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“It’s not what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” Mark Twain 
Certainty is pervasive in our world. Just look at the opinion section in the local newspaper or open some of those outrageous email messages. Water boarding is torture – PERIOD! The Tea Party: brainwashed idiots, not patriots. Occupy Wall Street protesters are morons. These tax and spend democrats with Obamacare will bankrupt the nation. Abortion is murder of an unborn child. Pro choice is a woman’s right. Global warming is an Inconvenient Truth or a bunch of hogwash. The world was created in six days and on the seventh day, God rested. It took over four billion years for life to evolve.
Certainty is sometimes funny. A UFO was recovered at Roswell, NM in 1947 and the USAF has alien bodies hidden at Wright Patterson, AFB. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was planned by the CIA and it is common knowledge that Princess Diana was murdered by the Royal Family because she made the queen look fat.
Importantly, certainty is dangerous! Certainty in his political views for a new Arian race drove Adolph Hitler resulting in a world at war, millions dead and the unthinkable horror of Jewish concentration camps. Bolshevik revolutionaries encouraged by Joseph Stalin’s certainty killed an estimated 20 million with over half starved to death in the Soviet Gulag Archipelago. The 20th century title holder for murder however, was Mao Tse-Tung -- his certainty in the cultural revolution resulted in an estimated 35 – 50 million deaths mostly from starvation during China’s 'Great Leap Forward.’ More recently, certainty persuaded 19 young Muslims from Saudi Arabia to skyjack US airliners and fly them into the Pentagon and World Trade Center complex. The result is well known, almost 3000 Americans dead on 9-11 resulting in the global war on terror which many readers have been fighting since. In November 2009, certainty in the mind of Major Nidal Malik Hasan motivated him to shoot and kill 13 fellow Soldiers and wound 29 others at Fort Hood, Texas.
Certainty may creep into the mind of an Army commander serving in Afghanistan. Staff principals assure him that there is absolutely no way there are friendly forces in the vicinity of an airstrike. Besides, the strike is planned for inside Afghan territory and we have coordinated with Pakistani forces. Result – 24 allies, Pakistani Soldiers dead, a military disaster and a political mess. Closer to home, certainty that the world cannot go on without his sweetheart reasons a young 19 year old Soldier at Fort Hood tonight—result yet another tragic suicide.
The thesis of this paper is as old as the human race; it’s about the brain but more specifically about a problem that is literally and figuratively, inside the mind. It’s about the mind which controls every aspect of human behavior and activity. It’s an important topic for the military professional because through thinking, decision-making and judgment, the human mind dominates all aspects of land, sea, air, space and cyber operations.
Danish philosopher Kierkegaard noted almost 200 years ago, “There are only two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” An important goal of behavioral decision-making research is to improve our understanding of the processes underlying judgments and decision-making. The logic is that a better understanding of human judgment will lead to better decisions and lessen the chance of being fooled. “In what is now considered classic work, fundamental biases in judgment and choice, and systematic deviations from rational behavior are consistent and universal. Recent behavioral decision-making research has shifted towards investigating the underlying cognitive processes that lead to these fundamental biases. ”  One important cognitive process and a fundamental bias in the human race is the topic of this paper: your feeling of “certainty.” While there are myriad human biases, most of us take it on faith that our personal feeling of certainty is accurate and true. Be careful, your own feeling of certainty is perhaps the mother of all bias. The hypothesis is straightforward -- the feeling of certainty you possess is often nothing more than a deceptive bias and as Kierkegaard and Mark Twain mentioned above, a problem.
Certainty originates primarily from emotion and to a lesser degree, from the senses. Judgment, reason and thinking also lead to the feeling of certainty but they contribute much less than emotion and your personal sense of reality experienced through the senses. To explain how the mind, through emotion and physical senses give us the feeling of certainty, it’s important to point out several biological underpinnings of the human brain. The physiology of minute chemical reactions and the vast electrical firing of neurons in the brain comprise the mysterious and complex neural network. Understanding the neural network is impossible but a partial understanding is important in order to think and learn. Thinking and learning leads all of us to the feeling of certainty.
