Thoughts and Opinions

The Wrong Rainbow

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, is well known for holding no punches.  His attacks on those with whom he disagrees are often scathing.  As he is well aware, there are many who think him arrogant and obnoxious.  (Frankly, count me among them.)  However, I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from him, including the insight which forms the basis of today’s blog.  It comes from his book, Unweaving the Rainbow.

Thanks to the Biblical story of Noah, many of us associate the rainbow with hope.  Count me among those who see great value in hope.  But how good is our understanding of what rainbows are in a physical sense?  Everyone knows you can’t really find pots of gold at their ends, and that they’re really some sort of apparition or mirage – that you can’t get close enough to touch one, or it will disappear.  But what are rainbows — really?

Not only can’t we touch them, we don’t generally hear, smell, or taste them, either.  We might all agree that they are some sort of purely visual phenomenon.  We know what one is, we can all agree on what one is, because when you see one, I likely do too, so we know we’re talking about the same thing, right?

According to Dawkins, wrong.

At this point, please forgive me if I describe what you already know, but for a moment, permit me to summarize some high school learning about light.  First, if you thought that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second – the “c” in Einstein’s famous E=mc2 – you’d be wrong, since that’s only the speed at which light travels in a vacuum.  In fact, when not in a vacuum, light travels at different speeds depending on what medium it’s passing through, and that’s why light speeds up or slows down when it passes from one medium to another.  And that, in turn, is why the light that hits a lens gets refracted (bent) – because it’s passing from one medium (air) into another (glass).  And it gets refracted a second time when it leaves the lens, passing from glass back into the air.  The stratified bands of light we see as a rainbow result when the white light from the sun – white being a mixture of all the wavelengths of visible light — is variously refracted (bent) into the rainbow’s color bands, much the same way the white light from Isaac Newton’s window was bent by a prism to produce separate bands of different colors.   Dawkins: “The prism sorts them out by bending them through different angles, blue through a steeper angle than red; green, yellow and orange through intermediate angles.”  Many of us were taught this in high school.  No big surprise there.

As Dawkins points out, the little lenses that are refracting the light we see as rainbows are individual drops of rain.  And because the rain drops are more or less spherical, their surfaces not only refract (bend) the light, they also reflect it (like mirrors).  So in a sense, we’re not really looking at the rainbow at all, but at a mirror image of it – a reflection of it.  But wait, like the commercials say.  There’s more.

Every single raindrop is refracting and reflecting the sunlight that hits it, breaking that light into its component colors, and bending them differently, sending them out at different angles, the reds in this direction, the blues in that, and so on.  Dawson again: “If your eye gets a beam of green light from one particular raindrop, the blue light from that raindrop goes above your eye, and the red light from that particular raindrop goes below. So, why do you see a complete rainbow?  Because there are lots of different raindrops.  A band of thousands of raindrops is giving you green light (and simultaneously giving blue light to anybody who might be suitably placed above you, and simultaneously giving red light to somebody else below you).”

So in fact, if you climbed a ladder, while you’d still have the sensation of seeing the same rainbow, you’d actually be seeing a very different set of raindrops – or, more precisely, waves of light being refracted and reflected from a very different set of raindrops.  Moreover, Dawkins goes on to explain that the reason the rainbows all look curved is that the raindrops giving you the same color sensation are all at a fixed distance from you.  (Imagine you’re in your high school geometry class, and you’re the point of a compass stuck fast into your graph paper, not moving, while the pencil point at the other side of the compass “describes an arc” or smooth curve around you.  A similar arc-shaped pencil line in the atmosphere is where the rain drops giving you the sensation of red are.  And a slightly different arc-shaped pencil line contains the raindrops sending you the sensation of blue.) But whatever the color band, these sets of raindrops are all at fixed distances from your eyes, which is why you are always at the center of the raindrops you perceive – and why rainbows always form a curve, precisely, with you at the center.

If by “rainbow,” then, we don’t mean a bunch of transparent raindrops in the sky, but an arc-shaped spectral band of color, it follows that a rainbow – like all beauty – lies in the eyes of the beholder.  Quite literally, if you move just a step or two in a different direction, you’ll be seeing a different set of raindrops – a different rainbow from anyone else around you, and one that only becomes “real” once it’s inside your eyes.

