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

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.

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.

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

  1. Well put, Maven. That certainly wasn’t what I would expect from National Institute of STANDARDS and Technology. Apparently keeping the future safely away from Americans.

    Dr. Gallagher, Really!?!? By the time you responded to this petition, the original required 25,000 signers doubled and was growing by the day. I’m sure by the end of the year there could have been 100,000+.

    Dr. Gallagher, are you really a congressman? Congress has prided itself on doing nothing these past few years. Your response reeks of that very mindset.

    Dr. Gallagher, what instrument on my car’s dashboard measures in feet? You know, “BUS STOP 400 FEET” or “DIP 500 FEET” or “ROAD ENDS 1800 FEET” or “CLEARENCE 15′ 6″ 2000 FEET” those signs on the American road ways. And, oh yeah, the vulgar fractions when miles are indicated. With clearance in mind, what of the Skagit River bridge in Washington state? Was the driver of the truck that hit the Skagit River bridge from Canada and not clear about clearance in feet? Our friends to the North are metric you know. As are our friends to the South. They BOTH drive semi trucks in this country. (Remember NAFTA?) It’s not their fault that their country went metric (Mexico in the 1860’s and Canada well before the turn of this century) in the and ours didn’t. Its our fault. It’s bad enough that the road signs in this are a foreign language to some that come from Mexico and Canada, but the measurements on those signs are a foreign language to practically all of them.

  2. I’m always puzzled when people expect a government, run by popularity contest winners, to do what is in the public interest. The people that seek high office, were the one’s you knew in high-school that cared to the extreme to be popular. The selection process puts the most extreme ego manics in office. This system does not select for people that are particularly good at understanding numbers, economics, or units of measure.

    That being said – we should be extremely happy that they are allowing us to use the metric system if we want. As time goes by, both parties are eating away at our freedoms – one at a time – it is good to note we still have this one.

    ( And now that the political class has driven out a lot of manufacturing, the move to metric is inevitable – the imported goods are based on metric. )

    • If there is one thing that history teaches, it is that a nation divided against itself will always fall. The US is no exception. It is the reason that all governments reserve as a right under their basic laws, the right to establish a national currency and a national system of weights and measures.

      Allowing a choice between two or more systems does not produce a strong economy. As was noted in the article, a person wanting to use metric will and will secure tools in a foreign market.

      Working in metric means not securing raw materials and basic goods and services in the home country thus strengthening the economy of a competitor over your own. It means two domestic businesses can not do business with each other. Two systems create confusion, errors, accidents and added costs. The very things that weaken and eventually divide a nation.

      America is too arrogant to see its collapse and won’t realise its own destruction is upon it until after it is over. People like Patrick Gallagher only help to encourage the collapse and assure it comes sooner rather than later.

      But, don’t worry, German (via the EU) and China are working very hard to replace the US as a super power and all in our lifetime. Isn’t this exciting?

  3. Metricmaven has for so long a time been calling the collection of units used in the US as imperial (Imperial actually was a codified system of units), that it has blinded him to the fact that the US government is already aware that the collection of units used in the US is not a system. That is why it is officially called USC (United Sates Customary Units). Not, customary system, but customary units.

    Mr. Gallagher already is aware of situation and has been for some time. You obviously weren’t aware because you keep getting the name wrong. I hope you are now aware and will discontinue making this perpetual error of calling USC as imperial and understand fully why they are not the same.

    • Neighbor, you are tedious. I just ran a word search on the Maven’s open letter. The word imperial doesn’t occur. Per usual, you are off topic. Apparently, even when your usual linguistic hot button isn’t present, you still can’t let go of your one idea. In the previous blog, there was one incidental, and purely figurative, mention of imperial, and that too set you off. There has even been at least one instance in which the word appeared in direct quotation, and your reaction was as always. Far worse, when you are ignored, you become abusive. You have been very free with words like ignorant, when a more thoughtful person might pause to wonder if a point wasn’t being made.

