Scientists won’t let #TheDress controversy die

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Almost exactly two months ago, the Internet went wild for #thedress, that now infamous image of a #blackandblue — or was it #whiteandgold? — party dress. Nobody quite knew why the dress kept changing colors on people, but the early explanations sounded vaguely science-y. It was a great story. And almost immediately, researchers — real, credentialed scientists who publish peer-reviewed journal articles from their posts at major universities — saw their opportunity to get attention for themselves (and, yes, for science) by glomming on to the meme.


And so, today, there are three studies coming out on #thedress, all conducted by people who get paid to do serious science for a living and published in the well-respected journal Current Biology. They join an existing body of research on #thedress that includes a study by Google-backed genetics company 23andMe, which surveyed 25,000 of its users and found no correlation between genetics and which color you saw.

None of #thedress studies produced any truly profound findings, and many of them had sample sizes too small to matter. (One study only had 15 participants. Another had just shy of 90.)  Basically, the researchers found:

  • Younger people tended to see #thedress as black and blue. Older people and women were more likely to see it as white and gold.
  • We tend to see things as white or gray more often when they contain twinges of blue, rather than shades of yellow, red or green.
  • Perceived colors correspond to what we normally see in daylight, again suggesting that how our eyes evolved to deal with natural light may have tricked our brains into seeing one color over another.

Again, none of this is new. These were conclusions researchers had come to months earlier — in some cases, in fact, they were the exact same researchers. (“What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” Wellesley College neuroscientist Bevil Conway, an author of one of the studies, told WIRED the day #thedress happened.)

Now, I don't mean to diminish all scientific research, or even scientific research centered on pop culture and aimed at a mass audience. But the raft of #thedress studies we've seen so far aren't groundbreaking. They're small-scale, safe, and serve mostly to rehash findings the Internet made months ago in more informal language.


There are better ways to do pop science. Imagine, for example, if a group of scientists had been able to build and deploy an app atop ResearchKit (Apple's new health research platform) that surveyed people about the dress as the debate was raging. A real-time study like that could replicate some of the experiments described in the Current Biology study, but at a much greater scale and much more cheaply.

I get why scientists are sometimes drawn to warmed-over memes, rather than deeply original research. It's a chance to draw people into science, which could translate into more funding for science later on. In recent times, the coffers for science have been dwindling, and that's worrisome. Today, for studies to get funded, you often have to have a body of data that already sort of proves your hypothesis — otherwise, the risk of failure is too great to justify the costs of running experiments. But the emphasis on safe research also means that we're missing out on big, important studies that could move the needle.


"We’re basically slanting the system toward people who know how to work it, and basically are putting in the sort of safe [grant] applications that are unlikely to waste the money being given to them…We’re not as transformational as we out to be," Bernard Munos, the founder of the Innothink Center for Research in Biomedical Innovation, told me a few months back.

There's a big disconnect between what the potential of the future of science could be and what it is currently. If scientists are going to continue to make the same kind of impact that projects like the Human Genome Project have had on society, we're going to have to start thinking bigger than studies based on trending topics.


Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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