That brings me to some final observations.  Traditional thinking has long been that the colors we perceive result from the fact that we human beings have three types of cone cell in our retinas, one of which generally responds to short wavelengths of light, one to medium wavelengths, and one to long wavelengths.   Yet recent discoveries show that there are some people, called tetrachromats, who possess a fourth type of cone, who actually see color differently as a result of that biological difference.  And then there are those we call “color blind” who lack one of the three types that most of us have.  So what you see as the rainbow varies, depending on whether you have two, three, or four types of cones in your retinas.  There are apparently numerous other differences in how the eyes of different individuals perceive the same set of light waves as “color,” some studies even suggesting that, in the same individual, color sensation may be affected by mood.  So the rainbow you see on a happy day may be different from what you’d see if you were sad; and it may certainly be different from the rainbow your neighbor would perceive, even if, somehow, you were occupying precisely the same point in space at the same point in time – even if the same light waves were hitting both sets of eyes at once.

Back in the day, we might have said that most of us perceive the rainbow as it really is – those unfortunate souls we call “color-blind” don’t see things “correctly.”  Nowadays, we have to deal with the tetrachromats. If they see more color variation than we do, is it in fact we who are “color blind”?

Even if we consider only the “typical” human being on a “typical” day, we are all only capable of perceiving “visible” light.   We think of the word “visible” as meaning “capable of being seen.”  But what we really mean is not the capacity to be seen by anyone or by anything – we really mean the capacity to be seen by most human beings. Some snakes can see infrared wavelengths which we cannot.    To quote Dawkins again, “There is nothing special about the narrow band of wavelengths that we call light, apart from the fact that we can see it. For insects, visible light is shifted bodily along the spectrum. Ultraviolet is for them a visible colour (‘bee purple’), and they are blind to red (which they might call ‘infra yellow’).”

Goldfish can see the ultraviolet light that we cannot.  Most birds are tetrachromats.  In other words, we humans have appropriated to ourselves the notion of “visible light” by defining it in terms of our own biological capacity to “see” (or not), when in fact, there is far more out there which other species can see, but we cannot.  Imagine how confused we might be if, like Superman, we had “x-ray vision” that mixed our perception of “visible light” with images, not of fully clothed neighbors, but of their skeletons as well?  Imagine how much larger our brains would have to be if, instead of there being just tetrachromats among us, we all had a thousand types of cones in our retinas, and we all had the resulting tons of additional information to process.

In my view, we’d do well to reflect on the fact that we’ve been engineered — or have evolved, or whatever — to have limited sight — a capacity to see only the tiniest part of what is “real.”  If what we “see” is different from what snakes, insects, birds or goldfish see, which vision is the “correct” one?  And if the rainbow I see is different than the one you see, can either of us be certain we’re right, or that the other is wrong?

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Seeds of the Idea

While “We May Be Wrong” is new, the attitude it embodies has been taking shape for some time.

One of the first indications of it came back in the 1990’s, when I was still a full participant in the workday world of work.  I’d noticed there were people where I worked who (for reasons mysterious to me) were apologetic when they disagreed with me.  Was I being too strong-willed?  Was I doing something that discouraged disagreement?  As I reflected on that question, I decided there was a need to let my co-workers know how healthy I thought fair-minded, open-minded disagreement was.  I thought about what I wanted to say, and within a few days, I’d created two signs which I displayed prominently in my office.  You couldn’t walk through the door without noticing them.

The first of them read like this:

Agree with me once, and I’ll like you.          

Agree with me all the time, and I’ll think you’re a fool.

Convince me I’m wrong, and I’ll be in your debt forever.

I thought it captured the sentiment I wanted to express well.  If you surround yourself with sycophants and people who think just like you do, how will you ever learn anything from anybody?

Just to be sure people understood where I was coming from, for the rest of the time I inhabited that office, I pointed the sign out to anyone I felt might be reluctant to tell me things I didn’t want to hear.

Meanwhile, as an additional reminder, both to myself and to others, I displayed a second sign near the first one:

                        Never be afraid to question your convictions.                               The Truth is too important ever to abandon the search for it.