The feeling of certainty rather than “certainty” is important because ‘how you know what you know’ has a profound impact on human judgment and decision-making. Moreover, the degree of certainty we hold in our mind, colors our perception of the operational environment, our beliefs and our sense of reality. Our religious, political, moral beliefs are demonstrably driven by emotions and mostly devoid of logic or reason. Many people are dogmatically certain of their moral, religious or political views. This feeling of knowing (absolute certainty) is not just an ordinary human bias -- it is in fact how we are emotionally, psychologically and pathologically wired.
The thesis of this paper originates from Robert A. Burton, M.D. and is illustrated in his book, “On Being Certain.” A medical doctor and neurosurgeon--the premise:
“You cannot logically or reasonably determine between your thoughts that are correct or incorrect. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of the involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason. The feeling of knowing (certainty) is very similar to other emotions such as love, anger or hate but importantly – the feeling of knowing in itself, functions independently from reason. This feeling is not a conscious choice or thought process.” 
Dr. Robert A. Burton’s important work sheds light on the science behind the feeling of knowing. With years of medical and scientific experience studying the brain, Burton demonstrates how we perceive our external world through our physical senses but the internal world of our mind is manifest through “feelings” such as familiar or strange, correct or incorrect, certain or uncertain. Cognitive science has raised the possibility that “…the very building blocks of thought might be subject to involuntary, even genetic influences that make each of us ‘private islands’ of perception and thinking.” Starting with results from neuropsychology and psychology Dr. Burton demonstrates that the degree of certainty people attach to thinking originates before conscious thought. This “certainty” or feeling of knowing is difficult to change once we experience it even in the light of overwhelming empirical evidence. In fact, most people often admit the truth of the evidence, but still cling to their inconsistent yet certain beliefs.
“In 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, a psychology professor, Ulric Neisser had his students write precisely where they'd been when they heard about the explosion. Two-and-a-half years later, he asked them to recall the same information. The students expressed high levels of confidence that their memories were right. While fewer than one in ten got the details right, almost all were certain that their memories were accurate and in fact, many couldn't be dissuaded even after seeing their original notes.”
The feeling of knowing described in the example above is partially explained by the role of emotions originating from the limbic system deep inside the human brain. The limbic system includes the oldest regions of the cortex and sub-cortex, in addition to being the source of emotion contains the brain’s primary reward system. Neurology and science have long known that in addition to involuntary genetic influences, emotion plays a pivotal role in our views about morality. The role of emotion is important in the discussion of the feeling of certainty because, “we perceive or external world through primary senses such as sight, sound, smell however, we perceive our internal world through emotional feelings such as familiar or strange, real or unreal, correct or incorrect, certainly true or false.” Importantly, from Dr. Burton’s work, “most feelings of knowing are less dramatic than the Challenger study. We don’t ordinarily sense them as spontaneous emotions or moods like love or happiness; rather they feel like thoughts – elements of a correct line of reasoning.” These thoughts, regardless of how logically you believe you have reasoned help illustrate how the feeling of certainty creeps into your thinking in a very subtle way. From Burton’s important work, you have no volition in choosing the feeling of certainty and importantly the feeling is a blind spot, almost impossible to sense. “Inside the human mind, certainty is a primary mental state driven by emotions and it is completely independent of any underlying state of knowledge or rational thought process regardless of how you feel about this statement.” 
As an example, many readers have experienced the shock of hearing that a close friend or Soldier in their unit has been killed. The unexpected death does not feel right and we feel that our friend is still alive. It takes time for the bad news to sink in. From Burton’s work, “this disbelief associated with hearing about the death is an example of the disassociation between intellectual and felt knowledge.” Your feeling of certainty governs thinking and decision making and in fact, every aspect of your life. In the practice of the profession of arms all learning, judgment and decision-making is influenced by the feeling of knowing. Certainty in the mind of Army leaders has profound implications on the conduct of military operations.
