Why scientists should join the metrication campaign

Scientists often complain that they are much misunderstood and they worry that they are failing to get their message across to the general public.  At the same time, most scientists refuse to get involved in the campaign to persuade the Government and the general public to complete the metric changeover.  Could there be a connection?

When challenged on their reluctance to get involved in the metrication debate, scientists, engineers and industrialists often reply:  “It’s not our problem. We already operate entirely in metric.  Obviously, it would be better if everybody used the same units, but we can cope with the muddle in the wider society. It is for the politicians to sort it out.”

Meanwhile, successive Ministers have indicated that they have no plans for further metrication.  They claim that stakeholders (industry, professional bodies, consumer groups) have not raised the subject, and therefore the Government will not tackle the problem.  Indeed, they fail to defend the progress already made and try to mollify opponents by blaming the EU or over-zealous trading standards officers, even suggesting that the law should not be enforced (see Times report).

One can perhaps understand the nervousness of politicians about confronting the populist tabloids on an issue that is so woefully misunderstood and misrepresented, but we should be able to expect more of scientists, engineers and industrialists, who would have much to gain from an educated and informed public comfortable with using the same units as scientists.

So what are the problems for science and industry?

It is half a century since C.P Snow drew attention to the intellectual gulf between science and the humanities. The “two cultures” still exist but they have been reinforced by a further gulf between people who speak metric, both at work and in the normal course of their lives (often people with a higher level of education, or those with some scientific or technical background), and people who prefer not to speak metric (often persons with little contact with the world of industry, technology or science).

As the Science Council recently observed (see this press release), scientists need to explain themselves better to society, especially to young people.  This is because science is much misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, resulting in much public distrust.  Symptoms of this are the growth of non-scientific (or anti-scientific) medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture, the drop in take-up of the MMR vaccine, with harmful consequences such as the preventable deaths of unvaccinated children, the campaign against genetically modified crops and in favour of “organic” farming, the growth of “creationism” as a serious alternative to Darwinism in science lessons in schools.

So what has this got to do with metrication – or, rather, with completing metrication?

It is suggested that one of the causes of this gulf of incomprehension and distrust is that scientists (and most industries) speak metric, whereas many non-scientists, even if they are partly conversant with metric units, generally default to “traditional” imperial units.  The media try (often incompetently) to translate scientific reports into imperial units and dumb them down for public consumption.  Thus, heights are measured in “double decker buses” and areas in “football pitches” or “the size of Wales”.  Similarly, industries that are entirely metric for their internal operations (e.g. private housebuilding) convert to imperial in the show house; and NHS hospitals, having carefully weighed a new-born baby in kilograms, translate into lbs and oz for the benefit of the grandmother or the media.

The fact that scientists speak in a language (metric) that is perceived as alien and “unnatural” is an additional, unnecessary barrier that makes communication with non-scientists even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  The challenge is to make metric the “natural” language of everybody.

There is also a more serious point to the intrusion of imperial measures into the NHS.  As the recent reports from LACORS2 showed, 30% of NHS hospitals still use switchable metric/imperial scales (and some even use them in the imperial mode), with the potential for disastrous errors in calculating doses, especially for young infants.

Unfortunately, the answer does not lie in education (as the Government originally hoped).  Indeed education is part of the problem.  Although maths and science have used metric units in the classroom since at least 1974, this has not been carried through to other parts of the curriculum, and there is much anecdotal evidence that teachers default to imperial in other lessons or on the football field.  Thus children learn that metric is for science and maths, but that otherwise imperial is normal. The “two systems” are entrenched.

It may even be worse than this.  The current curriculum requires the teaching of rough conversions between metric and imperial – although without formal instruction in the relationship between units (i.e. 16 oz in 1 lb, 1760 yds in a mile, etc).  The result is that many children leave school without a secure grasp of either metric or imperial but have to cope with a society that mixes both systems.  There is evidence3 from both sides of the Atlantic that attempting to teach children two incompatible systems adds one academic year to maths teaching.  Science relies heavily on a good grounding in maths, and anything that retards progress in maths must have an adverse effect on science education.

