Ronnie Cohen draws attention to an exchange of e-mails between a visitor to the UKMA web site and himself, on behalf of the UKMA Committee.
Two years ago, Jeremy Hastings contacted UKMA about the “Metric is foreign” myth that appeared on the UKMA website. It led to a series of correspondence between the UKMA Committee and Jeremy. It shows that UKMA takes feedback seriously from readers and is prepared to respond to valid constructive criticism.
Jeremy makes some challenging arguments about metrication. I am sure it will be something of interest to Metric Views’ readers and hope to hear their views on the correspondence between UKMA Committee members and Jeremy. For this reason, I am publishing this exchange of emails between the UKMA Committee and Jeremy.
On 9 October 2017, Jeremy contacted UKMA via its contact page under General Enquiries. Under the subject heading “Please have standards of discourse”, he wrote:
“To reject something simply because it is ‘foreign’ is both xenophobic and
stupid.” Found in adoption myths.
This is the type of argumentation style left to the Guardian and the Express. Please raise your standards and refute an argument without resorting to name calling. Your opinion of the argument is meaningless, you refute with facts. It’s a bit symbolic of the times that a website about something scientific can’t defend science with science. There may have been an argument at some point afterwards but by then you’ve lost the reader.
On 18 October 2017, Derek Pollard, Secretary of UKMA, emailed the UKMA Committee, saying:
Good to see that our web site still attracts thoughtful readers. Not sure what to make of Mr Hastings’ thoughts.
On 20 October 2017, Ronnie Cohen, an UKMA Committee member, emailed his response to the Committee, copying Jeremy in the email:
I think that Jeremy has a point. The first sentence appears to be calling those who make the claim that “metric is foreign” xenophobic and stupid.
I think that it is unnecessary for the refutation of this claim. Instead of using such labels, I would make the following claims, some of which are not covered by the text under the “Metric is foreign, …” heading:
- So what if metric is foreign? The metric system should be judged on its merits, not its origins. The development of the metric system was a truly international effort, including many valuable contributions from the British. This resulted in the Metre Convention, signed by 17 nations in 1875. The number of signatories has increased greatly since then via membership of the BIPM, the international governing body for the metric system. It now has 58 Member States and 41 Associate States and Economies (as of 17 August 2016). Clearly, the “metric is foreign” claim is not a concern among most BIPM members and associate members.
- The problem that defenders of imperial measures have with this claim is that most of the imperial units also have foreign origins. Most of them are of Roman, continental and Anglo-Saxon origin.
- Other everyday measurement tools and facilities come from abroad (e.g. the Roman calendar, the Greek Pythagoras theorem, Babylonian 360 degree angles, etc.). Do we care about their origins? Why should the origin of the metric system be any different? Why should it matter where it is from?
- If everyone rejected metric for being foreign, it would not have been universally adopted and we would still have mutually incompatible national measurement systems, which caused so many measurement problems for international trade and commerce. The metric system solved these problems.
- Can we imagine the Olympics without the common international universal metric system?
- Common standards for the internet were developed somewhere, which make the web and email possible. If these standards were rejected in most places for being foreign, would we have the benefits of the internet and would I even be able to communicate with you by email? The metric system was developed with common international measurement standards to meet the world’s measurement needs.
I hope that you can use my suggestions to improve the text under the “Metric is foreign, Imperial is British. It is unpatriotic to use metric” heading.
Jeremy responded the same day. Here is his response:
A thought on your myth it’s foreign argument maybe you should say, “That’s why you’ll love the metric system so is Imperial, that’s why it is cool.” I don’t expect you to use the word cool but I hope you understand my point. Maybe make it a historical argument, make it a history lesson. It seems where the Imperial system ends metric begins, right? Has there been anything added to the Imperial System since the creation of Metric? Clearly an indication it’s dead. Being dead doesn’t work for me, I think everyone should be required to learn Latin but I think I’m in the minority. If the education system goes Metric than I will teach my children Imperial. Some schools have stopped teaching cursive which means I will need to teach my children myself. I don’t know if any of my tangents make sense. I found your website because I was interested in how the metric system came to be, and your website was educational and gave me a greater appreciation of the Imperial System. I also learned that the Metric system is British, is that true? The way everything is labelled British in the markets in England I’m shocked it hasn’t already been labelled, “The British Metric System.” But I guess that would require everyone to love their measurement system as much as their dairy, meats, and raspberries. Anyway, thanks again for responding.
Ronnie Cohen replied to Jeremy on 22 October 2017, copying the Committee in his reply:
I read your both of your replies. I found them very interesting.
While you see the British and American measurement systems as links to the past and part of history, we must not forget that other countries also had their own national measurement systems. This includes other European countries, Japan, China and many others. Other European countries had measurement systems that also included units called pounds, ounces, feet and inches but they were all different in size from the English versions of these units.
