Neil DeGrasse Tyson On ‘That Dress’: Optical Illusion Is The Wrong Term

“That dress,” as it’s being called, sparked a internet-wide debate Thursday evening, and now astrophysicist and science education enthusiast Neil deGrasse Tyson is weighing in. Tyson isn’t jumping into the debate about what color “that dress” is, though — just on whether we should be calling it an optical illusion.

The dress, which appeared to some viewers as blue and black and to others as white and gold, spread like wildfire across the internet, perhaps the most viral sensation seen in quite a while. Friends and families debated about what they saw on their screens, many rushed to check other screens (did it look the same on a tablet as a desktop? a cell phone?), and even celebrities weighed in.

'That Dress' appears black and blue to some viewers, white and gold to others. Neil deGrasse Tyson says it's not an optical illusion.

Not only celebrities had a say, though. Scientific minds weighed in with explanations for the optical illusion of the dress. There were a few explanations offered — that some viewers eyes compensated automatically for the poor lighting, that the power of suggestion was behind the different views, and that looking at something dark before looking at the screen could make one see the dress differently.

Unlike others who had their say, though, Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t share what colors he saw (though fans are still asking him) or offer an explanation for how the optical illusion fools the eye. Instead, Tyson went to the meat of the matter — or perhaps, to the flaws in human eyesight and brain function created by an imperfect genome: he stated that, rather than calling puzzlers like the dress optical illusions, we should simply admit that our brains are flawed.

Tyson didn’t explicitly mention evolution, or religious belief, but pointing out the flaws in the human body and its functions is one of the ways that supporters of evolution education deflect claims that mankind was “intelligently designed,” and for some, Tyson’s tweet was read as a dismissal of God and divine creation. Tyson was quickly regaled with the requisite accusations of similarity to Hitler, as followers fell into a theological debate.

It isn’t Neil’s first foray into the Twitter offense tank, of course. He’s set off followers by tweeting about science and religion before, such as when he mocked intelligent design back in November, saying that he could remember when religion was taught in Sunday school, rather than a science classroom.

In this case, though, the beloved scientist may have hit the most controversial subject on the internet — “that dress” is sparking such vociferous debate that there are even tales (hopefully joking ones) of couples breaking up over it. Perhaps that explains Neil deGrasse Tyson’s choice not to tell the world what colors he sees himself, but instead, to make people think a little more about why optical illusions (excuse me, brain failures) work.

[Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]