I’ve met a lot of people and learned a lot while traveling Europe the past several weeks. Of all the things I have had to explain to fellow travels as not only an American – but a Texan – by far the most frustrating thing is our stubborn refusal to embrace the metric system. I can confidently argue the finer points of how the use of y’all and the plural form all y’all are descriptive and have a place in the American lexicon. I take pleasure in explaining the intricacies of chicken fried foods.
But the metric system is another matter. “I don’t understand why y’all don’t use the metric system” is something I’ve heard too often. I don’t argue with them because there is no technical argument for why we haven’t adopted the Système Internationale – our refusal is based on emotion and familiarity.
Our choice of unit system is perhaps more important now than in recent years. Science is conducted using the language of SI units. If we want to have a scientifically literate populace, we should make sure that scientists and non-scientists speak the same language. In terms of national competitiveness, Americans are competing on a global market of information now more than ever. We are at a disadvantage by not speaking the international language of science at a time when we are struggling with truly global issues like climate change and resource depletion.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the government arm that sets standards and measurements to support American competitiveness, concludes that “the current effort toward national metrification is based on the conclusion that industrial and commercial productivity, mathematics and science education, and the competitiveness of American products and services in world markets, will be enhanced by completing the change to the metric system of units. Failure to complete the change will increasingly handicap the Nation’s industry and economy.”
Perhaps the most ironic fact about use of our of U.S. customary units is that since 1893, we have been defining our system of units in terms of the meter and kilogram. We have essentially given ourselves the additional burden of converting from the international standard to our own system and then back again.
The closest the United States got to adopting the metric system was in 1975 when Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act designed to “coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States”. The Act did not include any hard requirements to actually transition to the metric system and so like solar panels on the White House, our conversion to metric was axed in the early 1980s.
So what can we do? In December 2012, someone started a We The People petition to make the metric system the standard in the United States. The petition received nearly 50,000 signatures and prompted a response from Patrick D. Gallagher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology, and Director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology:
In our voluntary system, it is the consumers who have the power to make this choice. So if you like, “speak” metric at home by setting your digital scales to kilograms and your thermometers to Celsius. Cook in metric with liters and grams and set your GPS to kilometers.
We were thrilled to see this petition from “We the People” succeed. Feedback like this from consumers shows everyone from policymakers to businesses how important having this choice is to Americans.
So choose to live your life in metric if you want, and thank you for signing on.
I have personally started using metric units in every day conversations with scientists and non-scientists alike. Like learning any language, you only become more skilled and eventually fluent by practicing the language often and consistently. For example, while traveling I’ve been relaying the temperature of my current location in Celsius to friends and family back home. This is often met with a “I don’t know what that means!” to which I respond with “40C is what it felt like yesterday in Austin (hot). 20C feels great. You’ll need a fleece or long-sleeve for 12C.” I don’t put it in terms of Fahrenheit. The point is not to convert, but to internalize.
Thanks to social media, I can spam everyone with metrification. I figure that if I have to see how far you ran today on MapMyRun, I can expose you to some metric units. Judging from the responses I get when I post metric status updates, the gap between the language of science and everyday people is real. From one friend:
The [English] system might be a pain, but it’s very good at explaining things in human terms. When it gets hot we can say ‘It hit triple digits this month!’.
But do humans have to be unscientific? According to the rest of the world (minus Liberia and Burma) the answer is “no”.
While speaking in metric at home is encouraged, I disagree with Mr. Gallagher’s statement that being bilingual in the unit system sense is good – it’s unnecessary. We need a national standard – not a choice – if we want to speak the language of science. Until that happens, there is always The Oatmeal’s method.
And for fun, two clips from The Simpsons about the metric system: