The New Traditionalists

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

One of the great legacies of Pat Naughtin, in  my opinion, is his willingness to examine traditional usage of the metric system, and suggest improvements. Before I encountered his writings and lectures, I had been inculcated with the idea that when one crosses a prefix boundary, there should be an abrupt transition to the next prefix. If my last data point was 900 meters, and the next data point is 1200 meters, then one should write down 1.2 km instead of 1200 meters. I believed that this rule had been carefully considered by academics at my university, who were much wiser than myself.  Their other admonition, no concatenated prefixes, no micromicro or kilomega, made good sense and so I thoughtlessly swallowed their prescribed use of the metric system whole. Over the next couple of decades of my career, this metric dogma had become fixed. Because I mostly used inches, pounds and such at my place of employment, metric was just an internal abstract concern. My theoretical work was computed in pidgin metric, but the final number would be expressed in Ye Olde English representation. Pat Naughtin encouraged me to question my basic assumptions about metric usage. My consulting work gave me the opportunity to embrace metric exclusively. I was then able to try out Naughtin’s suggestions and develop my own thoughts. It was liberating.

From the beginning of my blog, I have made a considerable number of metric proposals. Some are ideas that would require government coordination to achieve, others could be adopted by individuals. Here is a list:

Some of these suggestions were met with minor brouhaha’s. Often BIPM documentation was cited, chapter and verse, and displeasure expressed. I continue to use these, and seldom do readers make much of a fuss these days. These have become so comfortable, they’re invisible to me.  So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read this from a metric advocate[1]:

“Don’t use centimeters!” “Use only the millimeter!” go the cries from would-be metric purists over which scale of reference to use in a particular measurement situation. Add to these screeds those who would adhere to “units” that find their definitions in metric terms such as “the” Angstrom and “the” micron, and one has a customary system within the SI. This is not the plan envisioned by the architects of the international measurement system. SI units were meant to thrive on newfound logic, not newfound tradition.

The word purist is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

a person who has very strong ideas about what is correct or acceptable and who usually opposes changes to traditional methods and practices

This definition applies to someone who opposes change. Eleven examples of suggested change are summarized in the bullet points above. I’m clearly on the side of change. One of the proposals is to eliminate the use of centi. In my view, to argue for the use of centimeters, in the light of the millimeters proven usefulness, is to be a slavish follower of tradition.  A person advocating nothing but the status quo is a purist, but a better term might be New Traditionalist. The archives of the association this New Traditionalist represents, document the anti-utility of centimeters. This hard earned realization has apparently been sacrificed on an altar of tradition and amnesia. The centimeter is back.  Strangely, New Traditionalists do not call for the use of earlier traditional metric quantities, such as the myriameter (10 000 meters), or the double deciliter, demi-deciliter, double centiliter, double gram, demi dekagram, double dekagram, demi hectogram, and so on. A myriameter is based on ten, just like the centimeter, why don’t we need a myriameter?

At least he agrees with me that the angstrom and micron should be banished—I think. The prose is rather opaque. I guess he is saying that people like myself are trying to create a replacement tradition without any rational basis behind it? I have explained my reasons for the proposed changes in considerable detail. I’ve provided links in the bullet points above to blogs that explain my rationals.

Only a New Traditionalist, would defend a “…plan envisioned by the architects of the international measurement system” that includes the use of tonne with SI. First, tonne is easily confused with the Ye Olde English ton (long or short) because it is a homophone (i.e both ton and tonne have the same pronunciation). Second, the use of a metric prefix with tonne, is obfuscating. For example, the use of Kilotonnes undermines numerical comprehension. When one encounters 39.37  Kilotonnes, and then wants to actually use this value in a metric computation, it must be first be recognized that a tonne is a Megagram. Then we apply the Kilo prefix to obtain KiloMegagram. This violates the BIPM commandment “thou shalt not concatenate prefixes,” but is accepted for use with SI? This is the plan envisioned by the architects of SI?—based on logic?

The simplicity of the metric system is buried when one has to decode an “accepted” metric expression. For example, the number of grams in 4.7 Gigagrams is straightforward, it is 4.7 x 109 grams, the number of grams in 4.7 Kilotonnes is not. New Traditionalists apparently are fine with the idea that the tonne is not part of SI, but is accepted for use with SI. It is ignored that when tonne is used with metric prefixes, it automatically violates the rule against concatenating prefixes. This is a practice the New Traditionalists apparently embrace with exaltation as part of “..the plan envisioned by the architects of of the international measurement system.” The lack of rational usage one finds with the implementation of the tonne in SI is epic. The dead weight of tradition is obvious when the tonne is logically examined. It appears New Traditionalists want to save SI from improvement and clarity. Tonne is clearly “a customary system within the SI”, but there is no objection from the New Traditionalists.

