Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.
One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.
When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”
Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”
None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.
Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.
There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.
As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.
* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.