Measuring for Degree of Certainty

If someone gets an answer wrong, that’s one thing. If someone gets an answer wrong and they expressed a “high degree of certainty in their answer,” that’s even worse, because it shows a lack of self-awareness about one’s own knowledge.

This is particularly relevant in the fascinating world of experts. Experts make all sorts of proclamations and predictions. Unfortunately, most experts and specialists are no better at making predictions than an amateur. What’s even more unfortunate is that experts do not seem to accurately express a degree of certainty about their prediction — in other words, they are equally confident in their bullshit predictions as they are the accurate ones.

Wouldn’t it be interesting, on exams in schools, to have a “certainty” scale next to each answer, to reward when students appear to know what they don’t know and punish students who take a wild ass guess and get it right?

Are there other applications for a “certainty” question?

(hat tip to Jared Polis for helping illuminate this idea)

4 comments on “Measuring for Degree of Certainty
  • First off, you’d have to have some incentive for getting answers right with a high degree of certainty. This would cause students to allocate their “certainty”, and think critically, which would help the students develop certain skills just by having the “certainty” question there.

    Secondly, you could use the information to help understand individuals’ thinking style and perhaps their psychology.

    – If someone was always certain about their right answers and always uncertain about the questions they got wrong, this could indicate a very linear, decisive thinker who is self-aware and honest about one’s abilities.

    – If most of a student’s “uncertain” answers ended up being correct, this could indicate a high degree of inductive logic, or perhaps a strong intuition.

    – If someone was always uncertain, it may indicate a lack of confidence and belief in oneself, even when the person was prepared. School counselors could help the student overcome.


    -Identify learning styles and disabilities without having to administer additional tests.

    -Could help indicate a strong skill-set for certain careers and majors, making the process of finding one’s niche more straightforward.

    Both of these things could offer tremendous advantages in the educational system.

  • Interesting you mention this. I met a company in Denver (surprised Jared hasn’t heard of them) called Knowledge Factor that has built a test methodology that is built exactly on what you mentioned: certainty.

    I wrote about them back in 2005:

    Testing based on certainty has shown to increase peoples real understanding of the material and I suggest you check it out. 🙂

  • I recently read an article – unfortunately I have no idea where – in an engineering context where the engineering manager would not ACCEPT uncertain answers. His point is that it is the engineer’s JOB to be sure, so he should assure himself of it before giving any answer.

    I don’t necessarily agree with this but the point is that there is another point of view, which is that people don’t want to hear about ambiguity, they want you to have the conviction to call it one way or the other.

    Also: I was going to send you this quote from Bertrand Russell, I don’t have it with me but the gist is that we are passionate about our beliefs only to the extent we do not have rational conviction about them – if we are rationally convinced, we just calmly sit back and let matters play out. He actually says that the amount of passion involved in a belief is a MEASURE of the lack of rational basis for the belief. Interesting perspective…

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