So what should be done about it – and how can scientists help?

The overriding objective should be that everybody should understand and use the same units for all purposes – including shopping, cooking, driving, in the hospital, in school, in the science lab and in the pub.  The current “two systems” approach must be brought to an end and the redundant system phased out. There clearly is no question that we could revert to the 1950s and standardise on imperial.  This would be a disaster for our international trade and for science, technology and industry in the UK.  The only practical way of standardising on a single system is to complete the metric changeover.

To quote the CBI4 as long ago as 1970: “It never made much sense to talk of industry going metric in isolation. All parts of the economy are interdependent, and whilst timing and method must be left to individual decision it is likely to be in the interests of all that the economy should move forward roughly in step together.”

Scientists can both help their own cause and do society a good turn by overcoming their reluctance to get involved in the political debate.  To their credit, the Institute of Physics supported UKMA’s publication, “A very British mess”, in 2004, but there has been very little comment from the scientific community since then.  It is time for scientists, individually and collectively, to SPEAK OUT!



1 Science Council press release (7 November 2008).  Available at http://www.sciencecouncil.org/documents/FutureMorphLaunch.pdf (viewed on 11 January 2010)


2 Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) The weight of the matter (August 2008 and June 2009) Available at http://ukma.org.uk/files/docs/19736.pdf and http://ukma.org.uk/files/docs/21749.pdf (both viewed on 11 January 2010)

3 Phelps, R.P. Education System Benefits of U.S. Metric Conversion published in Evaluation Review, February 1996.

4 Quoted in the 1972 White Paper on Metrication (paragraph 57).  Available at http://www.metric.org.uk/Docs/DTI/met1972.pdf (viewed on 11 January 2010)

9 thoughts on “Why scientists should join the metrication campaign”

  1. What scientists and engineers can do is draw attention to problems that are caused by a dual system of units. One recent example is the government giving notice that it planned to introduce dual units on height and width warning signs on British roads. This was as a result of an abnormally high proportion of foreign lorry drivers being involved in bridge-strikes. Yet, in response to the EU’s consultation on the recent updates to the Units of Measure Directive, the British Government said that they were unaware of any problems. This either means that the problem has arisen very suddenly or that the Government had not bothered to look lest they find an uncomfortable truth.

    The upshot is that scientists and engineers should look at small things that cause problems and should ask questions about those. The government might well brush them aside, but behind the scenes they will investigate. Once such example was a question that I asked my MP about using mobile phones to call the emergency services to incidents on motorways. I had a typical piece of civil service b******t in response, but within a year or two pilot studies showed that driver location signs were a good idea and they are now on all of our motorways (and no doubt the government will claim all the credit).


  2. The article is not suggesting that the measurement muddle is the only factor giving rise to a poor understanding of science but it manifestly puts people at a disadvantage.

    Scientists should at least acknowledge this and be prepared to speak up for the common sense of a compatible single system in wider society.


  3. I sometimes wonder whether an ‘SI Audit’ might be effective. This could take several forms.

    1 In a large university or laboratory a single department might be audited by another department (randomly selected) each year. This way each department becomes the examined and the examinee with obvious opportunities for pleasure, and improvement, from both sides.

    2 Senior laboratories could invite SI Auditors’ from (say) NPL in the UK or NIST in the USA.

    3 Even more senior laboratories (say a Physics laboratory at Oxford) might invite another Physics laboratory which they regard as inferior but almost equivalent (say a Physics laboratory at Cambridge) to be their ‘SI Auditor”.

    4 Someone, say NPL, could appoint teams of Si expert auditors to attend all and every (as many as possible anyway) scientific, engineering, marketing, and sales conferences from primary school science displays to learned societies to monitor and comment on SI usage.