That one was a little trickier, I think.  It may represent a paradox of sorts. It capitalizes the word “Truth” in the fashion of those who believe that, in answer to any question, there is an absolute “Truth,” a single answer that cannot, and should not, be questioned.  My fear, for those who see the world this way, is that once they’ve identified this Absolute Truth (or think they have), their job becomes one of adhering to it, come what may, fighting against any seed of doubt that might creep in.  Shunning those seeds of doubt may lead to avoiding those who would encourage their taking hold, and avoiding those people may lead to surrounding oneself with those who are like-minded.  Before you know it, the world is divided into camps of like-minded people, both camps convinced they are right, when the only sure thing (from my perspective) is that they’ll be in hopeless conflict with each other, a state that inevitably seems to lead to violence and war.

I once engaged in a debate over whether Absolute Truth exists or not.  While I took the position it did not, I didn’t feel sure of myself.  (The purpose of debate, as I see it, should be to test propositions, in order to learn — not to convince your opponent that you’re right, and he or she is wrong.)  I ended up entirely unsure of whether Absolute Truth exists or not, and to this day, I’m undecided on that question.  But as time progressed, I adopted a fairly strong belief as to a closely related question: assuming that Absolute Truth does exist, is the human mind capable of knowing when they’ve come across it?  On that question, I confess to have developed a strong opinion.  Not a certainty, mind you, but a very strong opinion. And I came down on the negative side of that one.  Even if there is such a thing as Absolute Truth, and even if the human mind is capable of seeing or comprehending that Absolute Truth , I concluded, the human mind is not capable of knowing when it has done so.

And so, on the sign I hung in my office all those years ago, I didn’t hesitate to capitalize the word “Truth” — because even if it exists, and even if we’ve already somehow stumbled upon it, we can’t be certain that we have — so the Truth is too important to abandon the search for it.

More in future blogs on what science and reason suggest about the limits of human understanding.

Joe

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Every Day Awareness

I’ve had some pretty grandiose ideas for this blog.  I could examine the issue of wrongness from the point of view of history, of psychology, of religion, and more.  I’ve had ideas for blogging on so many aspects of wrongness.  So I’ve been struggling with the decision: just where should this blog about wrongness begin?

Then something happened on Friday.  It was one of those moments when the nature of Wrongness spoke to me from the simplest of places — from the ordinary.  The everyday.  It was the type of thing that seems so inconsequential, so obvious, we take it for granted.  And that, I decided was why my first blog had to be about the decidedly not grandiose thing that happened on Friday.

My friend Tony and I were playing golf.   From the tee stand, we watched my ball sail up the right side of the fairway and land twenty or thirty yards short of the sand trap there, near the cart path.   Tony and I agreed that my ball had landed a good distance short of the trap.  A moment later, we watched Tony’s ball sail in the same direction as mine, but further; it landed twenty or thirty yards ahead of mine, just a few feet from the sand trap.  So close, in fact, that we discussed whether or not his ball had rolled into the trap, or had managed to stop just a foot or two short of it.    We then got into the cart to drive to our balls, to hit our second shots.  As we approached, reaching a ball that lay thirty yards short of the trap, Tony (who was driving the cart) let me out, saying, “Well, there’s your ball; hit yours while I go ahead to look for mine.”

What we both believed we would see — my ball, in that exact location — we did see.   (It’s what the psychologists call confirmation bias.)  Tony’s statement that the ball was mine confirmed my understanding that the ball in question was mine — an understanding I’d reached when I first saw it there, twenty or thirty yards from the sand trap, close to the cart path.  Watching him go off in search of his own ball further confirmed what was already clear to me.  By this point, there was no doubt in my mind that the ball in question was mine.  In fact, there had never been doubt.  And because there was no doubt, I didn’t consciously ask myself the question, “Is the ball mine?”  Rather, I failed to consider the possibility at all.  I failed to examine the ball to be sure it was mine, because, to use the familiar expression, I just “took it for granted.”  I didn’t even think about it.  I just hit it.

When we discovered (later) that I had hit Tony’s ball by mistake, rather than hitting my own, I accepted the appropriate two-stroke penalty for my mistake.  But let me ask: did I make one mistake, or two?  Arguably, I made two: the first was to interpret what I had seen and heard as indications that the ball in question was mine.  But the second – and potentially the more serious of the two mistakes – was that I failed to do what golfers are supposed to do, and what I usually do: check to make sure that the ball in question was mine.  Check that it was my brand, and that it had my personal mark on it, before I hit it.

