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A Matter of Degree: Nothing Is Black or White


By Robert Ikenberry

We, as a society, seem to have a hard time with “facts” and “truth.”

As a self-described science geek, I’m tempted to see things as bipolar: black and white, good and bad, true and untrue. I think most of us are this way; it makes things simpler and easier for us.

I also think there’s a lot to be said about being guided by actual facts, rather than by ideas, concepts or world views that conflict with reality (however much we’d like them to be real). 

True or False
© / winhorse

Unless you're dealing with hard facts, it can be difficult to approach the world with black-and-white, good-and-bad, true-and-false thinking.

Those terms—black, white, good, bad, etc.—imply clarity that isn’t present in the real world.

More Than Black and White

Folks should take a lesson from the world of paints and coatings. Black and white might seem to be pretty simple concepts, but to anyone who mixes paint colors, it’s clear that “white” covers a lot of ground.

In paint, white tends to apply to a whole range of color shades that should more properly be termed “light colors.” Even a pretty pure, titanium dioxide-pigmented “white” can look very different, depending on what kind of light illuminates it.

I read recently about a coating deemed the “blackest black.” It was phenomenally black, only reflecting the tiniest percentage of light that fell on the surface (0.035 percent). It could literally be termed a light sponge and derived its blackness from its microscopic texture as much as from its component materials. But even this material wasn't truly black.

Surrey NanoSytems

Said to be the blackest black available, Vantablack is described by its manufacturer as a free-space coating consisting of a “forest”' of aligned and equally spaced, high aspect-ratio carbon nanotubes.

In the real world, nothing is really “black” or “white.” If you think something is exactly black or white, it’s just a limitation of your eyes or instruments. Everything is a shade of gray, always.

The terms “black” and “white” are really conventions—and they are extremely useful. When I say something is painted black or white, it gives you instant information. You understand what I mean. If I said it was painted with a pigmented material that reflected only 1.5 percent of the incident light with a uniform spectrum (which would look very black), that might be more accurate, but it isn’t better at communicating what I meant.

Close Enough? It's Complicated

I’m a big fan of using two contradictory phrases when it comes to explaining scientific concepts.

First, I think that basic principles can be understood “close enough” by most people, even if it’s macroeconomics, quantum physics or rocket science. None of us should be intimidated by the perception that science (or any facts) are so complex that we shouldn’t even try to understand them. 

Second, the real answer to any serious question always starts out with the same two words: “It’s complicated.” (Or is that three words since there’s a contraction in there? See?)

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat
By Georges Seurat - Art Institute of Chicago / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Looked at from afar, Georges Suerat's painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is obviously depicting a group of people enjoying a day out. The subject is clear even if a bit "spotty"; it's clearly close enough to tell what's represented. The real story, when you move in closer, is much more detailed, and surprising. The painting was constructed from many tiny dots of paint forming the images in the pointillist style--it's complicated!

In the real world, it's never black or white, no matter what the question is. So when someone has a simplistic answer to a complex problem, whether it's related to economics, immigration or climate, it’s surely wrong—or at least grossly incomplete.

Sound bites and slogans can inform us and help us get “close enough” to core concepts, but if anyone says those are the answer, you should know better. And, unless those sound bites and slogans are based on objective facts, chances are pretty good they’re just flat-out wrong. It’s complicated. Always.

The answer is finding a balance. Informing the general public with enough facts to get “close enough” to the core principles involved, while still retaining enough “it’s complicated” to hint at the complexity of real-world answers.

It’s a really tough chore. We need to try to take egos, financial incentives, prejudices and punditry out of the picture. Just because we have a hammer as a tool, doesn’t mean our problems are all nails. We’re letting perfect be the enemy of the good.

Things like incinerating municipal waste could be a win-win for many communities. It could greatly reduce solid waste landfills that cover vast areas and ultimately leach toxins into groundwater. Plus, it would generate energy at the same time.

Recycling sort line
City & County of Honolulu's Department of Environmental Services

An example of a successful waste to energy power plant is Hawaii's H-Power in Campbell Industrial Park outside of Honolulu. Operating since 1990, the issues of energy and waste disposal are even more critical for an isolated island, and presumably part of why it was able to be approved and built.

But getting a permit for the (relatively) small amount of air contaminants generated by the power plant seems impossible (or the cost of the scrubbers to remove that last vestige of toxins is prohibitive).

We need to recognize that “much better” may often be good enough, at least as a first step.

Understanding that nothing is actually black or white could go a long way to picking paths and plans that do the best, for the most people, for the least effort. 

We need a lot more “best gray” to move forward.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Asia Pacific; Color; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/4/2016, 10:58 AM)

Well written and well said, Robert. Unless something is digital / binary (where it's either on or off), then everything else is on a spectrum. "Best grey" sounds like a good idea :)

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