With Friends Like Lincoln Chafee….


Lincoln Chafee

By The Metric Maven

On June 4th 2015, Former U.S. Senator (R-RI) and Governer of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee announced he would be running for President of The United States. Chafee addressed a number of important issues such as infrastructure, climate change and education. Chafee reminded the public that he voted against the resolution for the Iraq war during the George W. Bush administration. The newly announced candidate argued for a renewal of the United Nations, and the elimination of diplomatic posts going to the highest bidder. He asserted we should abide by the Geneva Conventions and not torture prisoners. Chafee called for allowing Edward Snowden to come home to the United States.  Chafee continued with a long list of important issues.  Then, fourteen minutes into his speech, the candidate stated:

Earlier I said let’s be bold. Here’s a bold embrace of internationalism. Let’s join the rest of the world and go metric. I happen to live in Canada and they completed the process. Believe me it’s easy. It doesn’t take long before 34 degrees is hot. Only Myanmar, Liberia and The United States aren’t metric and it will help our economy.

The obliviousness of this statement took my breath away, and stunned my senses. Lincoln Chafee had plenty of time to prepare his speech, yet his metric statement seemed to be shooting from the hip (at best).  If he had actually given an articulate metric statement, it could have been an important moment for metric promotion in the U.S. Instead, it allowed the metric system to be used as sport to validate the assumed fringe nature of this new candidate, and to easily dismiss him.

There is no question that changing the U.S. over to the metric system is a bold initiative. The first reason Chafee gave was diplomatic, and not utilitarian. Indeed, switching to metric would, as a consequence, promote internationalism; but when attempting to effectively persuade the American public to become metric, that reason would be last on the list.

Candidate Chafee then told the public that he doesn’t currently live in the U.S., even though he is running for President of the U.S. He then asserts that his country of residence, Canada, “completed the process” of metrication. This claim is wrong on so many levels. I have avoided discussing Canada, because I see them as a metric m&m. Canada has a thin shell of metric with an imperial interior. Canada still uses inches in their construction industry and cups in their recipes. They have never changed over. Metric is but a thin veneer, and with the U.S. below them, it will probably remain so.

What metric unit does Chafee use as an example in his speech? Celsius! Celsius has the least obvious utility of all metric units in my view. I have written only one blog about Celsius, and therein presented an argument that it should be milligrade instead of centigrade. Chafee argues from authority that metric is easy, and then uses 34 C as an illustration?

The presidential hopeful then points out that only two other countries, Liberia and Myanmar don’t use the metric system. This is meant to be persuasive in the age of American Exceptionalism on steroids?

Then, apparently as a throwaway line, Chafee says: “…and it will help our economy.”  Seriously!  That was the last point of argument?!

Chafee addressed a number of issues before he mentioned the metric system, but it was clear that the trivializing media had their lede. The world of 24 hour “news” no longer has time for sound bytes, now they want sound bits, and Lincoln Chafee delivered. The metric proposal allowed the media to present the same recycled mythologies which claim that Jimmy Carter is responsible for the lack of the metric system in the U.S. (he clearly didn’t care either way) and the lack of metrication was because of a popular uprising against it. The 1975 metric hearings show that there was never any intention by the US government or industry to switch to metric.

The headline of a short CNN story by Alexandra Jaffe on June 4, 2015 is: Lincoln Chafee: Go bold, go metric. Two days later on June 6th, CNN posted an article by nescient author John Bemelmans Marciano with the title, No, America Should Not Go Metric. Marciano is author of the anti-metric polemic Whatever Happened to The Metric System: How America Kept Its Feet. This book was reviewed by Sven in September of last year. It is a singular book as the subject of the title does not appear to be directly present in the monograph.

Marciano is given space on CNN to argue that cultural heritage will be lost if we switch to metric. The same argument could be made against indoor plumbing in the 19th century. Marciano pleads: “In a time when our world is becoming ever-more abstract and artificial, it is ever-more important that we keep a grip on what is essential and real.” The metric system is the best system ever devised for describing the “real,” scientifically understood world. Marciano apparently embraces a New Age viewpoint of what is essential and real, and his outlook appears far removed from an empirical description of nature.

Chafee’s assertion precipitated the expected reaction from the tin-foil-hat crowd: Dem Presidential Candidate Says US Must Use Metric System to Atone for Iraq War. The National Review  in its article Contra Lincoln Chafee, a Transition to The Metric System Would Be Anything But “Easy”, assert:

The imperial system developed as it did for a reason — to wit, it makes intuitive sense. To push people out of their intuitions is a hard task indeed.

Three barleycorns to an inch, 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 1760 yards (or 5280 feet) to a mile makes intuitive sense? Our shoe sizes make intuitive sense? How many cups are in a gallon?—intuitive right? How many gallons are in a gallon?—there’s more than one you know.

What is lost in this cacophony of willful numerical ignorance is an actual discussion of the metric system itself. Chafee and his staff apparently relied on instinct over intellectual inquiry when proposing the U.S. switch to metric. There is an extensive amount of information available online. Pat Naughtin’s Metrication Matters website has a considerable amount of reasoned information which could be readily found with an internet search. Pat Naughtin’s Google video, or his TedEx talk would allow Chafee’s staff to have passively learned that there is more to metric than a meter. The information on this website is available, albeit invisible and little noted by internet search engines. Still a diligent staff member should be able to find one the 121 essays posted here and possibly read some of them.

What would I have given as bullet points?

1) Building construction is 10-15% more costly in the U.S. because we do not use the metric system.

2) An estimated 98,000 deaths occur in the U.S. heath care system each year because we do not use the metric system.

