Metric Lies...

The following extract is from "Metric Madness" by J.W.Batchelder (The Devin-Adair Company, Old Greenwich, Connecticut; 1981) and is used here to introduce readers to the book. Anyone wanting "Over 150 reasons for NOT converting to the Metric System" (as the title page says) will find them here.

Advocates of the metric system are fond of telling us that there are three very good reasons why we should abandon our familiar system of measurement and switch over to grams, liters, and meters. Supposedly, the metric system is more scientific, more precise, and certainly more uptodate. To clinch the argument, the metricists point out that the entire world has gone metric, with only the United States and a handful of former British colonies still measuring away in terms of inches, quarts, and ounces.

Actually, none of these facts is true. First, the entire world has not gone metric. For very sound business reasons, much of world trade is still being conducted on a basis of customary measurement.

Second, the metric system is no longer scientific; if it ever was. Scientists today calculate with computers, which use the binary system (based on 2). The metric system, of course, is supposedly based on multiples of ten.

Third, the metric system is not precise. It has been changed so many times over the years (frequently to accommodate new scientific findings) that it is now almost a model of imprecision. To give but one example: The meter was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the surface distance from the Equator to the North or South Pole. However, scientists have discovered that not only does the world bulge at the Equator, but that its surface moves as a result of tides and earth tremors. Today, the meter is defined as the distance of 1,650,763·73 vacuum wavelengths of light emitted by an electron tube containing the rare gas krypton 86. So much for precision-and simplicity.

Finally, the metric system is by no means up-to-date. It has been with us, in one form or another, for almost 200 years. Since its inception in the 1790's, there have been many propagandists extolling the virtues of kilograms and centimeters. There have been many opponents of the metric system, too. The following is taken from Men and Measures by the English writer Edward Nicholson. The words were written in 1912, but they are just as valid today.

Two systems are face to face throughout the West - the Imperial system resting on long custom and on convenience, and the Metric system on an assumption of science and on revolt against the past. It has been shown that the system which pretends to be the only scientific one, and the easiest, is a failure even in France....

The one makes men fit the measures however inconvenient; the other makes measures to fit those who have to use them. The one attacks; the other apposes a passive resistance.

I have read many books and many articles and letters in newspapers and scientific periodicals advocating the compulsory use of the metric system, optional amongst us since 1897, but which no trade, industry or profession will adopt, and I have almost invariably found that the writers knew the metric system imperfectly, and always that they knew their own very badly. 1 have found their advocacy illustrated by examples of problems in imperial weight and measure which showed defective instruction in the art of cyphering and supported by statements which were misleading and only to be charitably excused on the ground of ignorance. Too often opponents of their propaganda are sneered at as wanting in scientific knowledge, business experience, and common sense.

The propaganda of the metric system is effected from abroad by diplomacy, and from within by

  1. Calling the customary system of measurement "antiquated", a term which might be applied to Law, to Religion, to Marriage, to Property, and other ancient institutions.
  2. Calling it "irrational", when it has that great reason which comes from custom, convenience, improvement in recent times.
  3. Calling it "unscientific", when it joins to popular convenience the option of decimalization, whenever that is found convenient, in addition to the alternate decimalization already established in several series.
  4. Putting forward as current certain weights, such as the Troy pound, long ago obsolete.
  5. Putting forward as legal measures trade-units, such as the cask, the sack, etc., used for convenience in trade, as much in metric countries as with us.
  6. Putting forward, as necessary, sums and calculations which a decently taught schoolboy would laugh at.
  7. Ignoring all that is convenient in our system and all that is inconvenient in the metric system.
  8. Ignoring the satisfaction of the people of the United States with our system, even when retaining the old wine-gallon and corn-gallon.
  9. Ignoring the resistance of the French people to the metric system after a century of education in it and of police-constraint.
  10. Urging us to follow the example of other countries that have adopted it, but omitting to find out whether the people of these countries ... use it - so far as they do use it - otherwise than under compulsion. It is the governments of these countries, not the people, that have adopted it, always in the name of Science; and the day police-pressure were taken off, the old system would return, or, at the least, the decimal series would disappear.
  11. Threatening the loss of foreign trade, when our trade weights and measures are so well understood by foreign manufacturers and merchants that they find no difficulty in placing their goods on our market, and are so well known that many foreign manufacturers find it impossible to use metric standards, those in England alone accepted in most of the markets to which British manufacturers are exported.
  12. Calling opponents prejudiced, unprogressive, unscientific, wanting in business experience and common sense.

Such are the arguments used in the propaganda of a system which would make much of the past life of our country unintelligible, send most of its manufacturing machinery to the scrapheap, dislocate trade for years and bring about in our country the same struggle that is still to be seen in France between the law and the people.

J.W.Batchelder, a Vermonet engineer and author of Metric Madness, is well qualified to discuss the metric system. For over 50 years he has studied the more bizarre aspects of metrics and found them wanting. His arguments - buttressed by facts, figures, and statistics - offer convincing proof that far from being the wave of the future, the metric system is really an outmoded thing of the past.