July 20, 2022

794 words 4 mins read

Metrication in the US - Logic Doesn't Matter

Stemming out of watching The Expanse, I recently ran across some online arguments about metrication in the United States… or lack thereof. The usual reasoning of “its more logical” is always there as is the bashing of “Americans are just stupid and prideful”. As an American who considers himself well educated and able to operate relatively well in both systems, I think there is a different take people should consider: Logic doesn’t matter (For the average person).

Lets start with looking at distances in science. It is very useful to be able to convert kilometers into centimeters. 100,000cm = 1km. It’s just a few powers of 10 after all. That is a hell of a lot better than converting 1 mile to inches. Which is 63,360in. And I only know that because I asked a search engine to convert it for me. Now what if you want to go smaller than 1 inch or 1cm? 1 cm = 10 millimeter. 1 mm = 1,000 micrometers. So on and so forth until you get to a yoctometer. On the imperial side…well, inches are as small as it gets realistically. Yes, I’m aware there are technically smaller imperial measurements - but I challenge you to find anyone who knows them without checking Wikipedia first.

Now what about distances for the average person’s average day. If you work in anything small, you’re probably still using metric so we’re ignoring that. What about going out into the world. Is the restaurant 300 feet down the road or 100 meters? Doesn’t matter. It’s just a minute or two walk. What if something is farther away, could be half a mile or 1 km. Again, for the average person that’s a 10mn walk.

When I go for my daily brisk walk, I’m looking at about 16’ 52" mile for 2 miles. That comes out to about 3.3km at a rate of 10’ 28" per km. It doesn’t make a difference which system I work in other than how it compares to my goals. If my goal is to beat my best time, I could be using Swatch Internet Time - doesn’t matter… but at least then I wouldn’t have to be doing a ton of conversions for our current silly time system.

The other common conversion that gets mentioned is temperature. This is the strongest case of “logic doesn’t matter”, people just need to experience it. It does not matter that 100° Celsius is the boiling point of water any more than 212° Fahrenheit is the same. What matters to the average person is what is todays weather? And how warm is it in my house. When it’s 40C in the UK, it’s record high temperatures. At the same time it’s over 100F in many places in the United States - hot and miserable. Which is more clearly “hot” to a human, 40 or 100? Neither, it’s just what you’re used to.

What about on a cold day. Is it better to be 40F or 4C? In either system you need to know at what point water freezes (32F/0C) in order to have something to compare against.

What is a nice temperature for inside your home? For those in the mid-latitudes probably somewhere around 70F / 21C. But again, that’s something you’re simply used to using. It’s not based on logic, it’s just a number that you know you prefer.

If not logic, then what does matter for Metrication in the United States? Exposure. More exposure. They’ve tried a little bit and failed but somewhere along the lines we just need to make the push to get everything done in both imperial (technically US Customary Units, but no one calls it that) and metric. This has long ago happened in a lot of subtle ways, like food containers. Everything in the US is already labeled in Liters or Kilograms. Do the same with road signs and I assure you in 15 years no one will really care because everyone will be adjusted to seeing both. The average person will just roughly cut a mile in half to get one kilometer. Unless you’re driving from San Francisco to Dallas, the crude rounding won’t make a difference.

Exposure will also get used to the temperature. After a few years of seeing 70F / 21C, people will know that a 20C day might be slightly brisk, bring a light jacket. Call it memorization if you will, it’s just about what people are used to. People are slow to change and adapt. The older the generation the more resistant to change they are - because they’ve done things X way their entire life. So don’t try to change everyone all at once, just bring both to the forefront and slowly phase out the old.