By Randy Bancroft
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Some Thoughts on: “The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning”
By The Metric Maven
A few days ago, a website called The Federalist published a polemic titled The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning. The essay is quite derivative, containing truthiness assertions about the metric system, and an understanding of it at a hearsay level. Examining some of its claims can be instructive.
The first claim is: “All of metric’s shortcomings come back to the same point: it is great for science, but does not fit with the way people live their everyday lives.” This is simply not the case. A casual observation of how I propose to use the metric system in the US, and the actual practice in Australia, makes this claim laughable. When using grams, millimeters and milliliters, no decimal point is required to interact with everyday measurements. One would purchase coffee in quantities of 500 grams, measure the distance across a desk as 750 mm, or drink a 350 milliliter soda. For everyday people, it is much simpler than the current non-system. It would be a world of integers.
Lincoln Chafee suffered from the same lack of understanding of the metric system as does the author of the anti-metric essay under discussion. Chafee just said the metric system was good, without any detail or explanation.
The second claim is “It would be easier if all seven billion of us spoke the same language, wore the same clothes,…….” Indeed, government after government over the last two centuries realized that trade would be more efficient using the same measurement system worldwide. The metric system was adopted because it is easy to use, not because it is hard. This is why out of around 195 countries in the world, we in the US are the single irrational standout.
The French were the first to adopt the metric system, and were also the first to abandon it. The utility of the metric system is what kept it alive throughout the political upheaval that surrounded its adoption. Dutch traders realized its benefits, and were some of the first to embrace it. The metric system itself has an English origin, John Wilkins (1614-1672) proposed it in 1668 in a publication to the Royal Society in London. The idea was utilitarian enough to survive until the French Revolution afforded an opportunity for a country to adopt it. From that time onward, the metric system was an idea so appealing that it has displaced a multitude of other “natural” measurements.
The third claim is: “That is the difference between the English system we use (also known as the Imperial System) and the metric system: one developed gradually from the ground up and was later codified, the other was imposed from above based on the ideas of a few radicals.” We do not use the imperial system in the US. We use a far earlier version that is medieval in origin. The English realized how bad their non-system was in the 19th century and implemented half-measures to reform it. Finally, they embraced the metric system starting in 1965. England is metric.
This third claim also implies that some manner of “technical Darwinism” brought the current non-system about. This is simply not the case. The measures throughout the world were muddled, and only the metric system brought technical order, as it was created by rational thought, and not through an imaginary, mysterious, mythological process. I recommend the author look at the book Measure for Measure by Richard Young and Thomas Glover to see the thousands of versions of measurements in use before the metric system. There was never a natural decrease in the number of units until the metric system. Why? because fraud loves diversity. Thomas Jefferson was clear on this point.
The third claim, claims that people were “forced” to accept the metric system. This old hackneyed assertion was leveled at John Shafroth (1854-1922), when his metrication bill was called the metric force bill. The imposition of the metric system was an imposition of honesty on trade.
Claim four is that the dimensions of the English system, are more natural. Does he mean the British Imperial System?—-or our medieval English units? First, the width of a hand is about 100 mm, That seems rather natural to me. A foot is about 300 mm or so, the length of your leg to the waist is about 1000 mm. Natural is what people grow up with, not the system itself. Did your grade school teacher, instruct you on measures?—or impose them on you? The rationalization that the measures we use in the US are natural comes afterward, when you’ve already incorporated the information.
The fifth claim is “Defenders of the metric system stress its decimal nature frequently. Because everything works in multiples of ten, they claim…..” No I don’t claim this, period. I’m pro metric by increments of 1000, so that decimals and errors can be minimized by the use of whole numbers. The author has clearly done little research on metric system usage, or the metric system in general.
The sixth claim: “Ten is divisible evenly by two numbers: 2 and 5. That means it can be cut in half evenly, and about that’s it. Smaller fractions (other than fifths) require decimals, which is the opposite of the ease metric promises. Meanwhile the foot, being made of 12 inches, is divisible evenly by 2, 3, 4, and 6. The pound with its 16 ounces is divisible evenly by 2, 4, and 8.” First, in situations such as metric construction, 400 mm is the module dimension. A 400 mm module is divisible by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16, 20, 25, 40, 50, 80, 100, 200. Yes, the metric system was created for simplicity. Also we use more than one pound. Gold is measured in Troy pounds and feathers are in Avoirdupois. Troy has 12 ounces in a pound and Avoirdupois 16 ounces in a pound. This is a muddle. There is only one gram or Kilogram.
The seventh claim: “For scientific calculations, none of this matters, but if you’re building a house or cooking a meal, quick calculations of fractions is essential.” The false division between science and everyday measurement is conjured up out of thin air. The metric system does not require any fractions for cooking, or for the construction of a house.
His summary is no less at odds with the world at large:
“The metric system is a classic example of central planning gone wrong. While it is useful in a few ways, it has no place in the life of the average American. Traditional measurements require no coercion, because they make sense to us already. They measure our lives as they always have: on a human scale.”
The metric system, which has been of such utility in decreasing fraud, and simplifying measurement for the average person around the globe, has no place in the life of the average American? The author is right, we are exceptional.
Postscript: Peter Goodyear has brought to my attention an online petition to forbid the use of Ye Olde English units by science teachers. If you are interested in signing it, the petition is here.