You may not remember this, or maybe you do. But a couple years back before EVERYONE had a viral video, one of the firsts was this gem! The Real Meaning of MPH. Give it a watch and then I’ll share something very important in this video you may have never considered.
First off let me concede that it is a funny video. And her reasoning is funny. And that 80MPH means that, all things considered, it will take you more or less one hour to go 80 miles if you are driving at 80mph. That is a mathematical proven “fact.”
Now, let me defend the fuck out of her. Because honestly this video really speaks to something much deeper than it would seem, namely ETHICS. In particular, I mean the ability to have empathy for those whose minds work differently when faced with what seem like “obvious” answers to the rest of us. Yes. I get it. It’s a joke. Someone asks: “Driving 80MPH, how long will it take to drive 80 miles?” I laughed just as much as everyone else. It’s good stuff to watch when taking a break from working.
But how does someone misunderstand this question? Seriously? How does that happen?
We have all been dooped at some point by some cleverly designed riddle or language gag, like this one:
A plane flying from the US to Canada crashes, all of its passengers were Mexican. Where do you bury the survivors?
Or this one:
You have two coins that add up to .35 cents and one of them is not a quarter. What coins do you have?
Or even this one:
If you take two apples from three apples how many apples do you have?
…and yes, this one:
Do they have a fourth of July in Europe?
When we fall prey to these its because our focus and awareness is not on the words themselves but rather we are quite “mindlessly” riding out the expectations, assumptions, and habits that anticipate the “form” of the typical meanings of words, of question, of the riddle, the statement, etc.
Something like this happens to our girl, here. Her awareness is not on the words. In fact, even when she hears “80. miles. per. hour.” she hears 80-miles-per-hour (with hypens), that is, not as discrete words but as a whole unit of meaning. A whole concept is being associated with something other than the meaning intended by her husband. In that moment, “80 miles per hour” is being understood simply as the very typical way we speak of mileage in general and NOT in the mathematical meanings for which each word stands.
Her inability to align her frame of reference with his frame of reference (and by implication the whole audience’s frame of reference who shares the husband’s frame) is what makes this video funny.
But why should we be laughing here? Why is HIS frame of reference the privileged reference? Why is it accepted as the “right reference”? Why is she a “fool?” Why is she now found to be living out the stereotype of the “dumb blonde?” Why is her unique way of thinking and reasoning discounted as a “joke,” or as something to “laugh at,” or taken not seriously? After all, they arrive at similar conclusions, more or less, and yet why do we we feel justified in laughing at her?
This is ultimately an ethical issue. Here is how. I read an essay by James Crosswhite. He began the essay telling the story of “Sissy Jupe,” from Charles Dickens book Hard Times. He writes:
In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Sissy Jupe lives in “faith and hope,” moods her teachers Interpret to be the cause of her “wretched ignorance,” wretched because it falls short of the “superior comfort” of knowing.
Sissy agrees with this interpretation: “I am so stupid,” she says. This stupidity is real, not willful. As Sissy says, “I make mistakes … I can’t help them. They seem to come natural to me.” She understands all too clearly the degree to which this makes her different from her teachers, who as she says “know everything.”
Her friend Louisa doesn’t believe Sissy is really stupid, and tries to talk her out of this self-interpretation. But Sissy offers evidence for her: three examples of mistakes that come naturally to her. The third mistake she describes is, as she says, her “greatest error.” The question is posed by her teacher: “. . . in a given time, a hundred thousand persons went to sea on long voyages, and only 500 of them were drowned or burnt to death. What is the percentage?” Sissy’s answer is: “nothing.” When pressed to say more, she explains: “Nothing . . . nothing to the relations and friends of the people who were killed.” And in tears she concludes: “I shall never learn . . . even though I am anxious to learn.”
What is the cause of Sissy’s incapacity? I suggest it is a constellation of her basic moods. It is her essential, and to some degree uncontrollable, capacity to be affected by the suffering of others, which makes her incapable of the abstract rationality her teachers demand. The percentage is quite literally nothing to her; it doesn’t matter one way or another.
The girl in the video is our modern day Sissy Jupe. She is thought “wretchedly ignorant” and judge by others with “superior knowledge.” The numbers mean nothing to her. Nothing. But, the REAL world of sunsets, run times, and distance does.
Seriously, let’s really look at who we should be laughing at. Let’s really look at the two different “interpretive frameworks” at work here between these two people, and lets really determine who is in the “right” (For more on “interpretive frameworks” read Micheal Polyani’s The Tacit Dimension and Personal Knowledge). We will see that really the opposite should be the case. We should be laughing at the guy, or more specifically, pitying him for his inability to think for himself and actually be at all aware of reality.
Let’s imagine each of these people as two scientific researchers attempting to solve the problem of distance.
Researcher # 1
He relies on his understanding of mathematical meanings. He was taught this. Good for him. His interpretive framework, as Polanyi observed, is based on “tacit forms of knowledge” that are learned in part not by perception, but by example and practice. This background knowledge colors, uncritically, this researcher’s sheer understanding of how to solve the problem. He “sees” the problem mathematically because he is trained to do so. He is able to do, and hence know as such, what he was trained to do and know — work out a basic formula of distance. He deserves a cookie. He did not originally invent a way of thinking about distance. Nope. Doesn’t need to. There is math for that. He can be a lazy ass. He can just think the same as others, feed at the socially acceptable trough of mathematical meanings. This requires no real, creative thought…just mimicry and bloating. Do what is consensually known as the formula for distance…follow the steps. Be a robot.
And yet, he seems so smug, so assured, in his well-meaning, but also deprecating humor. He has no shame. In fact, he’s kinda “proud.” It’s as if there is the following vibe to his presence: “Silly girl, you don’t get what I get. I am superior to your ways of knowing because I know the truth…you fool. Let me film this because this is just too good not to share or re-watch. hahahaha.”
Like researcher #1 her interpretive framework is based on a tacit knowledge learned not by perception but by example and practice. And also like researcher #1 this colors, uncritically, the researchers sheer understanding of how to solve the distance problem. But unlike the first lazy researcher she does not rely on a formula. In fact, her mind never even thought of going in that direction. No. She would much rather OWN the problem, intimately. She takes this problem on upon herself, rather than shirk the weight of the problem upon some abstract formula that other people wrote and really has no material content. Her first move and very wise one is to try and relate the problem to the “examples and practice” that are more immediate and concrete in her own life. She gives the problem “Life.” She tries to relate it to her practice of running.
She gathers evidence, as any good researcher would, that is grounded in a very real, heart pounding, breath taking, muscle taxing, personal experience of movement and time. And this is to say nothing about the evanescent associations of the feelings of runner’s high, the amazing sunsets, and the pride of a run all standing as auxiliary meanings in the background of her mental thought experiments on this distance problem. This researcher’s evidence is actually “grounded” in the real world adversity of physical effort, of pain, and joys of the run. She relies not on abstract formula that at best can only be a very lifeless approximation, and starts her experiment based only on that which she observes and experiences. That’s very scientific, actually. VERY SCIENTIFIC.
Taking her observations she then reasons by analogy, attempting to account for variability such as the size of tires and the fact that, just like on a run, times are only estimates and NOT literal facts. Sure the tire size makes no difference, but she is in the process of creating an idea. It’s trial and error, and you can see her struggling to make the connections. This researcher knows the car is, like a run, after all, still driven by a human being whose force upon the gas pedal, traffic, and terrain, in part, will set the pace. Her final estimate?
58mins. Not bad.
This is not only a much more real estimate, but a much more original one. Sure, she could’ve just said and done what others have said and done and apply a mathematical formula, and that would be “accurate,” or she could do what she did and provide a different way of looking at distance. All advances are matters of renewing perceptual worlds and science (with mathematics) has always assisted with this. She’s a good researcher. In starting with observation and moving to conclusion, she included the human aspect to her answer. She moves from observations to conclusions rather than from some method to conclusion. In jumping to the use of a formula, researcher #1 has provided us the results of a calculation, but nothing about the feeling, the sense, of the real world for which such calculations would at all matter.
We Laugh Because We Believe Math as Truth & Are Highly Supportive of the Comfort of Conformity
I believe that we laugh at her struggles because at root we feel we are “right.” We believe we have superior knowledge to hers (i.e., a Hobbseian “Superiority Theory of Humor”). And that “superiority” is rooted in our uncritical acceptance of the mathematical meanings of “80. miles. per. hour.” We believe those to be unquestionably literal meanings of what are at root only arbitrary meanings of these words. (Yes. “arbitrary meanings” 80mph is NOT 80. Miles. Per. Hour. Look, if we could not conceptually shift between both the mathematical meanings and the idiosyncratic meanings of 80mph, then we would probably never laugh at the sheer misunderstanding we see in the video. The FACT that we laugh is PROOF of multiple layers of meanings, and each meaning just as important and necessary for this whole video to be viral). Its our knowledge of multiple ways of interpretation of 80mph that give this video any chance of being funny. 80mph is NOT a fact. Without uncritically interpreting 80mph as TRUTH, as a “superior knowing,” then there is nothing to laugh about here.
We need more people like her. People who are present with REALITY rather than present to abstract modes of thought. We need more people who can look beyond the group consensus and think originally…people who are willing to OWN their beliefs, even if they are not consciously aware of doing so. But we also need people who choose their beliefs with consciousness and awareness of the world you are creating in the process of knowing the world in terms of that system of belief. We need more people who LOOK around life and explore it intimately, not solely with number and method. In the end, when need people who approach life with wonder and questioning, with the ability to be aware of how even the most obvious things are not “true,” but social consensus. We need this not so much to change things, but to appreciate what is the uniquely human and what is beautifully natural…rather than laugh at it disparagingly.