The colors…oh, my god…the colors

I’m increasingly convinced that WNYC’s RadioLab is a secret CIA funded podcast, produced for their analyst. There’s just too much great content that (apparently unintentionally) hits on issues directly relevant to intelligence analysis and critical thinking.

One recent episode, for example, talked about colors. For most of its one hour duration is was an interesting, general science show. No big deal. Then, in the final segment, they focused on how various cultures first began to conceive of colors and incorporate those concepts into language. Most cultures (maybe all), began by talking about black and white. Then came red and other colors came in different orders but one thing has been consistent. Blue always comes last. Homer doesn’t use it in the Iliad or Odyssey. It’s not in the Old Testament. The same applies around the world.

Some theories revolved around the idea that the human eye couldn’t see blue and it’s a later evolutionary adaption of some sort. That wasn’t particularly satisfactory so others began to think about the possibility that cultures didn’t develop words for colors until they could create them. That seems to fit since blue has been the most difficult color to produce (and has been the last as cultures learn how to create and use dyes) and the Egyptians were one early culture that had a word for blue…and were also had a way to produce it back to 3000 b.c.e.

To test that theory, one researcher found a tribe in Africa that didn’t have a word for blue and didn’t have much exposure to the color. He made sure his subjects weren’t suffering from color blindness and then showed them a dozen colored squares. Eleven of those squares were green and one was a distinctive blue, very different from the green. The researcher then asked the tribesmen to identify which square was different and the tribesmen had a great deal of difficulty in doing so. It not just that they couldn’t say ‘Oh, that one’s blue.’ but since they had no use of the concept of blue they weren’t really even able to see the color blue.

(uh, I thought you said this had something to do with intelligence analysis?)

We’re coming to that.

So, in a way, this is pretty similar to expectation bias…we see what we expect to see. The Soviets are our foes so when there are massive troop movements in East Germany we see preparations for an attack (see the movie Fail Safe for the flip side of this). We don’t think terrorists are capable or interested in taking over airplanes and flying them into buildings so we don’t see it until it’s rebroadcast a bazillion times on CNN.

But it goes even deeper than that, I think. It’s not just a failure of imagination, coming up with alternate explanations for observations. It’s the inability to see that phenomenon at all. You can’t even get to the hypothesis generation stage because your brain hasn’t observed anything that needs to be explained. It’s like the Jedi mind trick where Obi-Wan tells the stormtroopers these aren’t the droids they’re looking for.

The stormtroopers clearly see the droids on some physical level. I imagine if you could hook them up to some fancy medical device you could confirm that light was reflecting on the back of their eyes in a certain way and appropriate synapses were firing that registered the droids but they still didn’t see them.

And this (the inability to see phenomenon that you aren’t socially or culturally attuned to) is what Patrick Kelley was writing about in Imperial Secrets (and I’m confident you’ve read it since I recommended it, lo these many months ago but if you haven’t, really, get on it). This blindness isn’t just an individual issue but it can be a cultural one as well, affecting nations and empires.

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