Commentary: Truth is often a matter of perspective

We are often very certain of some facts because we have observed something first hand or “seen it with our own eyes.” We thus disengage our critical thinking about those circumstance and when challenged by someone with a differing viewpoint we dig in and neglecting to acknowledge that our own point of view could be obscured by circumstances or clouded by our own biases.

The disk of the sun from space in infrared, colored to appear as you might expect it to look, even though infrared is invisible to the human eye. Photo by Nasa.
The disk of the sun from space in infrared, colored to appear as you might expect it to look, even though infrared is invisible to the human eye. Photo by NASA.

One literal example of this is our sun. If I asked “What color is the sun ?” nearly everyone would say “yellow.” It is true that the sun often appears yellow and is depicted as yellow in children’s drawings going back to the days when humans lived in caves. From a absolute “truth” standpoint, this is not correct.

Located in the deep atmospheric well of Earth’s surface, the sun appears yellow because the air molecules scatter the shorter wavelengths of light making the colors green, blue, indigo and violet disappear from the sun’s disk and appear instead in the sky which is also not actually blue. 

Seen from space, the sun is brilliantly and blindingly white, as it is composed of all the colors of the visible spectrum. If instead, you found the peak intensity of light, it would fall at the boundary between the wavelengths of blue and green, a turquoise sun. But the intensities of the other colors are close enough together that our eyes perceive it as white in space. Because of this issue, Astronomers will go so far as to color space images of the sun as yellow so laymen won’t be confused by the white disk at times even when taking pictures in the invisible colors of infrared and ultraviolet.

Within our atmosphere the sun isn’t a constant hue and displays many colors. High in the sky, where the trip through the atmosphere is the shortest and especially at high altitudes, the sun is much more white and much more blinding. As it first rises to start the new day, or as it sinks to the horizon before nightfall, our star becomes more and more yellow until eventually it will appear red as even the yellow light is stripped away by the longer pathway light must travel through our air.

Yet, even knowing this, if you were prompted to draw a sun or describe it to someone, you would say that it is yellow and the entire world would agree. But the sun is white.

Now take this analogy and apply it to every day circumstances. Juries will give eye witness testimony great weight over other evidence, especially if the witness proclaims how sure they are about what they saw. However, human memory is imperfect and one of the ways the brain makes up for this imperfection is to fill in the gaps with the expectations of that very same brain. Further, the more certain one is about something they remember, the more likely they reinforced the memory by pondering it and working through details, usually adding elements that were never seen in the first place until all that is remembered is the edited memory.

In addition, our definition of the truth could be a result of different assumptions. The question “What color is the sun?” asks not what color the sun appears under a many miles thick blanket of nitrogen and oxygen, yet when asked the question, people will assume those stipulations when answering the question. The same goes for question like “What is the largest state?” If you said “California”, you made the assumption that population is the basis of the question and if someone else replied “Alaska”, they made the assumption that area was the basis. Does this make a liar of the person who answered the other way? Does it make you or they wrong, or does it merely mean that the both of you are correct within their own perspective and assumptions.

Truth is a noble thing to pursue, but one must be cognoscente of the limitations of our ability to  the know the truth. Don’t get angry when someone disagrees with you, no matter how certain you are. Discuss it, learn why they believe what they do. Not only will you learn something about their point of view, you will learn more about your own.

Lastly, stop being so certain. Certainty is a killer of intellect. Inteligence is always questioning and rethinking, even that which is considered “settled.” The next time that you feel your limited experience is absolute truth, think about the color of the sun. This does not mean to stop fighting for and supporting what you believe is true, it only means to spend more time verifying the truth, and to question your own assumptions to ensure they are correct. If you expect others to do it, don;t you own them the same courtesy?

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