One key point I would make against the “metric is foreign, imperial is British” argument is whether it would be better to have competing, incompatible national measurement systems or a common international measurement system. If other countries had the same kind of attitudes towards measurement, we would still have the former.
The metric system has brought great benefits for international trade and commerce, manufacturing, multinational co-operation and research, science, technology, sport, information sharing and exchange, publishing, travel and many other fields. These days, we take it for granted that when we travel abroad virtually anywhere in the world, we will encounter familiar measurement units that are used in the UK and mean the same thing all over the world because of internationally agreed measurement standards. The development and worldwide adoption of the metric system made this possible. Metric units are exactly the same all over the world. Compare that with the use of non-metric tons, gallons and pints that represent different quantities in the UK and the USA.
On 27 October 2017, Jeremy emailed the Committee the following reply:
I understand your point but does this mean we are going to have an internationally agreed language so no matter where you go you understand everything everyone says? Who’s language will it be? Please don’t let it be Esperanto. A question I don’t know the answer to: How many of these countries willing accepted Metric? I can’t help but feel many of them had it rammed down their throats by that I mean colonialism. I make that statement blindly though and am ignorant of the actual process of everyone accepting Metric. Will we be doing the same with currency? Universal measurement, language, and currency would all seem to have benefit to trade and commerce. Any barrier to communication would benefit trade but is capitalism the pinnacle of all value systems? I can see a common measurement system as important for international matters but why force it on a nation? Is it really to save a few pennies on a label in the supermarket?
Why can’t International matters be conducted in metric and then leave national measurement systems alone? Most people don’t travel more than 25 miles from where they are born. That’s in the US, god knows what it is in less developed countries. Why does it matter if their bottle of HP is in ml or oz’s? The more I think about this after reading your argument I can’t help but think this has more to do with trade than anything else. It’s easier for me if I just need one setting on the machines in my factory, and I only need one label. I get to make more money.
I think it’s great that everyone used to have their own form of measurement. Let people have their own form of measurement. If you go to a different country it gives you something new to learn. It’s good for the brain, any idea of difficult it is to drive on the left side of the road after driving in he right for twenty years? I still sometimes almost make a right hand turn into oncoming traffic. Would I say everyone should drive on the right side of the road? No, because for the first time in my life I have to think about what I’m doing when I’m driving and pay attention.
As for science that is performed by a small segment of the population. I’m assuming most scientists are fairly intelligent so they can learn an extra measurement system and if they’re not intelligent the measurement system won’t matter. Anyway, I know I might come off as illogical or basing an opinion upon emotion but that’s not my point. My only point was, please don’t resort to name calling and please don’t assume one is xenophobic and stupid because they prefer their imperial system over metric … I’m just stupid, I can’t speak for everyone else.
Jeremy expresses interesting views and perspectives on metrication that many Metric Views readers probably have not heard before. What do readers think of Jeremy’s views and of Ronnie’s replies?
10 thoughts on “Email correspondence from the archives”
One compelling argument for having a single, metric system of measurement in the UK, especially completing metrication on the roads, is surely that schoolchildren would not have to be taught conversions between the metric norm and Imperial. Studies have been carried out about the time wasted in school on teaching those conversions, time that children could use to learn more useful skills in today’s global world, IT skills especially and non-European languages. With Brexit fast approaching, Britain is going to be exposed to the cross winds of global forces. It needs to be be prepared in every way. Hanging on to measurements from the Imperial past will be a drag anchor. The Imperial system will not serve Britain in the globalised future.
“metric is foreign, imperial is British”
Even though imperial is as foreign as British, it isn’t seen that way to the older group, because it has been ingrained for centuries. Before imperial, back about 1000 years ago before the Norman invasion, the English at that time had a decimal system based on the unit called wand. The wand was close to the modern metre in length.
When the Normans invaded they forced Roman units on the population and there was some resistance. The wand was slow to die out and before it did, it was known as the “yard and the hand”. The wand died out as the people who knew it died out. As time went on it has become almost completely forgotten and only appeared in some literature associated magic and the wand became a short stick used by magicians.
Unfortunately, the same thing has to happen with imperial. It has to die out with the people who grew up with it and the newer generations have to be ingrained and taught only SI in order to shorten the time for imperial to completely die out.
In countries that have been metric for over 100 years, most of the units have died out except for the pound which continues on as a slang term for 500 g. The pound may finally be dying out as its use among the young is fading. Some countries like China have repurposed old Chinese unit names to metric and continue to use these names even though they have metric values. Repurposing old names helps in the transition but keeps the old names going longer. As is the case with the pound in Europe lasting over 200 years after its value was set to 500 g.
The main problem with using repurposed old unit names as metric units is that it prevents using the metric system as intended. Instead of using one unit with the proper prefix, one is trapped into using only a unit with a limited prefix base and a sticking on counting words to complete the number.
