By The Metric Maven
“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In the US there are people who take a perverse pride in making a decision knowingly based on ignorance. “I’m not a scientist, but it’s obvious that heavier things fall faster than lighter ones.” John Q. Strawman is right, I would never confuse him with a scientist, and definitely not with an engineer.
The history of the non-adoption of the metric system in the United States is littered with people who are definitely not numerate or scientifically literate. Despite this deficiency they are generally the people who are in control of the political system, and decide the technical policy, or the lack of a technical policy, for the nation. This is true of Charles Davies who quashed the metric system during the time of John Kasson. The stacking of the congressional metric committee with anti-metric members during the tenure of metrication promoter John Shafroth revolved around men ignorant of the interplay of design and measurement, let alone science. In 1921 the chairman of the metric hearings argued for the judgement of the blind “science of the market” over the opinions of the scientifically minded who did not rely on the blind actions of perceived market Darwinism to provide knowledge. They argued that actual knowledge would be better.
In general these historical derailments took place with the full knowledge of the participants. Ronald Reagan decided to request that the US Metric Board be disbanded in 1980. Then in 2006 Lyn Nofziger died and a curious footnote to this decision surfaced.
Who was Lyn Nofziger? He was Born in Bakersfield, California in 1924 and earned a degree in journalism from San Jose State College. He worked as a reporter for a number of years. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and Nofzinger began to work in various capacities for the Nixon administration. According to John Dean, who was Nixon’s White House council, Nofziger helped to compile Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Lyn Nofziger worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. Following Reagan’s election, he held positions in the Reagan White House.
When Nofziger died in 2006 he was eulogized by Frank Mankiewicz (1924-2014) in the Washington Post.
So who was Frank Mankiewicz? He was born in Beverly Hills, California in 1924. His father co-wrote Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz is credited with coining the term retronym. This is a name that has been modified because it’s original meaning has ceased to be relevant because of technical innovation. Generally a leading adjective is used. Examples are: mechanical typewriter, analog watch or film camera. While these are observations of technical change, there is no evidence that Nofziger ever educated himself about technical issues of any kind. Like Nofziger, Frank Mankiewicz earned a degree in Journalism. He worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign as press secretary. Mankiewicz would announce Robert Kennedy’s death to the world in June of 1968. He would work as a campaign director for George McGovern in 1972. Mankiewicz would be on the “Master List” of Nixon’s political opponents. One wonders if Lyn Nofziger helped to place him there? Mankiewicz would return to political campaigning briefly by serving with the Presidential Campaign of Gary Hart. During this period he claimed that politics had changed. It was all about personalities, and not “does he [the candidate] have the right ideas?” In my view this observation is more ironic than if Lyn Nofziger had helped put him on Nixon’s enemies list.
What Mankiewicz wrote about in his remembrance of Nofziger is perhaps the strangest, enraptured, orgasmic-laced expression of schadenfreude toward the metric system ever put on paper:
So, during that first year of Reagan’s presidency, I sent Lyn another copy of a column I had written a few years before, attacking and satirizing the attempt by some organized do-gooders to inflict the metric system on Americans, a view of mine Lyn had enthusiastically endorsed. So, in 1981, when I reminded him that a commission actually existed to further the adoption of the metric system and the damage we both felt this could wreak on our country, Lyn went to work with material provided by each of us. He was able, he told me, to prevail on the president to dissolve the commission and make sure that, at least in the Reagan presidency, there would be no further effort to sell metric. It was a signal victory, but one which we recognized would have to be shared only between the two of us, lest public opinion once again began to head toward metrification.”
Mankiewicz appears eager to claim credit for destroying metrication in the US. In fact he is so eager, one might not immediately notice his choice of words: “He was able, he told me, to prevail on the president.” Well, the he refers to Nofziger. When Mankiewicz makes this assertion it is essentially hearsay. Neither Nofziger or Ronald Reagan is alive to corroborate this assertion. It shows an amazing amount of contempt toward the metric system by Mankiewicz, and indicates he was a black hole of ignorance when it concerns technology, numeracy, and the general welfare of the US. Mankiewicz did not ask if one has the most up-to-date scientifically accepted weights and measures, he was only interested in if a person has “the right ideas” not the best ideas. His eagerness to take credit for crushing the metric system in the US makes me wonder if “the ignorant journalist doth protest too much that he did it.” He seems to be confessing to a murder he wished he had committed. It is amazing that Mankiewicz’s zeal to destroy the metric system was so strong that as a person who worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign he would be so proud as to have lobbied a person who worked for both Nixon and Reagan to “nix” the metric system.
