The Great Dress Divide: When Scientists Disagree

Scientists face polarized opinions both inside and out of lab. How do we go about picking sides?

Alice TSSS 5

AsianScientist (Mar. 2, 2015) – Okay, I’m guessing by now that many of you have seen the Black and Blue/White and Gold dress that went viral lately and was also recently covered on Asian Scientist.

For those of you who have been living under a rock or holed up in a lab without the internet (if you are the latter, what kind of lab are you working in?!?), a Tumblr user published a photo of a dress asking whether people thought the dress was black/blue or white/gold because she and her friends couldn’t decide and the difference in color perception was freaking them out. The photo and question went viral because NO ONE could agree—families were divided and relationships were destroyed.

But I’m not here to talk about color perception or optical illusions. No, I’m going to talk about when you’ve got to pick a side in various debates—sides that will define you for the rest of your life in the eyes of everyone around you.

When the photo made it to my department, people were incredulous that we could perceive it completely differently to each other and inter-lab harmony was affected! Sometimes it isn’t because you’re the only one who saw the dress as blue/black when everyone saw it as white/gold. In fact, there are many common situations that can seriously challenge your opinion of your colleagues, and ones that would equally make them judge you.

Scientific decision making

Many of these occur at the new PhD student stage because this is the time when you will make some decisions at the start that will affect you for the rest of your career.

  • You’re probably going to invest in a computer that will (hopefully) last you the entire time until submission of your thesis. Mark my words; there will never be peace in the Apple/Mac vs Microsoft/Windows war. Never. So choose wisely and maybe based on what other lab members use so that you can ask them to help you out.
  • How are you going to write your thesis with? The universally used and sometimes reviled evil empire Microsoft Word or the rebel force LaTeX?
  • And on that topic, are you going to use the widely known Endnote or something open source but less common such as Zotero or Mendeley for your reference manager?
  • Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator vs Corel Draw for making figures. Or maybe you prefer to make them in Powerpoint.
  • Don’t worry—there is only one perfect statistical software for non-programming types and that is GraphPad Prism. What, you already prefer Systat? Get out of here!!!
  • Of course you’ve got to decide exactly how you’re going to write your thesis—British or American English? Admittedly, your institute might make this decision for you.

The stuff of lab wars

These situations will crop up again at various career stages, e.g. US vs European vs Australian post-doc or which brand equipment and consumables to purchase, but the truly big issues that will really affect lab harmony are rarely scientific in nature. A few of these include:

  • Star Wars vs Star Trek. Like Apple vs Microsoft, there will never be peace between these two factions. But it is universally agreed that the second trilogy (Phantom Menace etc.) was terrible.
  • Musical debates. This can range from classic situations like The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones, to genres (e.g. Pop vs Rock), or taking sides in contemporary feuds (e.g. Taylor Swift vs Katy Perry). I once witnessed a very heated debate between Phds and Postdocs as to whether Radiohead or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were the more influential band of the 1990s/2000s. It got VERY heated with many people involved on either side.
  • Alcoholic drink of choice. The importance relevance of this of course depends on where you’re working. Having studied in Australia, I was firmly in the wine camp because Australian beer is terrible. But working now in Munich, beer is putting in a very strong argument.
  • And eternal arguments such as Batman vs Superman, werewolves vs vampires, and rice vs noodles vs burgers vs pizza.

So whether it’s deciding between Leica and Zeiss for a confocal microscope, arguing over which nation has the best cuisine, or even saying what color that dress is, always be prepared to pick a side and to defend it to the death.

And just for those who are curious—when I first saw the photo in early morning light, it was white/gold.

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Fabriozio Sciami/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

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