American Metric System Hypocrisy?

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

May 20 will be the 139th anniversary of the United States as one of the original signatory nations of the Convention of the Meter also known as the Treaty of the Meter. On that day the world took a leap forward and officially recognized the need to protect and improve the metric system (or SI as it is known on the rest of the planet), through the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). It is an intergovernmental organization that comes under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). On that day in Paris there was agreement on how the organization would be financed and managed, with member governments acting in common accord on all matters.

Ahem, then there’s the United States saying one thing and doing another


yet, I’m still buying my hamburger by the pound, gasoline by the gallon and fabric by the yard. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty and that’s why I’ve been researching his topic for almost two years. I trust the documentary I plan to make will raise awareness of how far behind the rest of the world we’ve gotten and we’ll want to do something about it.

To commemorate this 139th anniversary, also known as World Metrology Day, I’ll give a talk at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 21 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. I’ll try to be both informative and entertaining.

Just so you know, the theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements and the global energy challenge” and is sponsored by the BIPM and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (BIML).

According to Stephen Patoray, the current director of the BIML:

While measurements are central to most basic decisions on energy usage, there are many other aspects of the global energy challenge which are much more complex:

  • global population growth;
  • emerging economies;
  • complex technologies;
  • increasing consumer demands;
  • higher quality of life;
  • etc.

According to the site’s press release:

World Metrology Day is an annual event during which more than 80 countries celebrate the impact of measurement on our daily lives.

Feel free to join in to spread the word about all the advantages the metric system has versus our cumbersome U.S. customary units.

While not new, I found an interview where Rachel Maddow celebrated World Metrology Day back in 2010. You can view the seven minute clip here.

I hadn’t come across this before and was surprised to learn that several scientists with the National Institute of Standards were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work with time and temperatures during the past few years including: David J. Wineland (2012), John (Jan) L. Hall (2005) and William D. Phillips (1997) (More on them here.)

It’s not too early to start planning for next year

I don’t know that we’ll be in a better position to participate in World Metrology Day by the 140th anniversary (2015) but hopefully we will by the 150th anniversary, or sooner, if enough people in this country decide to do something about it.



My Take on the White House Petition for Metric System Adoption—and its Failure

We The People

When I first heard about the petition for metric adoption on the White House’s “We the People” site at the end of last year, I was dismayed.

Yes I’m pro metric, as this page clearly shows, but now was not the time for such a petition and I knew it would fail to elicit any real political movement. Here’s my take on the situation:

• Not enough people are aware how out of step we have gotten with the rest of the world on this issue so there was no way in hell enough people were going to sign the petition for there to be a critical mass to get our government to take action. (I’m hoping to change that with my project but it’s not there yet.)

So let’s take a look at the number of people who signed the petition by the time the clock had run out on it (a petition has 30 days to meet the minimum threshold for signatures): 49,914 (I’ll round it up to 50,000 for the sake of convenience);

and the current population of the United States: 311 million (also rounding).

That means that as far as the White House is concerned, only .021 percent of voting Americans care about this issue. Frankly, a petition to reincorporate the hogshead measurement into our units would have been viewed with the same political imperative given the response rate.

White House

And I while I applaud the fact that the originator of the petition wanted to bring attention to this situation at the highest levels of our government, there may be a couple of adverse outcomes to this effort.

• The current administration has been forced to take an anti-metric-adoption position—formally.

Since there wasn’t enough political interest for the current administration to gain anything by taking up this gauntlet (I probably wouldn’t be writing this if millions of people had signed the petition) it was going to have to develop a reason not to respond positively—and it did. Interestingly, it evoked one of the same reasons that the anti-metric-adoption groups have used throughout most of our country’s history: the Metric Act of 1866.

The law (now almost 150 years old) makes it illegal to refuse to trade in the metric system.

The White House’s official response cites it this way:

Right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation that made it “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.”

Thus, the argument becomes, “You’re free to use it, so go ahead. We already have a law on the books so no more is needed.”

The petition’s official response was: “So choose to live your life in metric if you want, and thank you for signing on.”

I would have preferred to get the administration to form a positive initial stance on metric adoption rather than try to get it to reverse the position it’s now formally taken but it’s not impossible to do so.

• The 50,000 people who signed the petition may take its “defeat” as a sign that things won’t change and get discouraged; I don’t want that to happen because I don’t believe it’s true.

As it is, our history with metric adoption is already as discouraging as it needs to be. As I’ve run through the storytelling in my head, and the fits and starts we’ve had with metric adoption, a case could almost be made that we—as a county—were “ordained” not to use it. I don’t believe that’s true but I hate to see more fuel thrown on that fire.

• It provides encouragement to anti-metric forces that will grow stronger in step with pro-metric forces.

I believe it’s time for us as a country to join with most of the rest of the world in metric adoption and as we see forward momentum in this area (the intent of the petition), an increase in the “pro” position will be met by those with the “con” stance. (I also think the pros will eventually greatly outweigh the cons this time around.) While I believe the cons have a right to be heard, I also would like to see the transition take place as smoothly as possible. This, I think, throws a bump in that road by supplying the opposition with ammunition.

• I must say I find the “bilingual” assertion made in the administration’s official  reply laughable.

The response asserts:

At the same time, if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.

To me that’s the equivalent of endorsing idioglossia.

The linguistic definition of idioglossia is a private language that is used by a small group of people and is not understood outside of that group—it’s what some people might recognize as “twin speak,” or the “language” that some twins develop that only they know.

Within the world stage, only one country uses U.S. customary units (we subverted the “imperial system” many years ago) so we have in a sense, our own private language that 95 percent of the Earth’s population doesn’t understand that we use to talk to ourselves. Sounds like idioglossia to me.

One source I found (a book titled The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids by Jenn Berman) indicates that, in the case of idioglossia, “Most twins outgrow it by the age of four.”

So, as I read it, the government is endorsing the continuation of a private language (U.S. customary units) when most of the rest of world (except Burma and Liberia) have grown up and for the common good (medicine, science, international trade, general communication) have adopted the adult language of the metric system while we stubbornly cling to our “baby talk.”

I have more to say on this topic but that’s enough for this round.