An Anti-Metric Case Study: The Huffington Post

When I started this project I sensed there was a pro-metric undercurrent that’s been building for some time. I also surmised that the anti-metric folks would start to feel it and respond. While I can’t currently prove more media attention is building on either side, there was an piece that appeared earlier this week to which I would like to respond. It includes several of the more common anti-metric arguments I’ve come across.

The Huffington Post, in its Science section ran a piece by Lila Nordstrom on Thursday called “Diverging Bases: The Case Against the Metric System.”

Nordstrom says:

More irritatingly, there is something deeply patronizing and dismissive about the way in which the same people criticize our measurement system in America, which is based on British imperial units (which do, to be fair, have a vaguely sinister name).

The “They’re part of our British history” argument

Ms. Nordstrom is not the first person I’ve encountered who has connected a fondness for our current units in the United States to our ancestral roots in merry old England. There are a couple of problems with this:

1) We don’t use imperial units in this country. Sure, we initially brought inches, yards and ounces over but they were so flawed that we tried to “fix” them. However, that resulted in a system that does not completely align itself to any other country in the world. Thus, we don’t use imperial units in this country, we use U.S. customary units. We’re the only ones in the world who do.

2) As a subset of this incorrect attribution, the ounce used within this system is the avoirdupois ounce. It’s the one we use for units smaller than a pound and less than a cup. It also sounds kind of French doesn’t it? So, in an effort to embrace our British heritage one needs to embrace what the British adopted from the French. Sound a bit convoluted to me.

3) The U.K. formally adopted the metric system in 1965. So, if we really want to embrace our links to the British brothers and sisters, we should use the metric system as well. The fact that it is not fully entrenched there owes much to our own lack of adoption.

The nostalgia argument

This argument goes something along the lines of “It’s part of our heritage in this country, something we should embrace and try to preserve.”

Nordstrom says:

Though it may seem uncivilized (though I’d argue that a nation whose government lacks a belief in basic science could perhaps lay blame for its uncivilized reputation elsewhere), our loyalty to imperial units is, in fact, emblematic of some of America’s more endearing qualities; our belief in the common man, our pioneer past, and our history of rebellion.

Well sure, I’m all for embracing our history but I’m also pretty sure than many of these same folks who might find it quaint to have our monarch’s portrait back on our money would not want to revert to English currency and give up our metric measures within the dollar (as in 10 dimes and 100 pennies) for the pence and shilling. Do we want to go back to using the hogshead as a volume measure as well? That’s also part of our country’s early history.

The “they’re organic” argument

Nordstrom says:

Imperial measurements, by contrast, can easily be described in relation to the human body and the physical world because they were originally designed to be based on body parts.

I’d posit that some of these same folks arguing for our history would probably not want to go back to having their yard of fabric measured from the tip of nose to the outstretched tip of the finger (surely store owners would hire those with the smallest possible arms to do the work). Yeah, body parts are a convenient use of measures for a population that cannot read or write (looking back a couple of hundred years) but that is hardy the case today.

I could go on and pick apart what she says (for instance, she also uses the “having a system with more divisors” [2, 3, 4, 6] argument) but that really isn’t my intent.

What does please me about this particular article is that quite a few pro-metric comments  appear in her piece.

For instance:

It is easy for me to remember how many meters in a kilometer, or how many milliliters in a liter, but so hard to remember how many feet in a mile or how many pints in a gallon. That Imperial system just is not logical.

 

I still don’t know for example how many pints there are in a gallon, or how many feet in a mile. Not that I want to go back to the country of my birth, but still, I want to improve the country I became a citizen of.

and

…as a younger nation we prided ourselves on self sufficiency, competition and innovation as the imports increased tool companies and manufacturers used multiple measurement systems as opportunities to increase revenue. now that labor costs in the U.S. have become restrictive, outsourcing and imports have created an environment of government subsidies just for survival. much like the postal system, imperial units are dead weight that are dragging our economy down.

The pushback reinforces that moving toward the metric system are efforts in the right direction.

To view the original article and the comments I’m sure will accrue, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lila-nordstrom/metric-system_b_2923997.html.

Linda

6 thoughts on “An Anti-Metric Case Study: The Huffington Post

  1. I find the “common man” argument for USC/Imperial/whatever-it-is very odd. How can it be that with the US as 5% of the world’s population, and 95% of it using metric that we represent “the common person?”

    The body parts argument is equally weird. If you have ever seen the Roman armor on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, it looks like it would fit a small woman. I suspect his feet also scaled. The feet of a Viking would be much larger. To use one’s person for measurement, one has to use the chosen measurement system itself for calibration, or your body parts are meaningless. To my surprise the length of index finger is almost exactly 100 mm from the tip to the end of my knuckle. Very convenient. My middle finger? —about 115 mm, but it’s best I don’t use it for estimating anyway. My hand span (like I saw carpenters use as a boy to estimate with) is almost exactly 200 mm. My stride? it’s not far from 1 meter (1000 mm). The distance from my floor to my belt loop is very, very close to 1 meter. The width across the back of my hand is almost 100 mm. The width of the finger nail on my little finger is almost exactly 10 mm. The distance from the floor to my knee is almost exactly 500 mm. So, what are all those in inches?—in feet?—in yards? Does Lila Nordstrom know the size of her body parts in all these units?—in “her system?”

    Why should the physical world should be expected to be in proportion to our body parts? How anthropocentric and vain. If that’s what she’s saying, it would make astronomy use very large numbers indeed. The people who developed the metric system were some of the best scientists that ever lived. They were very knowledgeable about the natural world, devoted to understanding it, and realized that mother nature deserved a better system to describe her beauty. So they created the metric system.

  2. Seriously we need to switch fast. Hopefully if we spread this and advertise more it can help. Also I head people using it alot and with my friends too here like its normal. We were taking meters and liters. Movies are km and star treck is too.

  3. I have a great idea! We need to educate & write to our state representatives, senates, and future presidental canidates and tell them about the SI system. Let them know how it effects our education, education, and economy. Then if they like the idea they might use it and talk about it on TV like Rand Paul for example. People will wake up and we might convert then and it will pressure congress and goverment agencies to increase metrication. People will start talking more about it and more legistation will by passed to allow metric labeling here. Then more people will do research and it can happen.

  4. Pingback: Shortchanging American Children with Our Measurement System | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

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