      In fact, a point is being made: imperial suggests an archaic historical context, and lends itself to metaphor, figurative use — even puns. Your own USC, defended ad nauseum as sacrosanct and the only acceptable term, does none of these things, and isn’t even well known. Mention the “metric versus imperial” debate to the average American, and he may have a vague notion of what you’re on about. Mention “metric versus USC” and the next question will almost certainly be something like “I know the Trojans, but what school do the Metrics play for?” This may be why this broad usage of imperial is out there, despite your denials. The Maven did not invent it. It is not ideal. But it seems to be understood. And why should a metric advocate spinelessly accept what amounts to a technocratic neologism? I can see why an anti-metricationist would adore USC: it begs questions of historical legitimacy, and aids them in framing the debate. (There is, incidentally, a full-length blog on this question in the pipeline. No, it is not likely to satisfy you, personally.)

      Nor are we the least interested in another matter that seems to be of some implicit importance to you: the question of whose anarchy of units, on which side of the pond, is slightly the less anarchic. We have to wonder that much of your comment can be read as impassioned defense of The Queen’s Units (which queen? Elizabeth II? Victoria? Anne?) against us upstarts.

      It is not that you don’t have a point of view. Nor is it that you can’t change your mind: no one is required to agree with the Maven on anything to comment here. It isn’t even that you won’t change the subject — not exactly. It is rather that your subject is a distinction which does not alter the form of any argument for metrication, and is therefore unedifying.

      Recently, you’ve moved on from linguistic prescriptivism to punctuational pedantry. Two of the Maven’s recent blog threads were diverted into irrelevancy, by multiple comments from you asserting the one-and-only permissible position of a dollar sign in an informal currency construct. This time your verdict was not ignorance, but innumeracy. You are quite wrong. But while we have seen tempers run very high in our comments, you’re the only one who regularly descends into contumely.

      In addition, we have seen your name regularly in the comment roll, two, three, four times, sometimes with no intervening comments from others. We cannot have you hijacking threads for conversations with yourself. Nor can we have you posting your own essays. We have it from other metrication sites that you have been barred, or refused access, for precisely this sort of behavior. We also have it that your response has been to try to sneak back in under sock puppet aliases. You’re not fooling anyone: your obsessions make an internet incognito impossible.

      The Metric Maven has never barred anyone, for the obvious reason that the site has been up for only a year, and we want to encourage all the comment we can get. But we also have to worry that having so many of our comment threads sidetracked by a single obstreperous person may be just as dissuasive to prospective commenters as the spectacle of said person getting the boot. And we want both domestic and international comment, as the metrication of the US, or rather the lack of it, has serious ramifications for the whole world.

      So, consider this latest comment of yours Strike One. It probably should be at least Strike Seventeen or so, but we’re calling it Strike One.

      Now, I’ve just spent way too much time and verbiage on you. It sounded for a moment as though you might be claiming direct knowledge of Dr Gallagher’s inner life. I would be surprised to learn that the head of NIST has devoted thirty seconds of thought to this issue of yours in his entire public career. But if you can temporarily pigeonhole your own issue, and keep things succinct, and above all civil, then if you really want to defend his response to the We The People Petition, we would be pleased to hear it. Considering the response he has gotten, here and other places, it would be a brave and lonely stance to take. Otherwise, do sit down.

      • You are so obviously biased against anything I said that you blinded yourself to my point entirely. I never claimed he used the term imperial in this article and my post was pointing out the fact that even he knew the the term imperial really didn’t apply. So why continue to use the term if it doesn’t apply?

        If you had comprehended what I wrote you would have noticed that I pointed out his lack of the term imperial. The lack resulting because the description of the non-system used in the US as described in this article is exactly what USC describes. Everyone at NIST knows the US doesn’t use imperial. They all know it is illegal. And they all know that what is used in the US is a non-systematic collection of non-related units and that is why the US Government officially and legally calls it USC. United States customary, means units used in the US by custom.

        If you don’t like my comments, you needn’t read them or respond to them. For you information, I only read the first paragraph, became bored and scrolled to the end to post my response.

        • That you would not read Sven’s comment in full is unfortunate, because it contains purely nominal conditions under which you will be permitted to continue posting here. The most important of these are that you keep to topic and keep your temper, but there are a few others you should be aware of. There is no requirement that you agree with anything said here.

          Sven contributes editorially to this blog, and in this case took on an onerous task with my concurrence. He is concerned that our comment threads are becoming a private soap box for one person, and that this may be alienating other potential posters. I’ve had the same concern from other quarters. We do not have a true forum at present, and would not have time to moderate it if we had.

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