“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”
This phrase is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and has been taken to indicate that people will immediately recognize the utility of a new invention, and especially in the US, adopt its use and abandon the inefficient. It’s contrapositive is also used as a rationalization that if an idea has not been adopted, then it clearly is deficient, and deserves oblivion. It is an assertion that people are not creatures of habit, who will cling to familiar methods and viscerally reject new ones.
This assertion seems to immediately breakdown by not matching the observed actions of humans. The desire to continue with the familiar over the unfamiliar is overwhelming for most people. The familiar is then taught to the next generation and mantled with words like “heritage” and “traditional” to justify continued usage in the face of a possibly better method.
Recently my friend Pierre, who has a considerable knowledge of cooking, brought me a recipe for Steak and Kidney pie. This quite surprised me as I would probably not eat that dish, even after a bet gone bad. Why on earth would he bring a recipe that he knows I would never make, and if told what the dish was, would not eat. It soon became clear the importance of the recipe was not about food, but about methods. The recipe is British, which immediately raises my culinary suspicion. It is described as “British Pub Grub.” If the recipe is not by Robert Irvine, I would almost certainly pass. Here is the recipe:
It starts out well, calling for ingredients in grams, and milliliters, then begins to become less rigorous when it asks for a “few thyme sprigs” then degenerates into tablespoons and a “bunch of flat-leaf parsley,…” The Chef then moves on to instruct us that we should “Cut the beef into 2.5cm pieces.” Centimeters!? No wonder the British lost their empire. After coating the beef with flour we are next instructed to “Heat a wide, heavy based pan, then add a few knobs of butter…” What?! Suddenly grams are no longer of use? The Metric Maven then found himself so light-headed that procuring a paper bag to put over his head became a priority. Couldn’t the recipe be a little less precise?—I still almost have a vague idea what the quantity might be.
The beef based ingredients are then to be enclosed in “500g good-quality ready-made puff pastry.” But we must first “Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.” Gas 6?! what on earth is Gas 6? Well, Gas 6 is a “Gas Mark” which was originally called Gas Regulo Mark 6. Why? According to Wikipedia:
“Regulo” was a type of gas regulator used by a manufacturer of cookers; however, the scale has now become universal, and the word Regulo is rarely used.
Universal? Universal? I’d never heard of it until Pierre brought me this measurement train wreck of a recipe. Then I’m informed that similar “scales” exist in France and Germany? Here are the conversions (according to Wikipedia):
|1⁄4||225°||107°||Very Slow/Very Low|
|1⁄2||250°||121°||Very Slow/Very Low|
Different manufacturers and oven types do vary, so this table cannot be relied upon; instead, cooks should refer to the cooker instruction book for the oven type used, or calibrate the scale using an oven thermometer.
What is this? A next step up from the Easy-Bake Oven? The pastry is to be rolled out to the thickness of a ₤1 coin! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!–doesn’t he know what a millimeter is! In my view Gas Marks and Knobs resonate with an actual quotation of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
We in the US and apparently some in the UK desire “a foolish consistency” over “a rational simplicity.”
You might have noted that I said “actual quotation.” Well, the mousetrap quotation of Emerson, presented at the beginning, appeared seven years after his death. The original quotation upon which the fictional one is based is (again according to Wikipedia):
The phrase is actually a misquotation of the statement:
If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In my viewpoint, this actual quotation appears to praise good craftsmanship, and quality work, and is not an aphorism about technical innovation and the populace. We in the US have embraced “a foolish consistency” of weights and measures for over 150 years by not embracing the metric system, and eschewing the imperial measurement chaff.
The only way we will start to modernize the US, is to first embrace the metric system and other modern international standards. We have been waiting for the fraudulent appeal to our vanity, embodied in the false mousetrap quotation, to bring us the best for over 150 years. It’s time for America to stop playing hooky and pass metric conversion laws, with funding, and a plan to bring metric to the US, and embrace a better future for out nation.
Assistant Professor Hong Qin of Spelman College has asked that I make my readers aware of a survey he and his students are conducting on metric, scientific literacy and attitude. The survey is here should you be interested in taking it to provide them with more data.