    I suspect that the inventor of the metric system, Bishop John Wilkins, would thoroughly enjoy this sort of intellectual conflicts.


    P.S. Perhaps this suggestion comes from my Australian background where we have an entire political party, called The Democrats, who have the publicly stated aim ‘Of keeping the bast_ards honest’.

    P.P.S. A suitable date to begin your SI audit might be the date that can take the form 10-10-10.

    Cheers and best wishes,

    Pat Naughtin


  4. Often the key is to identify alternate methods of indicating natural size, rather than having to keep harking back to “customary” units.

    In this line, I would hope that the TV weather casters would say show a finger width for ~10mm, rather than saying “that’s just under half an inch”.

    If people in the know are to stop using ‘customary’ units then they must have such an alternative!

    Obviously …. the real metric value must be given first.


  5. Channel 4 broadcast five programmes entitled “Genius of Britain” on successive evenings this week, 30 May to 3 June. The London Evening Standard summed up the series, “Well meaning stuff but a trifle simple-minded”. Having seen all five, I tend to agree.

    The programmes used ‘celebrity’ scientists and an inventor to introduce brief stories about the subjects – five or six British scientists and engineers from each of the past four centuries. And each celebrity did his or her own thing on units. Richard Dawkins used mostly metric, James Dyson mostly imperial, others here or there. Why?

    At the end of the last programme, a voice-over from a celebrity physicist told us “You don’t have to be the cleverest kid in class or go to a posh school to become a great scientist”. So clearly an aim of the series was to attract young people into science. So why not use the same units that kids associate with science?

    Perhaps no thought had been given to this, either by the producer or the presenters. Or perhaps the presenters thought that using a mixture of units would demonstrate science was linked to the world outside learning and work. Or perhaps it is scientific elitism: “Up here, we scientists use metric, but down there the rest of you know your place and use imperial”.

    Personally, I feel the use of a muddle of units may have been counter-productive. The presenters included Sir David Attenborough, Prof. Stephen Hawking and Lord Robert Winston. Had they all used the measurement units that are used at school, then their example might have persuaded kids and parents that the science taught at school is the same science that had brought them fame and fortune, and might accordingly be a worthy career choice.


  6. Is describing the mass of a black hole the most absurd use of “family cars” as a measurement unit?


    The caption under the picture states, “The black hole at NGC4526’s centre is believed to have the mass of six billion trillion trillion family cars”.

    The article goes on to give the value in tonnes …

    “They focused their efforts on NGC4526 … they estimated the black hole has a mass of some 900 billion trillion trillion tonnes”

    I make it that a “family car” therefore has a mass of 150 tonnes. Really?


  7. Having just finished watching the new version of Cosmos for the third time I decided last night to download Stephen Hawking’s Universe on iTunes last night but was quickly disappointed in the complete lack of metric units in the very first episode. The narrator who doubles for Dr Hawking (perhaps because National Geographic, who produced this series, believed the audience might soon tire of listening to Dr Hawking’s own electronic voice) starts off using miles for distances but soon also starts to use pounds for weight. Not a kilometre or kilogram to be heard.

    I would hope that this might have just been nothing more than dumbing down for an American TV audience but having googled “Stephen Hawking imperial measures” I even found a letter from many years ago in Scientific American where a comment was made about his use of something called a “centinch” (sic) in a published article.

    We really do need scientists to actively use metric and avoid pressure from media to imperialise measurements for public consumption.


  8. Science and Medicine, Rugby Football and Ordnance Survey maps are the four areas where we should use metric as an everyday occurrence.


  9. @ Chris

    Why not just use one system of measure for all instances? If we use metric for rugby, why not football? If we use it for OS maps, why not road signs?
    There should be no need for more than one measure for any measurement. Why should people need to understand miles and kilometres depending on what activity they’re doing? Why not a country where people need only understand kilometres (much like all but three other large-ish countries in the world have managed to do without much fuss)?


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