It is further stated:

However, there is a certain amount of facility that one, both as a user of decimal arithmetic and also eventually as an SI citizen, develops in placing the decimal point.

The fraction or multiple of the base unit should be selected by the eye and the mind, and not by heraldic prescription.

I guess the first statement is simply a claim that it is easier to use decimals when one uses decimals? If one doesn’t need to use decimals at all, isn’t that easier?—and in the case of millimeters for everyday work—empirically demonstrated to decrease errors?  This does not seem apparent to New Traditionalists. I find this blind spot as baffling as those who don’t see how much easier decimals are to use than fractions. Everyday people have the choice of using the side of a ruler with decimals, or a side with fractions. People in the U.S. continue to use the ruler side with fractions instead of the side with decimals.  I’m sure New Traditionalists find the fact that people don’t seem to see this obvious decimal simplicity, and use the decimal/centimeter side of a US ruler, as confounding as I find the New Traditionalists not realizing that integers are simpler than decimals, and therefore millimeters are the obvious choice.

Centimeters seem to have become a kind of fetish for The New Traditionalists. Curiously, there seems to be no fetish for centigrams dekagrams or centiliters. No chemist, or average person argues that we need to use centiliters with decimals instead of milliliters alone for volume, or centigrams dekagrams with decimals in place of grams. Why would we complicate metric length by using centimeters with decimals, when millimeters perform the same simplifying function as milliliters and grams? The choice of milliliters allows for the use of whole numbers when dealing with volume, as does the use of grams for mass. Millimeters should be an obvious choice, but for New Traditionalists, they seem to be as un-obvious as decimals are for the users of Ye Olde English fractions.

Decimal representation is absolutely essential to my engineering work, and when needed, nothing better exists. But for everyday use, it should be clear to any average person that using whole numbers on a millimeter scale is much easier than using whole numbers combined with a fraction involving 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 or 1/16. A millimeter ruler automatically has a precision of 1/25th of an inch!—and it’s much simpler to use! I don’t see how any of my metric usage suggestions are a form of medieval “heraldic prescription,” that might have been produced at an SCA meeting. As longtime readers know, I’m very much against Ye Olde English.

The New Traditionalist further states:

It is not expected that humankind will memorize the entire list [of prefixes] and be prepared to refer to it mentally when challenged to select a frame of reference.

Humankind faces a considerable number of challenges that require as much numeracy as possible—if we are to confront them rationally. Global Warming is an existential threat. The late Pat Naughtin demonstrated that with well selected metric prefixes, quantities relevant to understanding global warming, can be readily understood in relation to one another and evaluated by anyone.

Currently sea level is rising about 3-4 millimeters per year. Since 1880, tide gauge records show there has been a 200 millimeter cumulative increase in sea level. The total amount of water in the Earth’s ocean is about 1386 Exaliters. The area of the Earth’s ocean is about 335 square Megameters. With these values, we can compute an average ocean depth of about 4.14 Km. The 335 Mm2 area of the global ocean has increased its depth by 200 mm. If we multiply the total area of the ocean by the increased depth due to global warming, we arrive at the total increase in the ocean’s volume. This works out to an additional volume of about 67 Petaliters over the last century. The total amount of fresh water on Earth is about 109 Petaliters. The majority of the water entering the oceans is from melted ice. This water is drinkable; but when it is mixed with the ocean it becomes unfit for human consumption. There is not enough fresh water to dilute the ocean enough to make it drinkable. I made this point in my essay To Infinity….and Beyond. The additional amount of fresh water lost to our salt water ocean each year is about 670 Teraliters. This is drinkable water lost to humanity because of global warming. The amount of drinkable water on Earth is already critical. A minute amount of this increase in sea level is from the warming of the oceans, but with these values, and metric numeracy, one can readily estimate important quantities. The loss of naturally stored drinkable water each year is clearly an important quantity.

