METRICATION - What do you know?

Subtitled: If it ain′t broke, don′t fix it!

by A.F.Whillock

There has long been a co-ordinated drive to force every constituent of our daily affairs into a decimal-metric form, regardless of need or the damage caused to the cultural structure and to understanding of the way things are best organised and described.

The attempt, in line with EU directives, to deliberately abolish the use of traditional British measures in the retail trade, as well as for government and social use, has brought about a keen awareness by the public of these changes. As Aristotle observed, "Some things are so obvious that they are never noticed" and one could add "or appreciated, until lost".

Resultant enquiries have necessitated a concise, non-technical, overall explanation of the issues at stake, and this we attempt here. It should be appreciated that the subject has many facets, each needing its share of detail to build up a clear picture. The following notes have been compiled from views expressed by a number of authors.

For commercial reasons a low-key decision was taken in 1965 that we should "go metric", and this was hardened into a White Paper in 1972 with a target date of 1975. This was before we joined the then European Community (the Common Market), which already had a directive that the latest version of the metric system, the Système International (SI), should be used throughout the Community by 1978. There was thus political pressure also, but the UK did negotiate a two year reprieve which had extensions.

Time has now run out. EEC directives, numbers 80/181/EEC 0.1 No. L39 and 89/617/EEC 0.1 No. 357 were implemented by domestic legislation ordering metrication of retail trade for packaged goods on 1 October 1995, and for all loose goods on 1 January 2000. It will then be illegal to sell goods using pounds and ounces on pain of a fine up to 5,000. Apparently it will be allowable to sell a pound of something but only if designated as 454 grams, though this distinction does not seem to be widely understood.

Extensive discussions of details for SI appeared in the technical Press - usually an indication that basic premises are faulty - but rarely was any concern shown for the ordinary user. On the contrary, measures that had been determined by the limitations of human and animal power were used to denigrate all traditional units. This attitude ignores the fact that there are important traditional units, with their equivalents in all countries, which have evolved down the ages to be best suited to human physical needs, and which allow a meaningful perspective on the world around us and our dealings with it.

One of our tasks is to assure the public that naturally evolved measures are not so haphazard as we are led to believe and that they are more practical and truly scientific than the arbitrary, artificial arrangement now being imposed on us for little more than ignorant administrative tidiness.

The foot has its equivalent world-wide by being a measure that can be perceived at handling distance without head movement. A pound has the right "heft", while the pint, before it was fixed at twenty ounces instead of sixteen, was a pound of water - a satisfying drink for quenching thirst.

For everyday use the metric system is an awkward combination of unergonomic units embedded into a rigid framework which allows no variation for practical uses. Simply by being a system, integrated into a numbering scale, metric measures have been adopted for scientific work, thus allowing an assumption that it is founded on scientific principles, which is far from being the case. Indeed, the needs of a scientific system were not, and in some ways could not have been, recognised at the time when the metric system was invented. Perversely, the metric system just fails to make important constants like the acceleration due to gravity or the velocity of light into whole numbers.

As at the start, decimal-metric methods are not so much favoured for their presumed scientific merits as for their appeal for administrative work, where pigeonhole uniformity and the management of things take precedence. This attitude of mind is consistent with the tower-block and social engineering outlook on the management of people, which was finding favour here at much the same time as metrication.

Metrication has required compulsion in every country, being imposed from above and never adopted from below. In France, where it all began, it was an imprisonable offence to be caught dealing in dozens. To condition us in the UK gradually, we have had a "salami slice" approach, with a series of Statutory Instruments based on poorly debated "enabling legislation" passed twenty years ago and backed by legal sanctions for noncompliance.

Education is the means whereby traditional measures are expected to be eliminated, the justification being extravagant claims of time saved by using metric units. However, recent reports conclude that even an understanding of the decimal principle is poor; children happily revert to whole numbers and simple fractions outside school. Public indifference to science, and aversion to it in schools, is largely due to its not being conducted in terms that are in accord with ordinary experience.

