80 MPH and Other Questions of the Mind
Apparently this video has gone viral, depicting a man asking his wife the question, "If you're traveling 80 miles per hour, how long would it take you to go 80 miles?" He poses the question while (apparently) driving down the highway, aiming a dashboard camera at himself and his wife, and frequently mugging his amusement for the camera as his wife flails hopelessly, trying to answer a ridiculously easy question. (Hint: It would take an hour.)
My first thought was, bullshit. He just happened to have a camera above the steering wheel, and he aimed it back and forth while posing for it and teasing his wife...while driving? Really? Jeez, I hope not. For one thing, I wouldn't want to be on the same highway with him. For another, what kind of jerk would humiliate his wife on camera, then put it on Youtube for the world to see? (On the other hand, if I see it as faked, then I find it very funny. How weird is that?)
But...the husband and wife appeared on Good Morning America, and said this is just what happened. She was mad, but they've made up.
Does the story pass the bullshitometer test now? I don’t know. But my brother tells me a colleague of his asked the same question (about MPH) of a couple of acquaintances, and neither of them could answer it, either. (Which reminded me of an unrelated video shot at a Harvard commencement, in which a bunch of newly minted Harvard grads were asked to explain what causes summer and winter—and none of them could.)
So let's assume the story is true. I found myself wondering: Where does the understanding break down, when someone can't answer a question that most find ridiculously obvious. I got to speculating: If the brain fails to parse the phrase "miles per hour" for its literal meaning and just hears [noise] that gets translated as [familiar-sounding sciencey jargon], does it just never think to examine the [noise] to see if there's some hidden meaning? Or is there a linguistic deficit that gets in the way of parsing the phrase, sort of like dyslexia? And thus, left foundering, does the brain scramble to find something, anything to help answer the question?
I wonder what a psychologist would say about this? Maybe I should ask my brother.