In this country, we readily make up songs to recall the names of all the 50 states. It would seem to me that developing a song, and teaching all 16 metric prefixes, from grade school through high school, is not asking much. Each prefix could have the size of an object in the song for reference. In my view this would be a much more worthwhile exercise than using a song to learn the names of the first 44 Presidents of the U.S. We can all recite our abc’s, and their are only 26 of them. Sixteen metric prefixes should not be a problem. I cannot see why New Traditionalists would excuse our populace from naming and committing to memory, all the metric prefixes, and understand their relationships. The issues we face as humans are more and more intertwined with science and engineering. The more directly a populace can understand quantities involving peak oil and energy or water resources and global warming, the better chance we have of making informed decisions. Rather than passively deferring these decisions to others, who may have conflicts of interest, people need to be informed. Promoting an ignorance of large metric prefixes, is truly the purview of New Traditionalists. Exclusively using only the prefixes that existed before the microscope and telescope were invented, only preserves the limited intellectual scope found within the mind of the 17th century, when we are confronted with 21st century problems.

When I look at the metric system, I see possibilities for improvement and streamlining. I argue for my position as rationally as possible. New Traditionalists embrace stasis and the apotheosis of current BIPM rulings. When people in the U.S. started using the capital letter L for liter when writing milliliters (mL), I’m sure there were New Traditionalists who were against this altered usage worldwide. Eventually the improved clarity of the new symbolism was realized and accepted. Reflexively defending the status quo, when better options have been proposed, is defending tradition and thoughtless obedience. It is the opposite of scientific discourse, it is theological discourse.

[1] Metric Today Volume 50 Number 5 September/October 2015 Page 3.

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.

12 thoughts on “The New Traditionalists

  1. I support calling a tonne what it really is, which is a megagram. However, I have yet to see or hear this unit name being used except during a debate in favor of its use. There seems to be reluctance, even among users of the SI, to take full advantage of its logic, and a tendency to fall back on inch-pound-like utterances. I cringe at this especially when I hear “use THE millimeter,” when, conceptually, the only “THE” there is the meter, abd the prefix simply expresses a decimal fraction if the SI unit of length.

  2. “Centimeters seem to have become a kind of fetish for The New Traditionalists.”
    Centimetres have limited use. We all accept that they are never to be used in engineering, manufacturing, construction, service, etc. Millimetres only, 100 %.

    But the centimetre does have its use. Clothes sizing is one. If would be very impractical to advertise clothes sizes in either metres or millimetres, even if millimetres would be the units used to produce the clothes in the factory..

    In the US (and possibly elsewhere), the centimetre is used to measure penis size. The American male measures his penis with the centimetre size of the tape measure and then changes the name to inches to make it sound more impressive. A not so spectacular 10 cm, suddenly becomes an impressive 10 inches.

    Of course this is all part of the USC practice of using obsolete USC units to deceive and cheat.

  3. As a long-time reader of this blog, I’d like to offer my first comment. I strongly agree with using millimeters as the preferred short unit of length. But this statement caught my eye:

    “Curiously, there seems to be no fetish for centigrams or centiliters. No chemist, or average person argues that we need to use centiliters with decimals instead of milliliters alone for volume, or centigrams with decimals in place of grams.”

    The analogy is incorrect. A centigram is 1/100 of a gram, so there would never be decimals of centigrams for a whole number of grams. I think you meant 1/100 of a kilogram, which is a dekagram, not a centigram. (Pat Naughtin made the same mistake in two of his articles: “centimetres or millimetres – which will you choose” and “Whole Number Rule”.) It seems to me that the dekagram/centigram mixup makes an even stronger case for discouraging the use of these prefixes.

    • Paul,

      You are quite correct. dekagram (or decagram) is what I should have used for a proper comparison. Of course the dekagram is the two letter prefix da or dag, which in my view is another argument against the prefix cluster around unity.




  4. In a nutshell, the prefix cluster around unity should be considered sort of informally, with Ametrica’s reference to clothing sizes and centimeters giving a good reason for centimeter usage. Nevertheless, perhaps 5-mm increments may be useful, which means a waist size of, say, 77.5 cm could be sold, given and expressed as 775 mm, in line with what the Maven’s desires. Thus, we could have better fitting clothes sans the false precision that 1-mm precision would give.

    And, Maven, what about the prefix hecto-? We cannot really ignore it as a hectare is 10 000 square meters, the result of a square hectometer. (In other words, it’s pedagogically sound and easily understood, whether or not it’s compared with that USC gibberish known as an acre…)

  5. David makes a good point, so I stand amended, if not corrected (grin). In terms of land area, I would be speaking “hectare” and not “square hectometer.” I suppose that the metric-speaking world has placed limits on its strict adherence to SI usage. I guess I could add kelvins, too— I don’t think there is a public media outlet on earth (emphasis on “public”) that says, “nice day today, temperature of 298 K.”

