Friday, February 27, 2015

Seeing Is Believing... But Not Knowing

The controversial dress. Science says
it's blue, by the way.
You have probably seen the white (or blue) dress with gold (or black) trim. I shall start by saying that
dresses are not, of themselves, interesting. The phenomenon of two people looking at the exact same things, seeing different facts, then vehemently insisting that they are correct and that those who disagree are wrong, is absolutely fascinating.

First, let's briefly talk about the science. Wired explains it very well in this article. Photo analysis reveals that the dress is actually Blue, but there is a mechanism in the visual cortex of the brain which filters out illumination color to allow us to see the color of an object even if the lighting is biased. The lighting of this image combined with the background, as well as the two colors on the dress cause the brain to filter the colors wrong in one direction or the other.

Now, for the more interesting aspect. A highly rational person will look at this situation and deduce that there must be a true color of the dress and that some form of analysis would reveal it. The Internet at large is mostly not populated by highly rational people. Rather, many people form an initial opinion and hold to it fiercely. When people saw the dress and saw white, they believed their eyes and assumed that those who saw blue were lying or colorblind or perhaps insane. The people who saw blue felt likewise about those who saw white.

We're talking about something that has an objective correct answer that people are arguing about. What about things that don't have such an objective answer like the Middle East, Obamacare, or abortion? If we jump to having tightly held views on something which is easily proven or disproven, what happens when we jump to tightly held views on more serious but nebulous issues?

The dress that launching a thousand memes.
Then, there is the fact that people believe what they see. Eyewitness testimony is considered highly convincing, yet people often misremember what they see. Our senses bring us the world which is then filtered through a series of processes in our brains. Biases play a part. Simple brain structure and chemistry play a part. Seeing is a start, but it is not the end.

The lesson here may be like the line from Hamlet "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The world is a complex place, and even something as seemingly simple as the color of an image may be more nuanced than at first it seems.

When you see one thing and you friend sees another, rather than argue, perhaps it is more productive to dig deeper and find out what is really going on. You never know what you might find down that rabbit hole.

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