There are likely lots of explanations for the first error, but what about explanations for the second?  Why did I fail to check the ball, to make sure it was mine?  Why did I “take it for granted”?

After reflecting for a moment on what had happened, I summed up my view of the situation for Tony.   “The more ‘obviously correct’ something is,” I said, “the less we are prone to question it; the more easily we are to accept it; and the easier, therefore, it is for us to be wrong.”  That, I have come to believe, is a fundamental principle of human cognition, and one of the most fundamental aspects of human error.    It’s when something is “obviously true” — so obvious, in fact, that we fail to question it — that it sometimes proves to be the biggest untruth of all.

Anyway, that’s the sort of experience I’ve encountered day after day, week after week, in the routine business of my life.  The more “obviously true” something is, the greater the chance we’ll be blind to the possibility it’s not.  The earth is obviously flat, right?  The sun rises in the morning, right?  Up is up, and down is down — right?  Throughout history, mankind has looked its most foolish when there’s been massive agreement about something which — later –appears ridiculous.

The experience of wrongness is something I encounter constantly in my reading about the history of mankind.  It is something I encounter constantly when I read books on cognitive psychology.  (Science tells us we’re prone to make errors a large percentage of the time, and for good reason: our species could not have survived if we had had to be certain of everything before we decided what to do.)  The human tendency toward error is something many (most?) religious and philosophical schools of thought emphasize.  It is something I can’t help but feel when I look up into the heavens at night, and see the immensity of things vaster and more powerful than myself.   Once I began to consider the prevalence of human error, I started to see it everywhere.  Confirmation bias, again? Maybe so.  It’s hard to tell.

And yet, if I watch TV, or read a magazine, or walk into a bookstore, or browse the web, I don’t see reminders of our extraordinary human capacity for wrongness.  On the contrary, I see accolades to the great achievements of the human race.   I see billboards, sound-bytes, self-help gurus, advertisements and mass media blaring out messages like,  “Have the courage of your convictions!”  and “Be willing to stand up and fight for what you believe in!”  We preach this message to our children so strongly it sometimes seems to me we’re saying that unless they’re ready to take the streets to fight for what they think is right, they are somehow not being good Americans.  We’re told that we human beings are the pinnacle of evolution, at the top of the heap of all creatures, just below God and the angels.  Stephen Hawking declares how lucky he feels that he was born at a time when science is on the verge of discovering “The Theory of Everything.”  Fair enough, I say to all of that — and possibly true — but how many times have we heard someone on a soapbox begin a sentence with, “Let there be no doubt…”  Best I can tell, most people feel quite certain about almost everything they believe.

We’re trained, meanwhile, from an age at which most children are incapable of understanding what an “oath” is, to place our hands over our hearts and swear such an oath, pledging “allegiance” to our country.   I wonder what we’re doing.  Does it really make sense to require a six year old to  swear allegiance to a particular system of government, a particular concept of nationhood, a particular nation?  If we call it “beginning to acculturate the young,” it seems fine; but what if we call it brainwashing?

I look around me, in the schools, and in the media, and I see certainty, conviction and allegiance held up as high virtues — and I wonder how much of it is right, and how much of it just may be wrong.  The world many cherish seems different from the one I’ve encountered.  In my world, our representative government seems as capable of error as we, the represented, are.  In my world, our species seems as capable of error as we, its individual organisms, are.  Everyone I know claims to be”open minded,” but I wonder how many of their friends would agree?  And how many of their enemies?  Indeed, I wonder, what does it even mean to be “open-minded”?

More later, my friends.  Welcome to “We May Be Wrong.”

— Joe

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I think we’re up and running!

Hello, friends.

I’ve spent the last several days in WordPress, trying to get a feel for how to build a basic website.  I think I may have finally settled on an appropriate WordPress “theme.”  Once I did that, day before yesterday, other aspects of the site seem to be falling into place more easily.

So — knock on wood — I think I may be ready to start inviting you to check out the website, and I may even be ready to start posting real (rather than test) materials.  I imagine it will be some time before I have the ability to start adding extra features and plugins.  But at least I think that the currrent content — basic as it is — seems to be working properly, and seems to be worth keeping.  So, hopefully, instead of scrapping and starting from scratch every few hours, I can actually start to build upon what’s here now.

And THAT, my friends, is a very good feeling!

-Joe

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