The Human Brain
A fundamental discussion of the brain is important because it reveals why “certainty” is an emotional feeling rather than a logical conclusion based on inductive or deductive reasoning as many erroneously believe. The basic principles of neurobiology support this premise. From Dr. Burton’s book, the basic brain cell is called a neuron and the typical neuron receives incoming information from approximately 10,000 other neurons through nerve fibers (axons) across a tiny gap called a synaptic cleft. Each bit of information either stimulates (positive input) or inhibits (negative input) cell firing.  As you are reading this paper, neurons are firing inside your brain by the billions. In each neuron, when the sum of each of the inputs reaches a critical threshold, an electrical charge travels down the axon to the region where neuro-transmitters are stored. There are a host of control mechanisms which manage this process (mostly enzymes) but neurons are also affected by genetics, disease, diet and importantly, drugs and alcohol. Feedback loops in the brain alter the availability and receptivity of the postsynaptic receptor sites and how cells signal and adhere to one another.  Understanding of these regulatory processes and control mechanisms is a major challenge of modern neurobiology and quite beyond the scope of this paper. As Dr. Burton explains:
“Despite the veritable symphony of interacting mechanisms, the neuron ultimately has only two options—it either fires or it doesn’t. At this most basic level, the brain might appear like a massive compilation of on and off switches. But the connections between neurons are not fixed entities. Rather they are in constant flux—being strengthened or diminished by ongoing stimuli. Connections are enhanced with use, weakened with neglect...once we leave the individual synapse between two neurons, the complexity skyrockets – from individual neurons to billions of brain cells each with thousands of connections.”
The firing of billions and billions of neurons forms the brain’s neural network. The neural process is very rapid, extremely small and incredibly complex. It is difficult for those not familiar with neuroscience to imagine the skyrocketing complexity. The enormous number representing the potential neural connections in the human brain, points to an almost limitless capacity for the human being to learn. Much more important than the potential capacity of the neural network is the actual use of the neural connections. The actual neural connections in your brain is a smaller yet enormous number and it represents what you think and in a sense it is who and what you are -- the sum of all you think. The actual use or quality of the neural connections in the brain is important as it represents the difference between a newborn infant and Einstein or between a second-grader finger painting in school and Michelangelo. As you think and learn, the neural connections continually change and sometimes the feeling of certainty also changes. Obviously more challenging than the brain’s potential or the quality of neural connections is “unraveling how” individual neurons collectively create thought. Dr. Burton coined this challenge as the ‘Holy Grail’ of neuroscience.
How Do You Know What You Know?
Burton’s book, On Being Certain provides the biological, medical and scientific underpinnings for understanding that feelings and facts are often at odds. The deep-seated feeling of certainty that is separate from any underlying state of knowledge, reasoning or reality is not just driven from feelings but fundamentally it too, is an emotion. Certainty feelings are very much like other emotions such as feelings of love, fear, hate or anger. Reflect for a moment; why are some people so utterly convinced that their position is correct in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? And why do others consistently entertain healthy skepticism? Which are you? Isn’t it curious how certain some individuals can be about an outcome or idea when there is no logic, no reason and no facts supporting their position!
The feeling of certainty is a complex neurological process that works itself out largely outside our conscious awareness. Think for a moment of the one belief you feel the most certain about in your life -- you possess the “feeling of knowing” about this conviction and it may very well be true but your certainty is not derived from logic or reasoning. Your feeling of certainty is biologically driven from your senses and basically an emotional feeling. This feeling of knowing coupled with myriad human biases, some of them known but mostly blind spots, represent a significant danger the professional Soldier. The feeling of knowing is a threat to decision-making, coherent reasoning and judgment and consequently to success in military operations. Here are several illustrations resulting in the “feeling of knowing.”
A Rose By Any Other Name?
Essence words  can be helpful as a shortcut to human communication but can also present a danger. “Postmodernism has long noted that the words we use to communicate really never capture the precise meaning of our thoughts. Importantly, we have no control of the meanings others take from our words.”  The words we use are essential in our thinking but words are not essential to our feelings, particularly the feeling of knowing. Additionally, words often bias our thinking by how they frame our environment and often deceive us. Words using historical analogy, with references such as Vietnam, Pearl Harbor or 9-11 serve not only to fool us by framing our sense of certainty, but they are particularly effective as they appeal to the emotion. The Vietnam War cost 58,000 lives and Pearl Harbor was the rallying call for entry into WW II. For the past ten years many “Vietnam-like counter-insurgency” analogies to US Army operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been offered.
Religion and Politics!
