By The Metric Maven
Fifth Year Anniversary
When someone asks you “A penny for your thoughts,” and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?”
— George Carlin
Five years ago I posted my first metric essay titled The Invisible Infrastructure. The thesis of the article is that our measurement system is part of our national infrastructure, and it is seriously dilapidated. The problem is that unlike our visible infrastructure, our bridges, roads, water systems and railroads, people don’t notice the decay of our measurement infrastructure. The situation is much like people who learned to manipulate Roman numerals, and only casually encountered the Hindu-Arabic version. Their ignorance of the new system, combined with the resistance to abandoning a known set of numerals, and how to manipulate them, and then learning a new set, stalled the worldwide introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals for 1000 years.
The creation of a nation’s infrastructure and its maintenance requires a national policy, and the power to enforce the policy. The manufacturing centers of a country rely on state of the art support of a modern infrastructure to function. Alexander Hamilton wrote the first industrial policy proposed in the United States. Hamilton wanted the US government to encourage innovation by the citizens of the US, support the constant improvement of the nation’s infrastructure (known as internal improvements) so as to usher along US commerce and develop a manufacturing industry for the young Republic.
Abraham Lincoln, who had received a patent and was greatly interested in engineering and science, endorsed Hamilton’s policy. The policy was so popular that it was embraced by every president after that until well into the late 20th century.
Around 1980, it became fashionable to argue that an industrial policy for the US was not necessary, in fact, it was suddenly thought detrimental. It was asserted that a mysterious set of unseen collective philosophical forces would usher the country along without any need for any intelligence to guide it. All problems from climate change to pet grooming would be solved without any need for a government or politics. It was insisted that the new orthodoxy was scientific, and “no more than you can change the laws of Newton, could one go against this received wisdom.” The dogma asserted that if these non-government forces did not produce a given outcome, then it was not an important problem to begin with. When the received philosophy did not embrace an empirical reality, it was said to transcend this meager earth-bound reality. This has produced a received dogmatic mythology that quells any introspection.
In the case of the metric system in the US, individuals like John Shafroth tried to intervene and legislate the metric system directly in the early twentieth century. At that time it was possible for individuals in government to see that infrastructure, both visible (railroads, water systems, sewer systems) and invisible (the metric system) were needed by the republic, and they set out to bring them into being. In the early 1920s, it became popular for theory that is decoupled from measurement to reign. In 1921, despite example after example of how governments (including the US in the Philippines) had brought the metric system to numerous countries, these examples were all dismissed. The implementation of the metric system by these nation-states was somehow unnatural because people had implemented it through governments, and not allowed the metric system to spring from the chaos of individuals. Charles McNary, Chairman of the 1921 Metric Hearings asked:
“If the thing is uneconomical, then the great law or the science of commerce ought to adjust it. It does in other things. Why does it not operate in this field if everybody is losing by it, from the packer to the consumer? Why does it not correct itself?”
The metric system vanished in a puff of accepted mythological sophistry. There is example after example of the concrete benefits using the metric system brings to crafts and trades, but measurement cannot compete with a viral meme that possesses the most politically powerful, and scientifically vacuous minds that populate our political class. A theory that ignores contrary data is a dogma, and this dogma has a powerful grip on the US psyche. Its grip is so powerful, that even as the visible infrastructure is decaying before everyone’s eyes, we are told that actions to improve our infrastructure are not proper if legislated into existence. When legislated, then according to dogma it is too expensive, and that if infrastructure was important to the economy, it would appear spontaneously.
Large infrastructure projects have historically been financed by the public, and the profits then reaped by powerful individuals. The Erie canal was funded by government.
The first transcontinental telegraph across the US was financed by the US government. The Interstate Highway system was financed by the US government. The internet was financed by the US government. The GPS System was funded by the US government. There was no spontaneous action by an unseen philosophy acting on large numbers of people, there was vision and planning by individuals on behalf of the nation.
Clearly conditions have existed in the past where visible infrastructure has been legislated into existence, why not the invisible infrastructure that is our weights and measures? One aspect of the invisible infrastructure is that it is not clear who would immediately benefit. When roads are constructed, road construction companies bid for government contracts to fabricate the infrastructure and they, in turn, profit. The implementation of the metric system does not have clearly defined winners—other than all the citizens of the US. As I’ve pointed out previously, the implementation of a national infrastructure upgrade would be the perfect time to switch to metric and for the public to financially benefit from its greater efficiency.
A second complication is that the structure of our government in the US is rather unique. It appears to have been the first of the modern representative democracies and suffers from the antiquated political infrastructure that is our Constitution. The 1978 GAO report on the metric system notes that Parliamentary systems of government require far less legislation to implement the metric system than would the US. Unicameral parliamentary governments appear to be a much more direct form of democratic representation than is the baroque 18th century structure of the US government which isolates citizens from their government.
When mixed with American anti-intellectualism and scientific ignorance, mathematics, arithmetic and measurement become political positions. The most obvious example is Charles Grassley of Iowa who single-handedly filibustered the implementation of the metric system for road signs in the US in the late 1970s (he remains in the Senate to this day). He sees the system that originated in Britain (i.e. the metric system), as a foreign form of measurement. Denial of scientific concepts, based on an ignorance of science, will not influence how mother nature conducts her business one yoctometer. Independent of political philosophy, Roman numerals will remain more complex and confusing than decimals. Fractions will still require common denominators for addition, whereas integers do not, and the metric system is still simpler than the anarchy of US Ye Olde English units that do not form a system at all. As long as this ubiquitous measurement ignorance camouflages the Ye Olde English expenses experienced by our nation, these costs and confusion will not be addressed. The general public and the political class is as unaware of the decay of our invisible infrastructure of weights and measures as people were of microbes before the invention of the microscope.
