Terminating Metric With Extreme Prejudice

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.

Lyn Nofziger (1924-2006)

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.

Frank Fabian Mankiewicz II (1924-2014)

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

15 thoughts on “Terminating Metric With Extreme Prejudice

  1. “He seems to be confessing to a murder he wished he had committed.” That’s just too good.

    • Whether you love metric or not – the issue for “those opposed” is NOT if metric is better. The issue is central control vs. restricted government. Just what we need: a politburo deciding more things for everyone.
      Understand the issue and positions of “the other side” of an argument before throwing stones. Otherwise, you just look stupid.

      • I just love those hot button words, “politburo,” wow. Great understanding of “the other side.”

        Well, according to our Constitution, the system of weights and measures is one of things our politburo, the US Congress, is SUPPOSED to decide. Admittedly, they haven’t done a good job, basically deciding not to decide, and leaving it in the hands of Federal agencies.

        They mouth platitudes like “metric is preferred,” and then pass laws that say, “well, we really didn’t mean you HAVE to metricate.”

  2. He may not have recognized it, but Mr. Mankiewicz’s credentials as a journalist were set back in extremis by his discussion of U.S. metrication and the action he “took” to depose it. He should have at least shown that he knew what he was talking about, but did not do so. In his tract, he could have at least called the U.S. Metric Board by name, let alone show that he had investigated the status of its activities at the time, which was moribund. He also revealed his ignorance as to what true metrication means, as if the U.S. was going to launch a successful changeover through brute force instead of national planning.

    This is a good spot to reiterate that President Ronald W. Reagan did not “end” U.S. metrication. He did not even “end” the U.S. Metric Board, the enabling legislation for which is still on the books. He merely defunded a board that had no power to act and was even divided about claiming the little influence they possessed. And, when U.S. Representative Eldon Rudd of Arizona proposed an outright repeal of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, the Reagan administration opposed the move, stating that there should be room for voluntary metrication activities. Moreover, it was this same Ronald Reagan who signed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 into law. The measure declared that the metric system of measurement to be the preferred measurement system for U.S. trade and commerce, thus assuring its place in America’s future.

    • Rather than defund the board, he should have seen the dysfunctional state it was in and corrected it. As president he knew that the battle was being fought in American business across the country. Big business, the backbone of American wealth wanted metrication, but the small ma and pa shops didn’t. What Reagen did was give both what they wanted. He took away the threat of metrication that the small ma & pa businesses felt was being pushed down their throats but also gave big business that wanted metrication an open door to close their domestic factories festering with an anti-metric attitude among the working class and move the work to countries where the metric system was both accepted and desired.

      The result is the ma & pa shops that fought metrication found themselves with out customers when the big boys left for Mexico and Asia, resulting in a nation whose economy was based on manufacturing to a nation whose economy is based on services. A service based economy is always poorer and debt ridden. America got what it wanted but not in the way it wanted it. A big price to pay for opposing metric.

  3. It kills me that sports is used as a reason not to convert. Don’t these people realize that some of the “old measures” remain even after metrification in other countries.
    As a retired 8th grade math teacher I know our education system would benefit greatly by a conversion to metric. We waste so much time teaching conversions. Some of my best and brightest students have asked me why we still use what we are using. One class even wrote a letter to current president asking for him to take action to convert to metric. Of course there was no reply to the letter.

    • There is no “if” in metrication.

      I’m sure the president never saw the letter. These letters are answered by people hired to read and respond. If the letter fell into the hands of an anti-metric “reader” it was ignored and tossed.

      Obama knows that the majority of Americans don’t want metric and if they and the country suffer from that choice, that is OK with him.

    • So your school teaches conversion to teach units?

      Me and my friends of similar ages ( 22 ) we always wondered the same thing in school as your students did. My friends have no problem consuming metric units in conversation.

      Maybe i remember incorrectly but, when i was in school we hardly touched conversion. Instead we would break out the ruler and use the metric side. Plus the use of metric in science classes starting in middle school solidified metric measurement in my brain. I also was interested in computers starting at about 10 and the industry is 90% metric.

      While, in my adult life I’ve had to learn customary measurements as the country and my brain don’t operate on the same measurement system.

  4. Rational application of the SI is essential to the success of the changeover. The U.S. has already made it the preferred system for commerce and trade, but practically speaking, this policy does, as it should, leave sports alone. The athletes and the fans should determine which units of measurement will be used in competition.