About 85% of the people in the United States profess to be Christian. Christianity the largest of all religious groups and represents well over two billion people worldwide. Islam (1.5 billion), Hinduism (one billion) and Buddhism (500 million) with folk religions in China, Asia and Africa represent about another one billion combined.  There are estimated over 38,000 different religious groups on the planet. The largest group, Christianity possesses hundreds of different denominations, sects and groupings. Well over 97% of the people on earth are spiritual in the sense that they are not agnostic, nor professed atheists. Every one of the almost seven billion humans on earth possesses a varying degree of certainty regarding their faith.
For countless millions however this “feeling of certainty” is absolute in that they intrinsically “know” their faith to be true. Ironically, many of these same people who are certain in their faith practice the very same faith that their parents raised them to believe. Many never experience another conviction; they never read other spiritual or religious literature and never considered another point of view regarding their personal faith. The feeling of knowing that goes with the personal faith inherited from your parents may be wrong! Holding to the naive belief that you have logically reasoned or rationally selected your inherited religious views is a feeling of certainty with the illusion of a logical, reasoned choice in your decision. Personal faith for many is biologically driven and emotional determined by your culture and pervasive in the human race.
Moral Intuition and Certainty
So, what makes you “certain” that you see the moral world as it really is? One problem with morality lies in definition. For theologians, philosophers and moralists a definition of morality is really only a feeling, unique to each individual. The concept of morality, like the existence of God and squishy trust or vague leadership concepts are rarely if ever, adequately defined by philosophy or any other system of thinking. Most systems of thinking offer only a weak definition that is ambiguous and controversial. Secular morality, if defined at all, takes the approach of trying to define `moral foundations or systems.’ From Professor Haidt, "Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible." Defining morality in terms of cooperative societies or self-interests or moral foundations is problematic in that without a generally agreed upon definition and purpose, how can we understand, apply and get to a common application of morality to our human relationships? It’s difficult because human beings rarely possess the capability to fully understand their complex feelings and even more rarely, possess words to accurately describe the concept of morality to others. Importantly, we definitely have the feelings of knowing what we believe. Our view of what is moral and what’s not, like the feeling of certainty, is dominated by emotion. Social scientists have demonstrated that moral reasoning is an ex post facto process, directed at moral judgments from emotionally dominated intuition. Said another way, your moral views and choices are feelings of knowing driven by an emotional response and supported by the biases that exist in your mind.
There is no intent to defame anyone’s personal religious, political or moral beliefs. The topics of faith and the politics of morality all seem rampant with certainty. They serve to illustrate how the feeling of certainty and illusion of choice is ubiquitous. The purpose of these emotionally charged examples is to encourage the reader to think and reflect about the “feeling of certainty” in their own experience
Be careful with your feeling of certainty, it can be a deceptive and powerful blind spot. The feeling of certainty originates primarily from your emotions and secondly from your senses. Your emotional feelings are often wrong and as demonstrated what you sense can likewise be wrong! Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ are sensations that feel like thoughts but arise out of the involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason and logic. Certainty is a strong feeling, indistinguishable from other powerful emotions such as love, hate, anger and fear. It is particularly dangerous to believe that certainty can be derived from rational human thinking or logical judgment; often your feelings simply validate a wrong conclusion. This knowledge should serve as a powerful tool for Soldiers and especially for commanders. It should help with decision-making, operations, training and learning as well as every activity that involves thought, planning and human relationships.
Moreover, the degree of certainty you hold in your mind, subtly frames and influences your perception of the operational environment. It colors your sense of reality and how you approach planning, problem solving and decision-making. Empirical evidence, judgment and reason may help but cannot in themselves overcome the neural network’s powerful feeling of knowing. The use of critical reflection and collaboration with others, especially divergent thinkers should assist with judgment and decision making. Our decision-making and judgment can benefit greatly from the informed opinions of others. “Red teaming” or antagonistic players should play a fundamental role in the planning of operations. Rely on others to challenge your own gut feeling. Other important advantages with using collaboration; first remember that all bias particularly the feeling of certainty, is a blind spot. We are able to see bias in others better than in our self, especially when it comes to moral or ethical issues. Others can help us to see our own bias better and balance the emotion which dominates our fragile human decision-making abilities and processes. Second, the use of collaboration, particularly a very diverse group, will not only enhance decision-making but will greatly aid in creativity and innovation. Finally, the use of tried and true methods like ‘trial and error’ and remaining open to new ideas and skeptical of any justification that says, “We’ve always done it this way.”
