Waiting for the Metric System Change of the Guard

Having written about the anti-metric system-adoption stance taken by the director of our country’s National Institute for Standards and Technology last week, it got me thinking more about the counter arguments offered during our 200+ year history on why some people are so firmly against the metric system.

As far as I know, the first formal anti-metric group in the United States was the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Anglo-Saxon Weights with Charles Latimer as one of its organizers.

In his book The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, Ken Alder says of him:

Charles Latimer was a devout Christian, a successful railway engineer, and an avid pyramidologist who believed that the ‘sacred inch’ had been built into the Great Pyramid at Giza and had been transmitted across the millennia to the United States. He also had visceral contempt for atheism, the French, and metric system.

Latimer went on to write a 65-page hardcover booklet published in 1880 titled The French metric system, or The Battle of the Standards: A discussion of the comparative merits of the metric system and the standards of the great pyramid.  In it he relates his beliefs mentioned above yet also noted:

Certainly the advantage of a decimal system is of paramount importance, and there is no reason why we should not have a decimal system, deduced from our measure of inch, foot and year, or multiples of our unit, the inch. (page 13)

Fast-forward a hundred years later and a book called Metric Madness: Over 150 reasons for NOT converting to the Metric System put out by the American Institute for Weights and Measures in 1980 (the organization began in 1917) relates:

Nobody disputes the advantages of decimals. The question is not whether decimals are better. This is precisely why we have decimalized so many of our measurements so extensively which, unfortunately, so many of the decimal proponents fail to realize. (page 58)

I find it interesting that so many anti-metric folks uphold the logic of a decimal system but want to decimalize our current units or retain our system for applications such as binary units (the second quote).

Let’s take a moment to look at the currently anti-metric Wall Street Journal:

• In November it published an anti-metric article to coincide with Thanksgiving last year called: “Cooking a Poundcake in a Metric Oven Is No Easy Task

which includes the line:

“The keepers of America’s metric flame are the roughly 300 members of the U.S. Metric Association. By most measures, their efforts in recent decades have failed.”

and in

• “Measuring Metric’s Limits in the Grocery Aisle” from April of last year.

It’s lead sentence reads:

The fight to persuade Americans to ditch English units for the metric system in their everyday lives is largely lost.

Pretty much shows the paper’s slant doesn’t it?

However, the publication didn’t always take such a position and in its informative book (that’s a review so I can now quote from it)* The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Metric System, published in 1977 indicates:

The metric system is a system of measurement that is simpler and more logical than the customary of English system of measurement…However, once the adult becomes familiar with only three of four basic metric units, the entire metric system falls into place and usually becomes the preferable measurement system. (page 9)

It also praises the metric system in other sections of the publication as well including how decimal arithmetic should be easy for Americans since our currency is based on the metric system (page 12).

While I don’t anticipate the Wall Street Journal warming up to the metric system anytime soon, Carl Bialik (who wrote the grocery store article above) pointed out in a May 31, 2013 article that the Washington Bridge collapse might have been contributed to by the use of dual measurement systems in this county.  In his article “Will This Bridge Fall? It’s Hard to Say” it says simply:

Adding to the confusion, states and the federal government maintain separate databases of bridge ratings and characteristics, and these don’t always line up, for reasons including the piecemeal adoption of the metric system and data sharing that takes place only once a year.

Who knows, maybe the Wall Street Journal will eventually swing its position back to where it was forty years ago and seek to help Americans (and its own writers) embrace, understand and use the metric system as it did once. It even has the book that it can dust off towards those goals

Fingers crossed.


* The book states that no part of it may be reproduced in any form by any means without permission except for brief extracts quoted for review.

All A-Twitter

All A-Twitter

I have to say that as soon as I started using Twitter, I really liked it. Very straightforward. You get 140 characters to say what’s going on and if any of it is interesting, people just might listen. When I had my own personal account, I followed more people than followed me.

Once I started my “branded version” I’m STILL following more people than are following me, but it’s a very different sort of interaction.

When I began with it, I’d read that “if you want people to follow you, you should follow them first.” Okay. Seemed reasonable. So, that’s what I started doing. Science, math, film and allied fields made apparant sense.

Unfortunately, when looking up “metric system” within Twitter the sad, frequent thread was (and I’ll go capture some right now) [Boldface was already in these.]

“WEED. Helping Americans learn the metric system. One gram at a time.”


“Drugs have taught an entire generation of American kids the metric system.”

There are too many of these types of comments to count. It’s a pathetic situation, in my opinion.

(Yeah, international trade uses the metric system and drugs are an international commodity. So, if you want to buy drugs you usually use the metric system.)

I also see that the also see that the Wall Street Journal (which I’ve been told by the Metric Maven, and another source, is anti-metric) DOES seem to be reveling in anti-metric sentiments. It tweeted (11/26/12) its story from November 24, “The metric system thwarts a new generation of American chefs“ with a link to its story titled “Cooking a Poundcake in a Metric Oven Is No Easy Task.”

To be fair, the article does capture the current situation when it relates: “The keepers of America’s metric flame are the roughly 300 members of the U.S. Metric Association. By most measures, their efforts in recent decades have failed.”

True enough about past efforts.

Though, I could suppose one could question the reason for running the article in the first place. Was Thanksgiving really a reason to point out the status of the metric system?), let alone retweeting it. Was it its most stellar piece of journalism that it needed to make sure it was not overlooked? I suspect it had hundreds of other articles it could have featured. (To view the original article, go to http://t.co/VJw8bisA)

It would also be easy to say that the piece was meant to attempt to make pro-metric folks look like eccentrics who really don’t know what the real world is like.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps someone is interested enough to write justin.scheck@wsj.com to get his thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested in the answer.

But I digress.

What does make me happy is that there are so many organizations out there trying to improve our children’s education. Thank goodness. While most studies show that American students now lag behind those of other nations when it comes to math and science (this one posted on the American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar05/scores.aspx for math shows us in 24th  place) means there is much room for improvement.

Unfortunately, I hit a ceiling with Twitter this week because it only allows me to follow 1,000 people. That makes me sad because I can only follow more people if more people follow me or I drop some of the ones I follow currently. I was pretty generous in the beginning, but now I’m going to need to cull folks so I can hold on to the more important ones. If I “unfollow” you, don’t take offense. Know that my heart is in the right place.

Of course, I would have more followers if I’d kept all those scantly-clad women with statistics like: Tweets: 0, Following: 463, Followers: 30. Thank you, no.

Two things kind of surprised me as I started down this road. First, there is a lot of interest on the subject of the metric system in England. The U.K. Metric Association started retweeting me right away. Frankly, I thought our metric status would be of interest mostly to us U.S.-types.

Second, about half of the people following me found me first. There are lots of ways to find people to follow, but somehow these folks approached me.

I thank everyone who follows this on Twitter and while my ability to post things (I do try to make them somewhat interesting after all. Drivel is easy. Interesting is harder.) waxes and wanes depending on workload. I’m learning interesting things from it.

Thanks for your kind attention. (It would have taken more than 500 tweets to relate all that!)