Thursday, January 03, 2013
I found this petition -- urging Barack Obama
to "make the Metric system the standard in the United States instead of the
Imperial system" -- amusing at first, not the least because of its misuse of
the term "imprecise" to describe the units of measurement Americans customarily
use. Precise means,
"definitely stated, defined, or fixed". Since most of the American
versions of Imperial units have been defined in terms of the Metric System for over a century, I can't help but wonder what benefit would accrue from
replacing one imprecise system of measurements with another.
On a more serious note, I will grant that our customary system can be cumbersome. Nevertheless, what difference, aside from minor inconvenience (which computers are great at easing, by the way) does it make what units one uses, so long as they have a precise definition? Among Americans used to the "Imperial" system, it is easier to communicate measurements now than it would be if everyone had to start constantly dropping everything to make (truly) cumbersome conversions to and from the Metric system. (Twelve inches to a foot is far easier to use mentally than, say, 2.54 centimeters to the inch.) When Americans and non-Americans have to communicate measures, there is the fact that a conversion step represents a point at which error can creep in, but how would converting really be much more different in practice than translating between languages? Our customary system does not impede progress: Practically all scientists use Metric units in their work. Nor does it slow education: Just how hard is it to recall that there are twelve inches in a foot? And might getting practice multiplying and dividing by numbers other than multiples of ten offer good practice in arithmetic?
Advocates of the government forcing everyone to use the Metric system -- a true advocate of the metric system would appeal to individual choice based on reason to gain actual support, rather than large quantities of "converts" at gunpoint -- seem not to be bothered by such things as the costs of converting to the Metric system, such as changing signage, or the intrusion of being required by law to post everything in units of both systems. Nor do they seem bothered by the unnecessary inconvenience to ordinary people of making such a change. Rather than give good reasons to individuals to make the change, they try to force people to do so by attempting to misuse government force. This is disturbing to say the least.
As a scientist, I find the metric system useful and I like it for that reason. As a child, I even supported the last national effort to convert. I am older and wiser now: Whatever the merits of the metric system, I'll be damned if I am going to get behind a fascistic effort, such as this, to force it down everyone else's throats. Science and progress require freedom, and this means of making the metric system more widely used is, in this light, far too costly.