When Americans are asked about the metric system, there is often a visceral reaction, followed with a sarcastic hubris that only ignorance and ad hoc jingoistic rationalization can nurture. We’re the greatest country on Earth! We put men on the moon!—without the metric system! We did put men on the moon, with considerable help from German scientists, and using a guidance computer that did its internal computations using metric. I have personally heard political aids of my representative claim with a dismissive wave of their hand that “we tried to change in the 1970s—so leave us alone now.” or “that ship sailed in the 1970s and is never coming back.” Americans celebrating a failure as a triumph?—it is a strange rationalization indeed for a “can-do” nation. The invisible infrastructure of weights and measures is perhaps the most important concept ever created in the history of science, engineering, and commerce. It most likely predates a monetary system. The very word ruler implies the importance of a standard length deriving and enforced by a government.
Another aspect is that metric has become a test for social norm in the US. Americans use ‘merican ‘measures and if you inquire about metric your very patriotism or
“Americaness” might be questioned. Any thought of metric change is immediately seen by established media outlets as a possible audience alienator and in turn a ratings enhancer. The only cooking program I ever followed with great interest was Alton Brown’s Good Eats. He did his best to explain the science behind cooking, and I noticed that once in a while he would try to sneak in a measurement in grams, but the show is overwhelmingly Ye Olde English. Brown is now working on a follow-up show to Good Eats and revealed to the Guardian:
“When Good Eats aired on Food Network, he said he wasn’t allowed to cover certain subjects, such as cooking rabbit, liver or chicken gizzards.
The channel also refused to let him use the metric system, he said.”
Astronomy magazine also eschews the use of actual metric, as do other popular science magazines. Obviously more mainstream media outlets are Olde English only.
The invisible infrastructure is invisible because it is ubiquitous and so integrated into one’s mind that it is not really cognitively noticed. When one first learns to drive a car, every aspect of this activity exists at a very conscious level of one’s mind. Which way do I move the turn signal to make it go left or right? How do I press the clutch and shift
in a way the gears don’t grind? Where is 1st, 2nd, 3rd and reverse gears. As one drives, the information integrated into one’s mind moves to a much less conscious level. A person can drive in this automatic mode to the point that one’s mind wanders and does not recall driving along a well known street, only the beginning and the end points. The measurement system one uses becomes rather automatic after it is used for a long time, independent of its utility, or ease of use. No matter how complex a language might be, a child can learn it, and incorporate it to a an “invisible” cognitive level. We often take little note of the complexities and irrationality of our language, because we are so comfortable and have long experience with using it. As has been said, i before e except after c and words like neighbor and weigh, this means that Einstein got this wrong twice. Most people don’t notice that the th sound in they and theater are different, the mind has moved this information to an invisible level.
The cognitive invisibility of our usage is confused with utility. We are at ease with it and so we do not evaluate it. It is like a magic trick that works over and over to mask its flaws. We don’t question the utility of fractions, and contemplate eliminating them, we just continue, year after year, using a table of “decimal equivalents” rather than just using decimals directly in our invisible measurement infrastructure. We cannot imagine
going even further and using a unit that in most cases can produce numbers that are all integers and eliminate a decimal point for most everyday work. If one has 250 mL of milk and adds 300 mL of oil no decimal point is needed in everyday cooking. This is true for grams, and of course using millimeters as the default small unit in everyday life is both of massive utility, and even for many US “metric users” unthinkable.
Our decaying invisible infrastructure is thought to be responsible for 98 000 deaths in the US healthcare system each year. It invisibly adds a 10-15% cost to every home
and building constructed in the US. We cannot predict how well our shoes will fit when compared with well defined metric shoe sizes. We must maintain two sets of tools, one for metric and one for Olde English measures. Years ago Pat Naughtin estimated it costs each US citizen about $16.00 per day to maintain our decaying measurement infrastructure.
The US public has an invisible wall of ignorance that conceals scientific and engineering information that is crucial to the survival of human civilization. Be it resource depletion from overpopulation, or carbon emissions that produce global warming, or other scientific topics, the information is generated in metric, and when properly presented, is most understandable and intuitive in metric.
Last week the American Society of Civil Engineers released its report card on the visible American infrastructure. The US received a grade of D+. They do not offer a grade for our invisible weights and measures infrastructure, but I suspect it is close to D- or F at best.
When I was a young boy with a single digit age, I saw a commercial I’ll never forget. Time may have distorted my memory of it, but as I recall there was a young black woman in a cabin teaching another black person how to read. A terrible pounding was then heard at the door and a voice wanted to know what was going on inside. The two people looked terrified. I asked my mother why teaching a person to read was illegal? She explained that teaching slaves to read was against the law during that era. “But why?” I asked. “Because they will begin to think and question, and be exposed to new ideas. This makes them less controllable to those who have enslaved them.” I was shocked that people would enforce ignorance on a population to control and exploit them. It was horrifying. Now and then, when I think about the lack of the metric system in the US, my mind looks back on that commercial, and its larger contemporary meaning.
The Magic Infrastructure
The Invisible Infrastructure
The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.