Stubborn or Stuck

A recent blog article reminded readers about the use of the metric system and its prevalence outside the U.S. It made me wonder if our continued use of English measurement, in this proud nation of states, is because we are stubborn or because we are stuck. Do we keep it because we refuse to change? Thumbing our noses at the accepted norms of the rest of the world as our hubris hangs onto a dinosaur of a measurement system. Or do we keep it because change is always hard and messy? Fearing the thought of forcing a change on the American people or big business, and wondering how successful a metered coup could be, in the end. People are always reluctant to change, and nations are no different, maybe worse in terms of seeking change.

My first experience with the metric system was in England. I remember seeing a price for gas on a petrol station sign. I was amazed at how low the price was compared to back home. I was told that most items would be more expensive in Europe. Even more so, on an island nation who imports most everything. My shock came when I realized the price advertised on the sign was for a ‘liter’ of gas, not a ‘gallon’. I did the quick mental conversion and now my shock was at the other end of the pricing scale. And, although, that was my first experience, it was not my last in trying to work within a system I did not know well enough. I struggled with kilogram versus pound, centimeter versus inch, liter versus quart, and Fahrenheit versus Celsius, in countries and situations all over the world. I was forced to adapt.

I was torn between the English and Metric systems of measure. Two systems that rail against each other in their efforts to complete the same tasks. There is no simple conversion for any units of measure. Thank goodness we have apps on our phones to handle all that for us now. I ran into these circumstances before cell phones existed, so I had to rely on my higher math skills (or lack thereof).

We accept this dilemma when it comes to currency. We always have. We readily accept and understand that:  $  ≠  £  ≠  ¥  ≠  EUR. Currency’s value can change with the economic trends, woes, or windfalls of a country. And, when travelling, it is the first conversion we commit to memory.

But the truths of distance, mass, volume, and temperature are constant. In this area, it is accepted that:  1 foot = 3.048 meters, 1 gallon = 3.785 liters, and 1 pound = 0.4536 kilograms (and, yes, I chose to avoid the complicated conversion formula for temperature on purpose). They always have and they always will. Only a significant discovery in physics could possibly change that. So, we are not accounting for fluctuations in perceived values like currency. We just simply use different terms to represent the same scientific truths. Thank goodness time avoided this quagmire of differing units. Although, if you have ever been waiting for someone who said, “I’ll be there in a minute”, you will find that even time has some unbeknownst flexibility in some people’s minds.

I am stuck in between because, to me, there are things I like and dislike about to both.

Metric System:

Accepted and fully adopted by the scientific and military communities, even in the U.S.

Ease of math. A standardized scale based on tens. 1 of something equals 10 of something else, and vice versa. Changing units is a matter of moving the decimal point.

Recognized and used all over the world, except the U.S. general populous.

Just not what I am accustom to and therefore requires change.

English System:

We are the United States. We rock and we do as we please. Go USA!

When you travel, it is like knowing a secret language.

Lack of easy math. 12 of one unit equals 1 of another unit, and 3 of those units equal 1 of something else. Very confusing.

I don’t have to convert in my head or download an app.

But, is picking one or the other that important? If some country tomorrow decided to institute a new national system for units of measure, well beyond the chaos and confusion that is the English system, would we care? Or would we just laugh at their folly and download the update to our cell phone conversion app to deal with their feeble attempt at national uniqueness or identity? I think the later is most likely. That may well be how the rest of the world sees our antiquated system here in the U.S., where the units are a stone’s throw away from arbitrary and oddly devoid of simple mathematical equation for increase or reduction.

However, relying on conversion of units is asking for problems and inaccuracies. Ask any engineer or scientist. There are two inherent difficulties. The first is that conversions between English and Metric do not hit the sweet spot that is whole integers. Almost any conversion is left with decimal places that must be rounded to the nearest necessary accuracy. That is what happens when one foot equals 0.3048 meters. Luckily, scientist and engineers are happy to run these decimals out till they meet the accuracy required for their purpose. Most of us aren’t. The other hurdle is human nature, or more precisely, our proclivity to making errors. Anytime we must apply math to a conversion of units, we increase the likelihood that an error will occur. Even punching some numbers into a ‘best of class’ conversion app invites an error in data entry and thus the answer. Anytime humans must manipulate anything, we invite ‘human error’. That’s why we have a name for it. But if I tell you something is one meter long, and you accept the agreed upon scientific definition of that unit of measure, then we risk none of the inaccuracies of equation or errors from human fallibility.

By now, you can readily see the advantages of the metric system. Add to this the scientific definition and repeatable standards of the metric system. How do we define an ounce?

noun

  1. a unit of weight equal to 437.5 grains or 1/16 pound (28.35 grams) avoirdupois.
  2. a unit of 480 grains, 1/12 pound (31.1 grams) troy or apothecaries’ weight.

Even in defining what an English unit is, we bail out of our own system to accurately describe it as its metric counterpart. So how do we define a gram?

noun

  1. A gram is a unit of mass in the metric system equal to the mass of one cubic centimeter of water at 4°C and at sea level.

Here we see the scientific measurement that is repeatable and would be the same volume to anyone under the same conditions. We would have to set this standard in order to then set a standard for the ounce, which does not have the same easily understood scientific definition worldwide.

So, here I am. I am too stubborn to give up the comfort and ease that is the system I grew up with. Sometimes it feels like that old coat that doesn’t keep you very warm, but you have had it forever and it just fits right. Sometimes I think I relish some of the elitist attitude my country has about itself. As an American, I am proud of the work that led to us being a nation that can have an attitude about something. One that chooses its own path.

And I am also stuck. My logical and rational mind recognizes and accepts all the advantages of the metric system. I know that the scientific, military, and medical communities did not adopt it by accident. I know the math is much easier. I feel apart from a more modern and civilized world outside of my own borders. I am resistant to change, even when it is best for me. I can’t make the leap to speak or think in metric terms. I can learn to convert, and maybe over time do it in my head to some reasonable accuracy. Or rely on an app to save the day. I am just stuck in the convenience of a system I understand well.

But the original question, “Is picking one or the other that important?”. Maybe not. I mean here in the U.S. we recognize the prevalence of metrics by converting English to metric on everything from milk cartons, to bathroom scales, to speedometers on our vehicles. Maybe with repetition and exposure, the American people will one day embrace the better system. We will begin to use it in our speech. Our football fields will eventually convert and the difference between 100 yards and 100 meters will be more obvious. You will give directions that say, “Turn left after about a half a kilometer after…”. We will buy 0.454 kilograms of lunchmeat and think nothing of it.

But I just don’t see it happening. We have taken the road of the French Canadians, who could not decide on one language and now require signs and labels in both French and English. I have travelled all over Quebec with this passive method of transformation and exposure. I found two things to be true. Any French-Canadians who may have become fluent in English because of it, were no less angry about having to use English when they had to. Their English words dripping with disdain as much as accent. And I, after many years, never learned French either. C’est la vie!

Comments
7 Responses to “Stubborn or Stuck”
  1. I am grateful that this post did not force me to do any math to enjoy the words and understand the meaning. Your points are all valid, but I’m still catching up with technology all of these years after it’s become second nature to most people. Please don’t make me take on metrics, too!

    • Brad Osborne says:

      I understand tackling too much at one time. And as technology is a never-ending race hard to keep up with, you get a pass on metrics. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. … the “teaspoon” as in two teaspoons of sugar. That’s my most favourite Imperial unit of all. 😜

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: