Metrication Opposition

The spread of metrication [me-tri-key-shuhn] around the world in the last two centuries has been met with both support and opposition. All countries except Myanmar, Liberia, and the US have officially adopted the metric system. It has been partially adopted in the UK and Canada.

One argument used by opponents of the metric system is that traditional systems of measurement were developed organically from actual use. Early measures were human in scale. The prevalence in English of expressions such as a stone’s throw, within earshot, a cartload, or a handful illustrates both the intuitive accessibility and the inherently imprecise nature of analogous measurements and their units. 

These measurements’ developers, living and working in an era before the modern scientific method had come into existence, gave fundamental priority to ease of learning and use; moreover, the variation permissible within these measurements allowed them to be relational and commensurable: A request for a judgment of measure allowed for a variety of answers, depending on the context of the request. In parts of Malaysia, villagers asked the distance to the next village were likely to respond with three rice cookings; an approximation of the time it would take to travel there on foot. Everyone is assumed to know how long it takes to cook rice. Named units referring to seeming standards also were contextualized. The aune, a French ell used for measuring cloth, depended on the sort of cloth being measured, taking price and scarcity into account; an aune of silk was shorter than an aune of linen.

Some opponents of metrication cite an evolutionary basis for considering the difficulty of conversion between non-metric units to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage of resistance to metrication: To a degree, the use of a system in which conversions are difficult benefits persons with high mathematical aptitude at the expense of persons with lower mathematical aptitude. The use of such a system thereby increases the evolutionary advantage that mathematical aptitude provides (i.e., increases its relevance as a factor affecting fitness for survival), increases the evolutionary fitness (all other things being equal) of persons who have genetically or culturally inherited mathematical aptitude that is above the population-wide average during their reproductive years, and thereby increases the rate of growth in mathematical aptitude of the population as a whole.

The soundness of this argument is limited, however, by the imperfect correlation between aptitude and achievement: On the underinclusive side, such a system confers disadvantage rather than advantage on persons who have a high innate mathematical aptitude and/or who are born into a culture that values mathematical education but whose economic or geographical circumstances deny them access to the formal education that lets them convert these theoretical advantages into practical ones. On the overinclusive side, such a system confers unintentional advantage on individuals who can overcome this obstacle by means of an unrelated or only tangentially related advantage (e.g., economic wealth, including wealth derived through immoral means and/or inherited by chance, sufficient to provide easy access to electronic calculators).

Commentator Ken Alder noted that on the eve of the French Revolution a quarter of a million different units of measure were in use in France; in many cases quantity associated with each unit of measure differed from town to town and often from trade to trade. He claimed that the metric system originated in the ideology of Pure Reason from the more radical element of the French Revolution, that it was devised in France to try to make France ‘revenue-rich, militarily potent, and easily administered,’ and that it was part of a conscious plan to transform French culture, meant to unify and transform French society: ‘As mathematics was the language of science, so would the metric system be the language of commerce and industry.’

In his 1998 monograph ‘Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,’ political scientist James C. Scott argued that central governments attempt to impose what he calls ‘legibility’ on their subjects. Local folkways concerning measurements, like local customs concerning patronymics (derived from the name of one’s father), tend to come under severe pressure from bureaucracies. Scott’s thesis is that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to succeed, they must take into account local conditions, and that the high-modernist ideologies of the 20th century have prevented this. Scott cites the enforcement of the metric system as a specific example of this sort of failed and resented ‘improvement’ imposed by centralizing and standardizing authority.

While the metric system was introduced in the French law by the revolutionary government in April 1795, it did not immediately displace traditional measurements in the popular mind. In fact, its use was initially associated with officialdom and elitism as Chateaubriand remarked in 1828: ‘Whenever you meet a fellow who, instead of talking arpents, toises, and pieds, refers to hectares, metres, and centimetres, rest assured, the man is a prefect.’ However, it was largely used in France and in other countries by July 1837 when the decimal metric system was finally decided upon and considered the only official measurement system to be used in France.

The British Weights and Measures Association argues that adopting metric measures in shops, especially in supermarkets, gives an opportunity for traders to increase prices covertly. They give numerous examples of packaged groceries to back up this contention. However, common metric units are larger than their nearest US/imperial counterparts: half a kilogram is more than a pound (0.5 kg = 1.102 lb), one meter is more than a yard (1 m = 1.094 yd), one liter is a little more than a US quart (1 L = 1.0567 qt) (though a little less than an imperial quart, at 1 L = 0.8800 qt). When Pepsi became the first in the United States to sell soft drinks in two-liter bottles instead of two-quart (US)(1.89 L) bottles, it was a success, and two-liter bottles are now well-established in the American soft drink market, though fluid ounces remain the usual unit of measure for cans.

