The White & Gold/Blue & Black Dress Debate
If you haven’t heard about this gone-viral debate, you might Google the title heading right above and you’ll see.
Which is the interesting part of the debate: how humans see color. Painters for centuries have explored the nature of color and how we see it. And what painters and scientists have discovered is that people really don’t see color the way most people think they see it. To see color, really see it, painters have to unlearn shibboleths about color.
Parents of young children point to colors and say “what color is this” and “what color is that” and “the sky is blue” and “the apple is red”. So from an early age, the drumbeat is that there is an absolute color red, that an apple is intrinsically red and that we all see it as red, the exact same red, unless you’re color blind. ( We also hear “shadows are black”. Impressionism in 19th century France proved otherwise.) That’s okay for kids, but color perception is a more complicated algorithm than: name object—assign color label.
The reality is more like this. Color is what we perceive, depending on rods and cones in each person’s eyes (which vary) and, because the eyes are genetically and physiologically linked to the brain, psychological and neurological factors. Color depends partly on context relativity: i.e. the color of an apple will look different when seen against a green background than a black background. Or the context may be the mood of the perceiver. A color perceived in fear may not look the same as when you see it during a fun outing to the ball park.
Back to the dress color debate. Is the dress this color or that color? When you ask the question that way, it sounds like you’re saying it has to be one or the other. The debate is a debate because some people insist it is X color and others insist it is Y color. Does one side have to be right and one side wrong? Nope. ( Color science isn’t, thankfully, like red or blue states and either-or political divide choices.) It’s actually possible that two people can see something differently and both be “right”.
The dress is susceptible to different color interpretations because the internet dress photo does not give many visual clues to your eyeballs about the ambient light in the room: it’s relative context. Without that reference, people are interpreting the color differently and swearing by their right answer.
In law, we learn to be skeptical of the overly-confidant eye-witnesses. We learn or need to learn about the relativity of perception—not only of color but of myriad of other perceptions—which explains why eye-witness identification is so often flawed. Witnesses can be all over the map about what is supposedly same thing. In an employee-sleeping-at-work case, I listened to an array of witnesses on both sides testify to different accounts under oath about what they perceived. Add to this variability of visual perception the other motives that creep in—such as which side the witness is on, and you have as many different “snapshots” as you have people who saw it.
The lawyer’s art comes in when we a) are mindful of perception-relativity and b) triage varying witness testimony and use our judgment about what mix of perceptions seems to deserve that most important four-letter word in law: Fact.