3) When added up, the inefficiencies and errors associated with the lack of the metric system costs each person in the U.S. at least $15 per day.

4) The most important issues of the day, from Climate Change to resource depletion, involve measurement and are best understood, and are most intuitive, when expressed properly with the metric system.

I would not argue that we should change to the metric system  to promote internationalism (which would be a consequence), or because its easy (which it is), or because we are in the minority (which we are). I would argue that it should be done because it will make us more numerate and economically efficient. I wonder how dedicated Chafee is to the metric system when it does not appear on his policy page. I have so far been unable to even find the term “metric system” on his website.

The metric system would help to make scientific information understandable to the average citizen, and therefore make it more democratic. That makes it in our best interest as U.S. citizens to embrace metric, so that we may better understand the challenges we face, and deal with them in the most informed manner possible. Unfortunately, politicians and citizens think they already know what the metric system is all about. Our politicians would rather argue over a comfortable mythology, based on received metric folklore, rather than taking the smallest amount of time to educate themselves by reading essays on this website, or on Pat Naughtin’s. When I reflect on this reluctance, I fear that perhaps our elected representatives do indeed accurately represent their constituents belief in American exceptionalism.

7 thoughts on “With Friends Like Lincoln Chafee….

  1. Enjoyable and instructive post. I encourage you to form this content into whatever major newspapers require for Op-Eds and send it out. Whether they’re open-minded or have attention spans longer than a goldfish is out of your control.

  2. Good Post, nice to a least hear someone in politics mention the metric subject in public. We can only hope that he inspires others as we need others to care enough to push for change.

  3. Nice to a least hear someone in politics mention the metric subject in public. We can only hope that he inspires others as we need others to care enough to push for change.

  4. Thanks to the Maven for this informative essay. The gibberish on the two links he gives, by the two writers and many of the comments, baffles the mind, and so apparently thinking is not part of the repertoire of such people. [I don’t know if the Maven gave these two particular links to show that “conservatives” tend to be anti-SI but if he did, then he may be in error as it seems “liberals” are more so. After all, the Metric Conversion Act was signed by a non-liberal President, those anti-metric members of the Metric Board were put in by a liberal President (which led to a non-liberal President abandoning such as a result), and the metric-labeling requirement taking place under a non-liberal President (in 1989, I believe). And recently, what do we have? An SI petition with 50k-plus signatures on the President’s desk, with not even peep out of him on such (yet?).]

    On another SI-related matter that the Maven discusses occasionally, consider this paragraph from on article in the SportsSaturday section of today’s NYTimes about the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 20-year-old rookie “backup” goaltender from Russia in the Stanley Cup Finals:

    “Vasilevskiy said he had dreamed about playing in games of this magnitude. When asked, he gave his height, in centimeters (192 or 193, about 6 feet 3 inches), presumably so he could be compared with Bishop, who at 6-7 is the tallest goalie in the league. Vasilevskiy paused when asked which goalies he admired growing up. Nobody, he said at first.”

    Other than The Times failing to at least indicate goaltender Ben Bishop being something like “200 or 201 cm tall”, it behooves me to show the Maven that centimeters are so commonly used elsewhere that his suggestion to shun such completely is likely a lost cause, and as such, he should at least consider such as an “informal” way of giving lengths/heights…

    • You did notice that this post is an extended criticism of a politician who, whether or not he would self-identify as a liberal — the word has been so bitch-slapped in the past several decades that it’s essentially impossible to use — is likely to be analyzed as such by most commentators, whether or not they are so impolite as to use the word? At the very least, the guy is talking of a vague and ill-defined “internationalism” as though it might be a good thing. Also, if you’re taking something as toothless as the Metric Conversion Act as an indicator of metric advocacy, you haven’t been reading this blog very carefully.

      You segue to the centimeter. It isn’t an issue in this post, but that’s fine: we intend to keep on it too. Isn’t it curious that when anyone wants to defend the centimeter, the example given is always human body height? The centimeter seems to be the metric hand: when you hear someone talking in hands, you know horse height is involved. To reiterate: no one here supposes we’re going to stamp out colloquial use of the centimeter overnight — or in this century. What we do dare hope is that the centimeter might be deprecated for all official and technical use. This is a lost cause only if everyone perceives it as lost.

      Speaking of lost causes, did you happen to note that in the Maven’s direct quotation from the National Review, the editor let pass the word imperial? In fact, the article conflates imperial and US measurements quite readily. Not that we care in the least, but we used to cause regular temporal lobe implosions by doing just this. It hasn’t happened recently, since we discovered it’s much more fun to use explicitly invidious epithets for the US Customary Anarchy of Units (and we began to worry about the possibility of causing an aneurysm out there somewhere). My point is that if this bastion of rock-ribbed-conservatism is now using the word in an arguably contemporary, or at least a post-1824 sense, then perhaps the Maven’s suggestion that the centimeter can be done without isn’t quite the lost cause you assert.

      • Sven and Others:

        Surely the quotation “The imperial system developed as it did for a reason — to wit, it makes intuitive sense” is one the most ignorant things I have ever read in my life, and likewise for the article/essay in which it appears, which National Review should be ashamed to have published. (It’s unlikely the founder of NR, William F. Buckley Jr., would have approved of such gibberish.)

        Wrt the centimeter, it should be considered colloquial/informal at best. Nevertheless, although the millimeter is of course much more precise, giving measurements entirely in such would lead to too much spurious precision whereas using centimeters would be sufficiently accurate. (Of course “height” is a clear example of this argument, but many other one-meter-plus lengths could be used as examples too.)

Comments are closed.