you can do is affect people emotionally by telling a story. And if the story is appropriate, some people go, 'Yeah,' and maybe they'll go away and think about it. Like, when you were talking about my book, the thing you remember about the guy with his table, and you remember the story about the Challenger. You may not remember the arguments that underlie them or the studies that were done. You remember the--we're story-telling people. And, if somehow--I mean, there are Buddhist parables about, you know, story-telling--I can't know if I remember if I've got this right; if I got it wrong, then just maybe you can delete it. But, this, these two, you know, these two Buddhist monks who come from a--are sitting on a stream; and this one lady is on the other side of the stream and she's too short to get across the stream. So, this one, one of the monks goes and carries her across the stream to the other side. And then they walk around and they don't say anything because they can't talk till dinner time. And at dinnertime, he says, 'You know, you are not supposed to carry that woman across the stream. And it's against the rules.' And he says, 'I merely[?] a--carried her across the stream.' And he says, 'But you carried her in your mind the whole day.' And then, I think to myself: 'There's all these little stories about that make you--you know, about obsession.' And rules, and what's right, and what's wrong, that really come out of story-telling. They don't come out of this--this is why Trump's right, he's wrong; this is why immigration's right--I just wrote a little op-ed piece for Aeon, which is a really great magazine, a week or two ago about how I look upon immigration as a process of osmosis: less goes to greater. Forget about it being all these moral issues and just say this is going to continue. And as climate change heats up, more people are going to be leaving the hot areas, or the cool areas. And as population increases, the areas most populated--and as you look at it as a physical thing, you get away from the--maybe there's another way of thinking about it. By the same token, if we can think about our thoughts as being primarily beyond our control. And that we can't influence other people through our thoughts, we can influence them through demonstrations of humility, gratitude, empathy, and work. And that separate people are still all in this together. I mean, this is: there's only one earth, and we're on it. And, you know, if we screw it up, that's it. And, this argument that[?] we're right or wrong gets us nowhere. Maybe, maybe there's an--unfortunately, I'm not very optimistic about this, but that's about all I can come up with.