An Open Letter Response To: “Supporting American Choices on Measurement”

Dr. Patrick Gallagher -- Director of NIST

Dear Dr. Gallagher:

This open letter is in response to your email/post entitled Supporting American Choices on Measurement which you composed in response to a We The People petition, which calls for making the metric system (that is, SI) the exclusive measurement system of the United States. In brief, what you offer is not a substantive response to a reasonable petition for action on an increasingly urgent issue, but only condescension and airy rationalization for perpetuating our current bureaucratic stasis.

First, the metric system, is a system. The random collection of measures used in the US is not a system. They are neither equivalent nor comparable. I am disturbed that the head of NIST can speak of the metric system, and our potpourri of units, as even remotely comparable in either intellectual stature or technical merit. But far more important, the very thesis of Supporting American Choices on Measurement is false on the face of it, as there is no actual opportunity for a metric option in this nation. In my postings on metric, I have written about The Invisible Metric Embargo in the US, which does not allow me to purchase metric tools—despite my desires as a consumer. One simply cannot readily purchase metric-only, mm-only, tape measures, and other tools in the US. I’ve had to obtain mine from Australia to use in my Engineering Practice. They are the same tools that are used in metric building construction, which the US government has quietly abandoned after the 1990s. Metric construction saves 10-15% when compared with our non-system. The Australians have been reaping these metric rewards for over thirty years. I have detailed this in Building a Metric Shed. Over the counter medicines are allowed by your “freedom of choice” to offer only teaspoons and tablespoons. Feral Units Endanger Our Health details the teaspoon/tablespoon, gram/grain misdosage problem, which has been acknowledged by the medical community since at least 1902. Mandatory dosage cups in milliliters have been eschewed by industry for years, to the detriment of public health and justified, probably for the most part, by the need for “freedom of choice.”

I may have the choice to set my GPS to meters and kilometers, but I don’t have the choice to press a button within my car and change the road signs to meters and kilometers. The choice of only miles and feet (in vulgar fractions no less) on US road signs was decided by filibuster, in 1978, by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. The details of how this mandatory requirement for miles and feet on US road signs came about, may be found in A Tale of Two Iowans. What channel do I watch to see a metric only, or even a metric any weather broadcast in the US? Metric measures in weather broadcasts also ended in the late 1970s. I would like to see snow and rain totals in millimeters, but I do not have that choice.

The public teachers of the 1970s began to teach metric, but quickly realized that the US was to be the only country (other than Liberia and Myanmar) which had a government that would not institute a true metric conversion. The teachers were left without a measurement ecosystem outside of their classroom to which they could teach, and so metric instruction was “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Metric instruction has become perfunctory.

If we actually had the completely open, voluntary system about which you sing peons of praise, then why is there any restriction on manufacturers to include labeling other than metric at this moment? And why do you have to work “to make it possible” for metric only labeling? If it is not allowed right now, then metric only is obviously not a voluntary choice for industry. The non-system of the US is mandatory.  It does not support your thesis that everyone has a choice.

That measurement units need “context” for meaning, and are chosen depending upon the given circumstances is nonsensical. Why not just create a new measurement unit for each circumstance—like medieval cultures did? The non-system we use in the US, measures feet in barleycorns (three barleycorns in an inch you know), to determine shoe size, instead of millimeters. What possible context makes the measurement of human feet require barleycorns as a unit? Perhaps a foot should be measured in feet? That seems like a logical context. My essay Brannock and Barleycorns might help you with context when considering this question.

You cite examples of multiple units which are in use and describe the same quantity as something wondrous which we should lionize. This is not an advantage, it is a problem called unit proliferation. In the US, people who work with tools have to needlessly purchase both metric and inch tools. This doubles the infrastructure cost for working Americans. It is also a large drag on our economy. Weights and measures is The Invisible Infrastructure of a nation. Ours is in complete decay, yet you celebrate this fact.

There is no “seamless transition” between metric and our non-system. Dual units only encourage unnecessary opportunities for mistakes. Metric minimizes them. The DART and Mars Climate Orbiter mission failures which occurred because of the “choice” to use multiple measurement units, are examples which should not be swept under the rug with charming prose, like “seamless transition.”