Neither Lyn Nofziger, nor Frank Mankiewicz had any scientific, technical, or manufacturing qualifications or experience. They were “journalists.” In Mankiewicz’s mind they determined that the two of them could judge and collude in secret to kill the metric system in the US. They terminated “…the adoption of the metric system and the damage we both felt this could wreak on our country…” Why?—because they felt it could wreak havoc on the United States. It is an admission that instinct was more important than investigation when it came to the metric system. That was all it took for this callow duo (at least a duo in Mankiewicz’s mind) to decide the fate of the metric system in the United States. In a faux bi-partisan manner, they did this dirty work out of the sight of the public, from whom their destructive secret should be kept, “lest public opinion once again… head toward metrification.” The democratic sentiments of this duo underwhelms me, but in light of the political climate of 2014, and what has been revealed about the way Washington historically fails to act in the public interest, their contempt for the public does not surprise me. It does however nauseate me. What retronym we might apply to a pair of journalists who might have existed before Mr. Mankiewicz and Mr. Nofziger? How about investigative journalist?
Pat Naughtin in his Metrication matters newsletter (2009-11-10) stated: “The sad part is that Frank Mankiewicz did not make his silly decision to inform Lyn Nofziger with facts based on research; he simply acted on the basis of personal whimsy.”
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Frank Mankiewicz. After all he was over 90 years old when he died recently, and perhaps with age and retrospect, he might have realized that his opposition to the metric system was a mistake. He clearly must have known that the entire world other than the US now uses the metric system. Surely this would give him pause to contemplate his position.
On November 12, 2013 Frank Mankiewicz appeared on Reddit to answer questions.
Someone with the handle Thereminz asked about the metric system:
Thereminz: “why the anti-metrication? metric is easy,.. personally i know and use both but i would like to see imperial phased out”
FrankMankiewicz: “….Metric–I just think it’s too disruptive, requiring too much sudden change, not only in numbers but in language—especially in sports—and mostly for the benefit of the manufacturers of equipment, tools and kitchen appliances.”
Thereminz: Ok, but it’s been like over 30 years since they wanted to convert
I’m almost thirty and i still find myself having to refer to a conversion chart when dealing with liquid measurements for imperials, ex: you can’t quickly tell me how many tablespoons are in a gallon without thinking about how many tbs in a cup howmany cups in a quart howmany quarts in a gallon
Going from one thing to the other is always different and you have to think about it, uh 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5280 feet in a mile, ok, how many yards in a mile? Bet you can’t tell me that without having to divide by 3
With metric it’s all some power of ten and you can simply tell by the name
Maybe they should have tried a little harder on changing to metric because now we have the internet, and all science uses metric and if you don’t know metric today you seem kind of dim… It puts americans at a disadvantage. It’s kind of funny to me when you see someone try to convert measurements from imperial to metric and they don’t know the conversion or someone from a different country asks their height and they can’t even tell them
Sorry if I’m rambling, i just think it would be better for us if we knew both imperial and metric
FrankMankiewicz: Let them convert. Seriously, both may be the answer, as we all become more global.
That was the end of Frank Mankiewicz entertaining any questions about metric conversion during his Reddit interaction. He has no second thoughts, or as we have seen, first thoughts about metric. Apparently in 2014 there is no need to worry about manufacturing in the US—only the importance of sports. Mankiewicz remained willfully ignorant of the subject which he vociferously opposed until his death on 2014-10-23. Frank Mankiewicz is gone, but anti-metric stalwart Senator Charles Grassley remains as deeply committed to ignorance as he and Mankiewicz did in 1975, 1978 and 1981. As Charles Darwin noted: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.