“So where does this leave us? With a lot of evidence that erroneous beliefs aren’t easily overturned, and when they’re tinged with emotion, forget about it. Explaining the science and helping people understand it are only the first steps. If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.” – Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight

There are plenty of optical illusions out there for you to check out (just Google it), but last Friday, this one broke the internet. For those of you who don’t have Tumblr, Twitter, and somehow missed it on Facebook¹, tell me this: is it white and gold, or blue and black?²

I see white and gold; for the life of me I can't see blue and black.
White and gold, or blue and black?

A Buzzfeed poll found that a majority of people saw the dress as white and gold, although this could be due to expectation and framing effects. The original photographer has revealed that it was blue and black. A Reddit user uploaded these survey results³ suggesting that the colour scheme options are not strictly dichotomous. Buzzfeed explained why we saw the dress in different ways with cognitive scientist Cedar Riener and cognitive neuroscientist John Borghi sharing their expertise. Wired, The New York Times and a number of other agencies also had a go at sharing an explanation for the differences between us in viewing the dress. Randall at XKCD expressed the debate in comic form:

This white-balance illusion hit so hard because it felt like someone had been playing through the Monty Hall scenario and opened their chosen door, only to find there was unexpectedly disagreement over whether the thing they'd revealed was a goat or a car.
Dress Color by XKCD

And SciShow had a go at a video explanation:

Mind Hacks complains, and rightly so, that none of these explanations are satisfactory, with a reasonable argument against the colour constancy explanation!

I think the thing that many people are missing is that “the dress” is an example of how fallible our senses are (all eight or nine of them, depending on how you define a sense). In short, as Hank from SciShow says, different people perceive things differently.

So if our senses are so fallible, how do we trust any of our experiences to inform us about the natural world and how it works? Well, to me, that’s the very reason that we do scientific research.

Science is a process by which we can test our observations, repeatedly, in different ways, or sometimes the exact same way. Robust and rigorous scientific methodologies generate quite valid and reliable evidence by which we can generate further develop our explanations for events. Interpretation of evidence is informed by past research, so we can be more and more confident in our theories about the world. Complete resolution isn’t the outcome; an improved understanding is. And through this continual practice we can overcome the biases, shortcuts, and errors that our brains can make when interpreting personal observational data. The results and interpretations will never be perfect, or be stated as “100% certain”, but decisions made using good science are more reliable than those made on the basis of our own experiences alone.

Unfortunately, just telling you this is unlikely to help, nor are the explanations for why we see the dress one way or another likely to help us change our minds about the dress. However, there is emerging research in ways that we can educate students to think critically about claims put to them. Which leads me to present you with this article, by Christie Aschwanden at FiveThirtyEight, that nicely discusses why your brain is primed to reach false conclusions, and with a hint about what can be done about them.

  1. Or living under a rock.
  2. Some people are reporting that they see other combinations. That’s cool, the world isn’t either/or. ;)
  3. From where? What survey? Who was included? Is the sample representative? Without these details (and others), how can we evaluate the results for ourselves?!