Thursday, August 13, 2015

The US's Silly Metric Phobia

There are certain things that make me just shake my head in disbelief. This is one such example.

I was reading this CNN article on why the United States is still one of the remaining 3 nations who have not adopted the SI units for everyday lives. The other two being Liberia and Myanmar (what does it say about the company you keep?). If there is such a thing about irrational beliefs and excuses, this would be front and center. In fact, I would even call them very stupid reasons.

The rest of the world calls Americans pennywise and pound foolish for still using a system that on its face makes little sense. And Americans, in turn, shun the metric system as a foreign creation. Never mind that Americans use the thermometer invented by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, a foreigner of Dutch-German-Polish extract.

I want to know who are these airheads who are shunning something just because it is a "foreign creation". They say this, of course, while using devices made in China, and without realizing that "lbs, feet, inches, etc..." are British units of measure, the same people that the Americans chased out for their independence.

But I also want to talk to author Tom Wolfe (is he still alive?) and am curious if he still thinks this way:

In 1981, The New York Times reporter attended an anti-metric party at which Wolfe, in his customary white linen, judged a "Most Beautiful Foot" contest. 

''I hear that the meter is based on a rod somewhere outside of Paris,'' Wolfe said, according to the Times story. ''To use that as a basis for measurement is completely arbitrary and intellectual. I should say I have tremendous admiration for the French, but a matter of this importance should not be left to them. I like the idea of the foot - as a measurement in relation to the human body.'' 

This is utterly silly and irrational for two reasons:

1. He liked the idea that it is a measurement in relation to part of a body? Why? This is purely a personal preference, like having a favorite color. It is an example  of a ".. measurement that is completely arbitrary". There's no rational  reason to choose something JUST because it had a body-part connection. This is stupid!

2. Now that the "meter"  is now defined based on a physical constant and no longer that stick in Paris, is this sitting better now with him?

When the Nazi was in power, there was a concerted effort to discredit Einstein's theory of relativity (both  Special and General). In fact, there was even an effort to label it as "Jewish theory". So the argument was not based on any form of merit, but rather simply because of who same up with it. I'm surprised people  are not seeing similar parallel with the arguments above. How could these people, whom I presumed are intelligent people, made that kind of arguments and reasoning with a straight face?

Maybe this is another important factor of science education, since we tend to use SI units in science classes.



mdanielsco said...

I'm guessing the real reason has to do with dollars. I suppose the real reason a country switches is because it costs less to switch than to stay with their own system. It costs a lot to convert your country over to a new system, but for most countries, the costs of maintaining your own little system are higher. International commerce is harder, engineering in your own little units is harder, etc. But since the US is such a huge portion of global GDP, the costs of maintaining our old system aren't that high.

I doubt many countries really convert to a new system simply because 10s are easier to work with. I think Europe only switched because of Napoleon, not for some academic progressive argument.

Having said that, I wish we'd convert tomorrow, but I do understand the costs

Hamish said...

The US is not alone when it comes to metric phobia. Distances and speed limits on UK roads are given in miles and miles per hour and many independent greengrocers and butchers will be happy to provide their customers with a pound of potatoes or minced beef. Despite 40 years of metric, many Canadians would struggle to give their height in metres or their weight in kilos, as would most Brits or Irish (the latter two peoples use the unit "stone" for the weight of their bodies).