What colour is that dress? Millions disagree!

(by Eileen Dombrowski) Yes, of course, we do know that people perceive colours differently. But so very differently? The dress at the centre of this week’s media storm makes an entertaining example in TOK of variability in sense perception, interpretation of optical illusion, and the extreme edge of “shared knowledge” – knowledge claims not shared through communal and corrective methodology but instead spread swiftly through social media. Millions of people are firm in their conflicting knowledge claims: “It’s obviously blue and black!” “Are you kidding? It’s white and gold!”

In sheer crowd appeal, the colour of the dress surely trumps other colour tests or optical illusions that TOK teachers often take to class to prompt discussion on human variability in sense perception and interpretation. As the BBC reports, “Buzzfeed’s online story about the dress has been shared more than 20 million times. Its post about the story also set a record for the website when 670,000 people went on to the site at the same time.”

“Shared” it is! But does this story exemplify “shared knowledge”? What justifies all the fervent – and conflicting — knowledge claims? A TOK class could have some fun with these questions. So will a TOK teacher who can nudge discussion beyond merely individual differences in sense perception and assertions that “seeing is believing” and into the role of awareness of ways of knowing in creating good critical filters for the eager knowledge claims of the world. With a stronger nudge, the dress example could lightly touch on the role of testing phenomena and checking sources, and the difference between knowledge claims shared in the popular media and those that are shared and filtered through the methodologies of areas of knowledge.

Reliable word has it that the off-line dress is, in fact (What a lovely and questionable expression “in fact” is!) blue and black. However, an article in Wired,”The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Colour of This Dress”, brings the conflicting interpretations directly into the TOK realm of sense perception as a way of knowing: “This fight is about more than just social media—it’s about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.”  To understand the differences in interpretation, we have to consider the biology of the eye, features of the object being observed,  the parts of it to which we direct attention, and its background context of detail and lighting.  Go, TOK, go.

But, personally, in spite of what I now “know”, I still see the dress as white and gold.

Selected References (If you want more, millions abound!)

originally posted on Tumblr: “guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking…out” http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112073818575/guys-please-help-me-is-this-dress-white-and

Jonathan Mahler, “The White and Gold (No, Blue and Black!) Dress that Melted the Internet, The New York Times, February 27, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/28/business/a-simple-question-about-a-dress-and-the-world-weighs-in.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

“Optical illusion: Dress colour debate goes global”, BBC News, February 27, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-31656935

Adam Rogers, “The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress”, Wired, February 26, 2015. http://www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress/

3 responses to “What colour is that dress? Millions disagree!

  1. Pingback: Black and blue | Activating TOK

  2. Pingback: Black and Blue | Oxford Education Blog

  3. Pingback: Sense perception: Yanny or Laurel? | Activating TOK

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