When faced with ‘ill structured’ problems, tough decisions and any situation that you are dogmatically certain about – put on your skeptical hat and re-think. It’s important to maintain and promote healthy skepticism within yourself and the team, it’s an important part of a healthy command climate. Warning: be careful to guard against slipping into cynicism which may be counterproductive and disrespectful. Additionally, don’t be afraid to change your mind if subsequent evidence proves your initial ‘feeling of knowing’ was wrong. 
Finally, any stance of absolute certainty which precludes the consideration of alternative opinions, thoughts or ideas is fundamentally flawed and is particularly dangerous in the practice of the profession of arms. Understanding that certainty in your mind is an emotional feeling spurred on by the illusion of choice will help to avoid the “god complex” and many of the dangers it poses to decision making and military operations. By having a healthy sense of skepticism when confronted with “certainty” in the workplace or your personal life, you demonstrate awareness that your brain and body are wired for systematic mistakes and unreliability. Knowing this, you will be become a better leader, decision maker and commander.
“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”  Voltaire.
Author's Note: This work is an abridged version of “Fooled by Certainty” presented at the “Ethics of Vicarious War Symposium,” Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, November 2012.
 Ashby, Nathaniel J. S., Dickert Stephan and Glockner, Adreas, quoted in : “ Focusing on what you own: Biased Information uptake due to ownership.” Judgment and Decision Making, volume 7, No. 3, May 2012, pp. 254. (See also, Kahneman & Tversky, 1972, 1979, et.al. 1982)
 Sevcik, Michael C. Moral Intuition and the Professional Military Ethic, Small Wars Journal, April 2011. See also: Haight, Johnathan, and Graham Jesse, when morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize, Social Justice Research, DOI: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2007
 Burton, Robert A., M.D., On Being Certain, Believing you are Right Even when you’re not, page xiii, St. Martin’s Press, 175th Fifth Ave, NY, NY, 2008.
 Burton, ibid.
 Burton, ibid, see pages 9-12 for a synopsis of the Challenger study.
 Haidt, Jonathan, The emotional dog and it’s rational tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment, (Psychological Review, 2001, Vol. 108, No. 4, 814-834).
 Ibid, Page 37.
 Ibid, page 41–italics added
 Ibid, page 41.
 Ibid, page 42
 Authors note: the use of “words” here denotes the language we all use to communicate. Words are not limited to discussion and dialog but are an essential part of our thinking.
 Brookfield, Stephen, D., The Skillful Teacher, page 249, 2d Edition, Jossey-Boss, San Franciso, CA 2006.
 Johnson, Thomas H. and Mason, M. Chris, Military Review, Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template, November-December 2009; page 2. An example: often authors and readers don’t have any idea that they are falling prey to loaded words or bias, in this case a “representative” heuristic. On the other hand, some authors know very well and use this heuristic in an attempt to influence their readers.
 33% of the world's population is considered to be Christian. The three largest Christian populations in the world are: USA - 224,457,000 (85%) Brazil - 139,000,000 (93%) Mexico - 86,120,000 (99%), Gordon Cromwell Theological Seminary accessed : 24 JAN 2012 See: http://christianity.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=christianity&cdn=religion&tm=27&f=10&tt=11&bt=1&bts=1&st=11&zu=http%3A//worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd/
 See: http://www.religionfacts.com/big_religion_chart.htm accessed on 24 JAN 2012 and "World: People: Religions". CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 2007. ISSN 1553-8133. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html#people.
 Ibid, World: People Religions.
 Ibid, World: People Religions.
 Haidt, ibid.
 Haight, Ibid and Sevcik, Michael C. Moral Intuition and the Professional Military Ethic, SMJ March 2011.
 Johnson, D.P. and Tierney, Dominic, Crossing the Rubicon: The Perils of Committing to a Decision, Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Policy Brief, September 2011.