“Actually Important”: Debating The Dress

Other people love to tell you when you’re wrong, don’t they? They love to admonish you for wasting everyone else’s time.

The DressFor two days last week, an Internet debate raged across the world about the color of a dress. We argued vociferously about whether it was blue and black or white and gold. And we marveled that we couldn’t agree.

And then the Internet Police came along and told us we needed to stop. Snarky comments about The Dress debate were followed with the phrase, “Can we get back to talking about something actually important?”

Perhaps I can make a few observations on this whole controversy without offending the Internet Police overly so. After all, I wasn’t really involved in The Dress debate, so maybe it will be okay if I revisit it for 500 or 600 words before moving on to something “actually important.”

First, I’m really curious to know what “actually important” topics are discussed on Facebook and the other social media platforms where The Dress was debated.

We share pictures of our vacations, talk about chronic illnesses, and commiserate about the things our kids do to us. And we share videos of cute cats.

How are these things “actually important” but the debate over The Dress is not?

Now, I will grant a lot of politics and some religion get debated on Facebook, and many of the associated topics are important. But I can count on no more than two fingers the number of these debates where a civil exchange of ideas occurred, where people were genuinely interested in understanding the views of others and trying to come to some sort of consensus.

Mostly, what you see is a story forwarded from Fox News or MSNBC or one of the hyper-partisan political blogs. If it isn’t that, it’s a stridently phrased meme. Should the person who forwarded such materials happen to be friends with someone of the opposite political persuasion, a vitriolic debate with lots insults ensues. Few facts are quoted but lots of partisan talking points are.

Forgive me if a debate over what color a dress is seems refreshing.

But here’s the thing about The Dress debate. I contend it actually is important.

Here’s why: There is a fascinating science to this little phenomenon. In the last several days, I’ve looked at the picture countless times, either by choice or by accident. Every time, every single time, I see that dress as white and gold. I have never looked at the photo in question and seen blue and black.

But blue and black is the correct answer, and that means I’m seeing it wrong.

How can that be? Was it Photoshopped? Is there something wrong with my vision?

No, and that’s what makes this debate so fascinating. USA Today posted an article on the science behind this Internet sensation. It has to do with rods and cones and how individuals interpret the data they present.

When I was in high school, we did this exercise in psychology class. They showed us line drawings that contained two images. The most famous one was the “The Old Crone and The Beautiful Young Woman.” We were asked upon observation to tell the teacher which one we saw.

Most of my classmates saw the beautiful woman. In fact, most people do.

But I saw the old crone. What’s more, the teacher had to trace the outline of the beautiful woman for me to see it. Even then, I struggled. Everyone thought I was insane.

The Dress debate illuminates two things. First, how we perceive the world differs from individual to individual. Moreover, this diversion is not dependent on upbringing. There is a science behind it, and that was the point of the line drawings exercise in high school. The teacher was demonstrating that our minds interpret visual data differently.

Second, Americans live in a nation where science itself is under attack. Education is chronically underfunded, and proven scientific theory on critical environmental issues like climate change and vaccinations is disputed, loudly, on the Internet. Ignorant people are spewing misinformation, and they are influencing the uneducated and the gullible.

So I find something like the science of rods and cones and their impact on color perception, a critical thing to discuss. And presenting the debate in the innocuous form of “What color is this dress?” is a good idea, because it causes average people to engage with science. Perhaps, even though it is just a debate on the Internet about a dress, people will learn, come to understand their world better.

So I contend The Dress is “actually important.”

But it’s had its fifteen minutes. We can now get back to sharing cat videos and demonizing people with different political and religious views than we.



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