The move to smaller units (e.g. milliliter vs fluid ounce, gram vs ounce) allows manufacturers to move sizes of packaging up and down with more precision. For example, a 2 oz bag of chips may be moved to 50 grams, then 45 grams. Likewise, strange packaging sizes may arise, such as 690 grams (about 24 oz) or 1200 grams (about 42 oz), usually resulting from conversion and rounding of customary units. However, the Australian experience of metric conversion showed no evidence of price inflation caused by metrication.

Metric opponents cite easier division of customary units as one reason not to adopt a decimalized system. For example, the customary units with ratios of 12 and 16 have more proper factors than the metric 10 – {2, 3, 4, 6} and {2, 4, 8} vs. {2, 5}. The main disadvantage cited by critics of customary measures is the proliferation of units and difficulty in remembering the ratios between them. Also, non-metric units have had different values in different times and places. At the time of the French revolution there were over 5000 different foot measures. The current UK imperial system is based on the Weights and Measures Act 1824, about 30 years after the founding of the metric system. By contrast, the metric system has remained unchanged since it was first defined.

Even though the meter was intended to equal one ten-millionth of the length of the meridian through Paris from pole to the equator, the calculated value was subsequently found to be short by 0.2 millimeters (because researchers miscalculated the flattening of the Earth). Nevertheless, the original reference meter was retained, leaving the exact distance from equator to pole slightly more than ten million metres. Subsequent advances in science and engineering have required increased precision in the definition, so that it is now defined as the length travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1⁄299,792,458 of a second. In addition, a reference standard (a rod of platinum-iridium alloy) is maintained by the inter-governmental organisation the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, and calibration of a standard meter is usually achieved (to one part in a billion, or slightly better in some recent installations) by counting 1,579,800.298728 wavelengths of the ultra-fine (3s2 to 2p4) emission line of helium-neon laser light (this wavelength being approximately 632.99139822 nm in a vacuum). These refinements improved the precision and consistency with which the metre was defined.

The adoption of metric units has required some government compulsion and some have argued that such policies are wrong in principle. However, compulsory standards of weights and measures go back as far as Magna Carta. In 1824 in Britain, the Weights and Measures Act (‘An Act for ascertaining and establishing Uniformity of Weights and Measures’) consolidated the various gallons in use at the time and established a new imperial gallon, and prohibited the use of the older units, including what the United States now calls customary US measure.

Anti-metrication in the UK often manifests itself in conjunction with Euroscepticism because of the belief that the European Union is responsible for compulsory metrication. However, a Board of Trade committee had (without success) recommended metrication to the government in 1951, ten years before the UK first applied to join the EEC. The Board of Trade initiated metrication in 1965, with a target completion date of 1975 and the Metrication Board was established in 1968, five years before the UK actually joined the European Economic Community (on its second attempt). The EU’s own Units of Measurement Directive dated from 1971 and was substantially revised in 1979.

All statutory instruments for metrication since 1985 have relied on powers derived from the UK European Communities Act 1972. This helped to reinforce anti-EU sentiment as the British Parliament does not vote on such measures. More recently, anti-metrication supporters have asserted that the (claimed) legal compulsion to adopt the metric system instead of their traditional weights and measures is an infringement of a right to freedom of speech, though this claim has been consistently rejected by the courts. In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights rejected an application from some British shopkeepers who said that their human rights had been violated.

In the US, there is also government compulsion with weights and measures. Federal and state laws control the labeling of goods for sale in the supermarket, drugs, wine, liquor, etc. The US Fair Packaging and Labeling Act mandates that measurement must be in both metric and U.S. customary units. However, wine must be bottled in 50 mL, 100 mL, 187 mL, 375 mL, 500 mL, 750 mL, 1 L, 1.5 L, or 3 L sizes. Containers over 3 L must be bottled in quantities of even litres. No other sizes may be bottled. Spirits must also be sold in metric quantities. In 2010, NASA decided to avoid making its new Constellation rocket system metric-compliant, especially due to pressure from manufacturers. It predicted that it would cost US$368 million to convert to metric measurements for parts made by both NASA and external companies. Constellation would have borrowed technology from the 1970s-era Space Shuttle program (which used non-metric measurements in software and hardware). However, commercial space manufacturers, such as Space X, design their systems (e.g. Dragon and Falcon 9) using metric units.

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