Incidentally, your statement that the metric system is universal in science and industry is also demonstrably false. I grant you that it should be, but I know from personal experience that the US aerospace industry is currently hamstrung by something called the mil. A mil is one thousandth of an inch. Now, you might suppose that this would be an ideal time for a metric conversion in US aerospace: after all, with the long-overdue retirement of the Space Shuttle, the United States has no astronaut-capable space vehicle. But the contract for Orion, the manned vehicle intended to replace the Shuttle, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, at least in part, on the understanding that all engineering would be submitted in thousandths of an inch.

Dr. Gallagher, your response has shown that, as I predicted, this petition would be a feckless exercise in futility, and of no lobbying value. The public is viewed not as We The People, but They The Powerless. Your response demonstrates an apparent technical ignorance about the metric system. It makes you appear to have not even a basic understanding of how the measurement system that powers engineering and science around the world is used, and it’s massive advantages for society as a whole.  I would think It should be obvious to a Director of NIST, that a measurement system and a spoken language are two completely different intellectual constructs. Especially a Director with a background in physics and philosophy. My essay Orwell and The Metric System might be instructive if you are unclear on this point.

To compare the measurement situation we face in the US to bilingual education is mendacious. Your whitewash of the history of how the current non-system of measurements were finally defined in terms of metric standards, hides the fact there was no other technical choice. There was no alternative. Without using the metric standards supplied from our signing of the Treaty of the Meter, science and industry in this nation could have ground to a halt. T.C. Mendehall had no choice but to announce that metric standards would be used to define our farrago of units. This is because of government inaction on mandating metrication, and the fact that no alternative measurement standards existed for our non-system. The Constitution tasks Congress with fixing the weights and measures of the US, which they have neglected with vigor from the founding of the republic.

As Director of NIST, I cannot comprehend how you could assert there is no weights and measurements problem in the US whatsoever, and everything is just hunky-dory. This is clearly not the case. I have written forty-six essays over the last year or so detailing how our lack of exclusive metrication, costs us money, endangers our health and decreases our industrial competitiveness. The late Pat Naughtin left a classic Google video lecture, and a mountain of information on how damaging it is for the US not to have metric. How can you have apparently not investigated any of it?—and included it in your response? The information is freely available. I can only ask with exasperation why are you not promoting the metric system?—why are you not engaged in the carrying out the task for which the public has employed you?–to promote standards. The metric system is the standard of ninety-five percent of the worlds population. Why are you not promoting this standard with the sense of urgency that it deserves?

Your choice to issue Supporting American Choices on Measurement late on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend is as transparently cynical as is your response. The timing is calculated to minimize or eliminate any press coverage with three days of distraction. In doing this you are blatantly, and apparently willfully, ignoring the 25,000 49,914 American citizens who signed the petition for the US to adopt the metric system. Because of your callous and dismissive treatment of an earnest request made by these citizens for the implementation of the metric system, this only leads to a justified belief that our public servants have no interest in serving the public, or the public interest.


The Metric Maven
US Citizen and Professional Engineer

P.S. To my (at this point, fairly) long time readers, I would like to state that my next regularly scheduled blog on 2013-05-30, was written, and scheduled, long before Dr. Gallagher issued his response to the metric petition. When you read my upcoming blog, you will see the same manner of argument as Dr Gallagher’s has been offered for almost a century. Dr. Gallagher only parrots the antique prose in a contemporary fashion.

Weight Watchers and Measures

By The Metric Maven

Filmmaker Amy Young, who is making a documentary film entitled: The State of The Unit: The Kilogram, has met her goal on Kickstarter. Thanks to everyone who contributed.  $22.7 K so far and needs to raise a total of $26.8 K (i.e. $4,100 more) in the next seven days to fund her film. Please consider donating to her Kickstarter campaign here. If you have contributed already, thanks. Now the blog.

My Youngest sister has been a member of Weight Watchers (WW) for many years. It has worked well for her, and continues to do so. The WW members have discussion threads where they talk about how to compute Weight Watchers points from food labels. The use of grams and Calories (versus calories) and kilojoules is a perennial topic for discussion. Here is an entry by SCHILA which my sister shared with me concerning an Italian food label:

This causes a face-palm. I realize that it’s not her fault, it’s our lack of the exclusive use of the metric system in the US, and how the incompatible mixture of metric and non-metric units pervades our culture which is to blame. One can immediately see that the Nutritional Information (NI) is actually all metric—in a sense. The Calorie is a pre-SI unit of energy, which was replaced by the Joule in 1948. The Calorie was “metric” 65 years ago.

