Sometimes, there is an objective truth

by @edent | # | 3 comments | Read ~228 times.

I went to an interesting seminar a few weeks ago. As part of it, the facilitator projected this image up on the screen.

A random smattering of black dots on a white background.

They asked us to call out what we could see.

I could kinda, sorta, maybe see an alien face. Someone else called out “a field”. Another person shouted “a dog?”

“Yes!” said the facilitator, “a dog. Can anyone else see it?”

All of a sudden, the image snapped into focus for me. “Yes, a Dalmatian,” I said.

The person next shook their head, “isn’t it a eye staring upwards?

“No. You’re wrong.”

The person on the other side said “Is the dog sniffing the ground?”

“Well done! Said the facilitator, “that’s right.”

After a few moments, we were all convinced we could see a doggo having a rummage near a tree.

The same dotty image with an area highlighted. It appears to show a dog.

Then came the bombshell.

“There is no dog,” revealed the facilitator, “it’s just random dots!”

They’d deliberately only reacted positively to people who matched their preconceived notion. By excluding or ignoring people who dissented, it was easy to create groupthink. Praise and punishment are effective tools in shaping opinions on random data.

Let this be a lesson to you! Don’t just listen to people who agree with you.


But, something bugged me. I was sure I’d seen something similar before. After going down a few dead-ends, I found what I think is the original image in Life Magazine from 1965.

A page from a magazine. The photo of the dog is clear.

The “dotty” version was, as far as I can tell, first published in 1970 by Richard Gregory in “The Intelligent Eye“.

This is an actual photograph [emphasis added]. I’ll tell you what it is and then you might see it. It’s actually a Dalmatian dog, and a lot of it you can’t really see but once you realise or see it as a Dalmatian dog, then the rest of it kind of fits in and you can extract the dog from the pebbles on the beach. Perception is solving puzzles. Whenever we see any object, we have to separate it from the background. You have to see it as a thing in its own right. Here, because it’s difficult, you can see your own brain at work. There are all sorts of lessons about perceptions in this Dalmatian dog.

The major discovery in vision, is the image in the eye. The fact that you’ve got a little picture in the eye and that you’ve got the external world out there. You’ve then got the picture in the eye, then you’ve got the brain which tries to read what the reality is from the picture in the eye, and it’s important to note that you don’t see the picture. The picture is a stage, if you like, from the object to your brain, but you don’t have an eye looking at the picture in your eye. It simply is providing information to the brain but the really important point from all this is that the perception generated in your brain is very distinct from — it’s separate from — the world out there because of this image thing. Images between the object out there and your experience. Ditto with a television camera feeding into a computer. That separates the computer from the external world. The computer or the brain has to guess what is out there on the basis of information from the image, and it’s not direct.
Today’s Neuroscience, Tomorrow’s History – Professor Richard Gregory interviewed by Richard Thomas

Two ideas can simultaneously be true

Unconscious bias is real. It is devastatingly easy to hang around only with people who agree with you. We are all guilty of selectively filtering ideas to match our prejudices. It takes effort to break out of the traps our minds set.

But, sometimes, there is a dog in the photo.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes, there is an objective truth

  1. Eric Andersen says:

    A very thought provoking article. Thanks for causing me to bend my thought processes

  2. Jude Gibbons says:

    I’ve seen the image before so I immediately recognised the dog. I’m wondering: when the facilitator said “it’s just random dots”, had they seen the image in its original context? Or were they under the impression that it had been produced in some random or pseudo-random way?

    1. @edent says:

      They were convinced it was just random dots. I imagine the image was passed down to them with very little explanation.

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