    I suspect that the above assessment of sports and measurement systems has never been discussed. Surely,this ought to have been a topic of discussion among the members of the U.S. Metric Board. It SHALL be an issue to be dealt with by a future, genuinely constituted U.S. Metric Conversion Commission!

    • If you give athletes and fans the choice of which units they want, then why would you advocate what remains of industry be forced to change? Where do you draw the line?

      To be completely successful, metrication must be across the board with no exceptions, otherwise one exception leads to another and you have a muddle.

      Before the metrication efforts of the ’70s, the US was virtually 100 % USC. Instead of having a common system across the board now, the US is a mixture of units that means many industries can not cooperate with one another.

      Sports also is the perfect teacher of units. Those exposed to metric units in sports will use them elsewhere in life when the rest of the economy is also using the same units.

  5. America has paid and continues to pay the price for the prejudices of the American media towards metrication. Well paying industrial jobs have fled the country placing millions of workers in low paying part time jobs dependent on maintaining a decent living standard by borrowing and incurring high debt.

    The two names mentioned are dead and can’t see the results of their actions. So even though they did not suffer for their efforts personally, they caused the relatives, descendents, friends, neighbours, etc to endure the pain of the lower standard of living most Americans are suffering under.

    In the meantime, the rest of the world using metric are moving up and advancing at the expense of anti-metric Americans. They are the ones developing the new technologies and establishing these new technologies in metric.

    The US is being bombarded with metric designed, engineered, manufactured and serviced products. Something these metric haters never envisioned would happen.

    And to make matters worse, their efforts never were able to stop major industries from metrication, resulting in a mixed use of units and standards whereas previously there was uniformity. A situation that comes with a high cost. A cost these two dead men will never have to endure, but their legacy are.

  6. I have been trying to make sense at the Higher Academic Institution where I work by disseminating educational, informative, and instructional emails. I have found no support by the Administration neither by the whole faculty, including those who teach areas where they have to use Metric Units. Just in few occasions I have received just a little support by some educators. By the contrary, I have received insults and offenses by many of them. It is really an “Extreme Prejudice”. In my case, I think it is because I’m from Hispanic origin (even though I’m an America citizen) and the only one in the State where I live trying to give just educational information on this crucial metrication topic for our country. I think it is a lost cause at this very moment as I told a time ago to one of the commentators here. Anyway, I will try to continue my efforts with my Metric System Project to provide more information to the community where I live.
    My sincere regards to all of you who are involved on this metric system or International System of Units-SI crusade.

    • Tony, you are a great colleague. Thank you for all your efforts. I read this article and all the comments. I cannot believe how close to a strange conspiracy the metric debate has been since the 1970s! Amazing blog piece, strong comments in the thread of replies to help clarify. But really hitting me for the first time, are the implications for manufacturing and jobs sent overseas as a china specialist.
      Thank you!

  7. I forgot to make a comment about to emails I received from two meteorologists. One of them, Mr. John Patrick from ABC-7.com, wrote an email to me saying and I quote: “At the present time, I do not envision television weather converting to metric for the simple reason that the official unit of measure in the United States is the Imperial Unit, not metric. While we, as meteorologists and scientists, use the metric system in our work, our viewers, the general population, do not.”
    The other one, chief meteorologist Mr. Phill Ferro from Channel 7 news in Miami, wrote an email and I quote: “Thank you Mr. Planas for your suggestion. I agree with you as most of all the raw data that comes in to the office is in the metric system. Unfortunately, most of our viewing audience is unfamiliar with this system.” What is our Public Educational System doing in reference to this “unfamiliar system”? What are NCTM and AMATYC doing about it? Are they really encouraging learning the Metric System in our country? What are Presidents of Colleges and Universities doing in reference to this “much-maligned-in-America Base Ten System”? As I’ve read somewhere before, there is a total lack of commitment, lack of interest, excess of apathy, specifically in the educational sector and the media.

    • Dr. Planas, Several years ago I also emailed the chief meteorologists of three of the TV stations that serve the Birmingham, Alabama area. Two of the gentlemen answered, with their replies being almost identical. One had been with the Birmingham station for many years, while the other has many years of experience but had only been in Birmingham for a short while. Both meteorologists told me that at their respective previous stations they had used SI units in at least one of their weather time slots. Both reported that they were inundated by viewers objecting to their use of SI. I often advocate the use of SI when interacting with people and I’m usually met with negative reactions.

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