According to Wikipedia:

Definitions of the calorie fall into two classes:

  • The small calorie or gram calorie (symbol: cal)[2] approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C at standard atmospheric pressure (101.325 kPa). This is approximately 4.2 joules.
  • The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie, nutritionist’s calorie or food calorie (symbol: Cal)[2] approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. This is exactly 1,000 small calories or approximately 4.2 kilojoules.

The difference between a calorie and a Calorie is a factor of 1000 in the US. Why shouldn’t SCHILA be confused. The label has Cal 122 KCAL which is a capitalized Calorie abbreviation, which then tries to make it more understandable by putting it in all caps as KCAL, which of course could be confused for Kilo-Kilo-calories. No wonder the poor woman is on a discussion thread asking for help. The logical solution to me is to be done with calories and Calories (1000 calories or a kilocalorie), switch to SI (official metric) and use kilojoules—like the rest of the world.

Here is a package of licorice from Australia (courtesy of Mike Joy). It is advertised as one meter long. The front of the package has only one mass (weight) given: 120 grams. That’s it!  You don’t need any other information.

On the back the nutritional information is:

Nutrional Label for Australian Licorice

We see that the Australian food vendors also use untidy numbers like 4.8 servings in a package. The serving size is 25 grams which is 353 kilojoules, that’s it! Every other description: protein, sugar, sodium and so on are broken out in grams or milligrams.

Ok, how many kJ’s do you get a day? Well in the US I generally see 2000 Calories on food labels as the recommended daily intake. This works out to about 8375 kilojoules. Look how many kJ’s you get! Doesn’t that sound better than 2000 Calories? Here is a short table to give you an idea of the range of kJ’s and the old way:

5000 kilojoules is 1194 Calories (1200)
5500 kilojoules is 1313 Calories (1300)
6000 kilojoules is 1433 Calories (1400)
6500 kilojoules is 1552 Calories (1500)
7000 kilojoules is 1671 Calories (1600)
8000 kilojoules is 1910 Calories (1900)
8500 kilojoules is 2030 Calories (2000)

So for many WW members somewhere between 5000 and 8500 kJ’s is the range for you to think about. The Australian Government has recently sponsored a push to get Australians to eat around 8700 kilojoules per day. Here is a page from their website:

click to enlarge image

So what does the back of a licorice label in the US look like? This is from Twizzler’s web page:

Not all that that different, other than the use of Calories (i.e. kilocalories). So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that because the US is not exclusively metric like Australia, very few Americans have any idea what a gram is. (It is about the weight of a plain chocolate m&m). This lack of exclusive metric adoption in the US obscures dietary data that is readily available. Any confusion will cause many people to just not bother with the nutritional information.

Should we go back to Ye Olde English units on food packaging?—well they’re actually Olde English sizes used prior to the English reforming their units in 19th Century, but we’ll let that pass for now. Some people who believe claim they are trying to help the public say yes. These people are from the anti-metric Wall Street Journal, and like James Taranto are there to yelp—I mean “help.” Their anti-metric “Numbers Guy” seems to be more interested in running a numbers racket than actually enlightening people about numbers.

When the Wall Street Journal is on the side of the Center for Science in the Public Interest–watch out–what they have in mind is not in the public interest. They want teaspoons and tablespoons back! I’ve already written about how confusion between the two, and the lack of metric in the US kills about 98,000 persons in the US each year. It would also make our nutritional labeling completely incompatible with the rest of the world—which all use metric. They want to swap mass (grams) for volume (Tsp, Tbl)? Isn’t it bad enough we use ounces interchangeably for weight and volume already?  Do you think 8 (by weight) ounces of cheese doodles is a cup (8 oz by volume) of them? The Wall Street Journal has never found a bad Weights and Measures idea they didn’t like.

The frustration the rest of the world has with us is completely understandable and surfaces on the WW discussion thread:

All I can say is You Go Girl!

What started this WW discussion thread was a question about the nutrition label on the back of an Italian food product. If all our US packaging was in teaspoons and tablespoons, and grams became even more unfamiliar, this would further alienate us from 95% of the worlds population and their products. I guess the Wall Street Journal just can’t help themselves—they like trade barriers. Once again the inability of our legislators to pass mandatory metric only legislation for the US, with a plan, and funding, and so on, hurts the nations physical and economic health. Congress has been goofing around since 1866 thinking about metric, isn’t it time they finally got to work and dealt with the metrication issue?