Many a so-called reform is often no more than a transfer of difficulties to those less capable of defending themselves, with beneficiaries claiming success. The conversion of our flexible denominations of money to a more rigid arrangement was to the disadvantage, and expense, of money users who now have to carry around a greater number of coins. Fewer coins were required for payment and change with the former nondecimal divisions. This shows the indifference to divisibility engendered by a decimal scale.

Metric transmogrifiers and their sycophants show no restraint in a desire to be fashionable, and for them nothing is venerable. The new rules of cricket define the pitch and equipment in metric terms. Splendid old machines in museums are inaptly labelled in rows of millimetres and metres, sometimes with the decimal point in the wrong place, though this hardly matters when all sense of the proportions to which the machines were built is effectively destroyed by the elimination of the original standards.

Displays in stately homes are strictly metricated. Surely the measures used in their construction are part of our heritage as well, but they are being extirpated as though they were dangerous thoughts. A side-effect is the aura of spurious precision engendered by numbers containing several decimal places and these can be quite out of place in ordinary use.

Traditional measures have a strong association with the culture in which they were established, and the right to determine and maintain them should be respected. They provide a cohesive force within their area of influence by providing agreement on the ways in which material things are described and organised. If the result of universal standardisation is a world where everywhere is alike, then nowhere will be worth visiting for the experience it offers; a glance at any television schedule will show the extent to which we are becoming a world of one "culture".

Even our legal system can be affected. Due to an "unobserved" clause in a 1989 EU directive, which Britain was in due course told to implement, government administration had to be made metric. Heights of wanted persons stated in metres and centimetres (though the latter is not an approved SI unit) will mean little to most of us. Evidence in court or other proceedings will be rendered "unsafe". None of this is in the interest of justice but is an obstruction to it; metrication is presumably seen as more important.

With increasing complexity comes a declining understanding of the World and its attributes. Most people now live in ignorance of the processes on which they have become completely dependent. Metrication, with its effectively meaningless three-digit designations, does not conform to natural processes which proceed by twos, threes and fours. It is thus a further stage in our alienation from nature and reality.

Common measures, like common laws, provide safeguards against loss of liberties of thought and action by technical trickery. There is no reason why they cannot be retained for ordinary purposes alongside whatever artificial arrangement is in vogue for abstract needs. Electronic balances in stores can weigh out goods in pounds and ounces (division by sixteen is more natural for computerised equipment), and print out the bill in decimal (which is less natural), so there is no need for change.

All predictions of a regimented future assume complete decimal-metrication as a matter of course, complete with decimal time. In George Orwell's often quoted metric dystopia, 1984, the populace were kept in order by an elimination of any means whereby discontent could be expressed. In his novel Orwell uses the term "newspeak", whereby history was revised and only the latest diktat had any meaning. In reality in Britain now we have official "metrespeak" - another way of twisting language, and which hides the truth and obscures our history.

Adaptations of metric measures are made to suit practical needs. The metric foot of 30 cm, with its 25mm inches, is the basis for hardware products. For Continental architecture, design modules of 120 cm and 90 cm (a metric yard) are used to obtain whole numbers for divisions. In Denmark a twelve-centimetre unit is favoured. If we adopt strict SI (the officially reformed metric system) for all purposes, we will be debarred from participating in such evasions on pain of a 5,000 fine. Our bureaucrats seem to be more fanatically pro-metric than the rest of Europe.

A cunning, and an alarmist, ploy to counter popular resistance is a threat that we will be left behind in the race to metricate. In particular, it has been suggested that, if we do not hurry, America will "get there first". Citizens in the various states of the USA are zealous of their rights (more so than we are of ours these days) and resent needless interference by the federal government. We can be confident that measurement of the people, by the people, for the people will not vanish from the Earth.

It is recognised that an international system of measures is essential for world-wide exchange of information on scientific matters, and metric measures have acquired squatter's rights in this area for the time being. If the undoubted efforts expended on refining the metric system had worked with socially acceptable material, as was considered but unfortunately rejected at the start, we would now have a a set of measures that could provide a link between all levels of use. Instead metric measures are often a barrier to understanding for the ordinary person. Measurement should be made for man, not man for measurement.