  6. Well… a possible synthesis of new prefixes for deca, hecto and kilo:

    da —> D
    h —> H
    k —> K

    (and D and H are also currently not in use for other SI prefixes).

    All magnifying prefixes would thus be uppercase; and of course deci, centi, deca and hecto would be mainly for informal, everyday use, while milli and kilo would be official prefixes, also for science and engineering (as with all the other SI prefixes based on thousands).

    (Personally, I would prefer something more systematic – like the excellent SDN nomenclature – for prefixes, but that’s probably too much, currently…)

    • In SDN (Systematic Dozenal… ehm, Decimal Nomenclature), it would be even better; for example, with the meter:

      […] (and so on for the smaller numbers, ad libitum)

      1 mm = 1 millimeter = 1 ₃m = 1 triciameter

      1 cm = 1 centimeter= 1 ₂m = 1 biciameter

      1 dm = 1 decimeter = 1 ₁m = 1 unciameter

      1 Dm = 1 decameter = 1 ¹m = 1 unquameter

      1 Hm = 1 hectometer = 1 ²m = 1 biquameter

      1 Km = 1 kilometer = 1 ³m = 1 triquameter

      […] (and so on for the larger numbers, ad libitum)

      Of course, nobody cares about all this, especially at the bureaucratic/political/decisional levels – but anyway, personally I find it quite interesting, indeed… 🙂

  7. Unfortunately, Maven, in many stores selling rulers, this statement is not true: “Everyday people have the choice of using the side of a ruler with decimals, or a side with fractions. People in the U.S. continue to use the ruler side with fractions instead of the side with decimals.”

    Many stores sell only “progressive rulers”, which means inches and fractions of on one side and Nothing on the other side! (And just who are these stores selling such to? Pupils/parents and students, of course.)

    Furthermore, when I do see metric on the other side, the ruler is frequently marked “mm” But scaled by ones (1 to 30, which is cm) instead of by tens (10 to 300 mm), which is more unnecessary confusion for something simple.

    So, it looks like in many cases we either have no choice or a somewhat-misnamed-decimal choice for something simple!

  8. Well, I looked at all my rulers and the dimension given is normally the smallest mark. A metric ruler is marked mm and 0.5 mm, because one scale is in millilimeters, the other in half millimeters, but the numerals are centimeters. A Customary ruler is marked in 32nds, 64ths, 1/10 in and 1/50 in. These are unnumbered are marked by the lengths of lines; the numerals are inches. If you are educated in either system of measure, it is not near as confusing as the Maven makes it out to be.

    I do have a ruler metric on one side that say “mm”, but a few of the numbered markes have “cm” after them, and 16th on the Customary side but “in” after a couple of the numbers.

    My point is simply that rulers are named for their smallest division, not their smallest numbered division. It ain’t hard.

    • Good point, John.

      However, are meter sticks different? I just went over and picked up my main meter stick, which is marked and numbered in cm But with the 1000-mm markings (and every fifth one a bit longer, as you indicated above) clear.

      On another SI-related matter, there was a front-page article in today’s (9/28) NYTimes titled “Progress Seen On Warming, With a Caveat”, where we find the fifth paragraph as follows [logical backeted equivalents mine]:

      “An analysis by researchers at Climate Interactive, a group whose calculations are used by American negotiators and by numerous other governments, is expected to be released Monday and was provided in advance to The New York Times. It shows that the collective pledges would reduce the warming of the planet at century’s end to about 6.3 degrees [3.5 degrees Celsius], if the national commitments are fully honored, from an expected 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit [4.5 degrees Celsius], if emissions continue on their present course.”

      Well, we at least find the following for Paragraph 17:

      “At a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed that they would try to limit the warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial temperature, a level that would require that emissions from fossil fuels largely cease within a few decades.”

      Guess The Times couldn’t ignore Celsius completely, especially with “nearly 200 countries” involved…

  9. I don’t have a “meter stick;” my longest metric ruler is 300 mm. However, I have a 5m tape. Each meter is marked 1 m, 2 m, etc. Between, it is marked 1 -99 (centimeters, but not explicitly stated) with 10 little marks between (5th is longer). It is marked mm. The user is left to figure out that 10 mm = 1 cm, but that really isn’t rocket science.

    When using the ruler or tape in hand, this is much ado about nothing. However, in forensic photography where the ruler is used to give a sense of scale, it is necessary to be marked in a way you are sure of the principal units. Maven had some good confusing examples in a prior blog where lack of familiarity with the object and unclear scale of the ruler really was cause for confusion. Including the ruler in the photo failed the purpose of providing a sense of scale.

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