Imperial will die out, but it may take 100 years for it to happen. In that time as more countries move to the top of the economic scale and replace the US, metric will be forced back on the US and it will either have to change or struggle with multiple units.
Anybody driving through central Johannesburg will notice that many north-south streets that cross Bree Street have a kink in them. At the western end of Bree Street, the kink disappears, but as one progresses eastwards, the kink gets bigger. This is clearly shown in the map on Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jhb-township-map-1890.jpg (although in some instances the kink has been “ironed” out). The underlying reason for this kink is that in 1886 gold was discovered in Johannesburg area and the South African Republic (ZAR) found itself sitting on a gold mine (or rather several gold mines). Two firms of surveyors were contracted to lay out a township immediately to the north of the area where the gold-bearing reefs broke the surface. The township followed a grid form. One firm laid out the area to the north of Bree Street and the other laid out the area to the south of Bree Street. Unbeknown to the firm laying out the southern half of the city, the ZAR used the Cape Foot for land measures (1 Cape Foot = 1.033 English feet). By the time this was discovered, it was too late to remedy the problem, so Johannesburg has lived with this problem for over a century.
How did this problem arise? The first European settlement in South Africa was established by the Dutch East India Company (VCC) in 1652 at Cape Town. The VOC intended Cape Town to be a refreshment station for voyages between the East Indies and the Netherlands. The colony grew and during the Napoleonic wars, the VOC became bankrupt and the United Kingdom seized control of the Cape. As par to the Congress of Vienna settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain retained control of the Cape. In 1824, the concept of the Imperial system of weights and measures were introduced throughout the British Empire. In the Cape Colony, all the land deeds were in units of the Rhineland foot, not the English foot, so a compromise was reached whereby the Cape foot (formerly the Rhineland foot) would continue to be used for the measurement of land. This compromise did not extend to the Colony of Natal, but when the Dutch settlers trekked into the interior form the 1830’s onwards and set up their own republics, they took the Cape foot with them.
Thus it was that a short-term compromise reached in the 1820’s that was overlooked by a surveyor in the 1880’s continues to make itself felt in the 21st century. This is, in my view, a very good reason why international standardisation of measurements should be promoted.
The idea that imperial is British is obviously because British people have no idea about the history of imperial measures, for example the pound is lb, which comes from the Latin libra which means scales or to weigh, the ounce comes from the French for 12 douze, the foot is merely pied in French
The word ounce comes from the same Latin word as inch, that being uncia. Since French is also derived from Latin, douze would also be derived from uncia. It’s funny that uncia does mean twelve, buy the ounce morphed into sixteen and lost its twelve connection at least in avoirdupois and not in troy units. Typical of USC and imperial not to remain consistent.
@ Lee Kelly
I think it’s not that British people don’t know the history of Imperial units – that they are basically continental units imported into Britain over the course of history – but that they aren’t interested and don’t like change.
People adapted very quickly, despite some resistance, to decimal currency because the old coins were replaced (some were ‘repurposed’, to use a modern verb, before being withdrawn from circulation) and so you were making a rod for your own back by converting back to shillings and pence. But with our metric changeover, there has been so much dither that the current muddle has become ingrained.
If people knew – were taught! – how British the metric system is, having first been proposed as a concept by an English Bishop and with units named after six leading British scientists, it would surely make them proud of a system that Britain has largely contributed to (but sadly does not reap the full benefit from).
Watt, electricity, everyone must have heard of that unit. Newton, force, everyone surely remembers the story about the apple falling from the tree. Kelvin, temperature and absolute zero, who’s not heard of that unit at some time in their life, Faraday, getting a bit more specialised, but you come across him in physics. Joule, surely another relatively well know name of unit. And Gray, a unit prominent in the field of radiation, not familiar to many probably.
But we should celebrate our success, celebrate – and use! – our metric system. Claim it is largely ours, though of course it is an international endeavour overall.
@Jake – I think in your reply to Kelly, you hit the nail on the head with your statement of “…don’t like change…” with respect to the “…dither and the current muddle…” that is endemic here.
@ John Smith
Thank you. I should also have added that more metric units are named after British scientists than scientists from any other countries. If that’s not an endorsement of the metric system and a reason to own it and use it in all aspects of public life, I don’t know what is.
Those units named after British scientists are not in common use among the population. Chances are the majority of the population has never even heard of them and may not even be aware of or don’t care that the names are actually British. The majority of the people are only aware of the gram, the metre, the litre, and the degree Celsius as the metric units they encounter. Other units like the watt, volt and ampere may be encountered, but I’m sure very few know they are metric units and of those that do are totally unaware how they relate to the common ones.
As I’ve said time and time again, SI is not taught correctly to the masses. SI is taught just as if it was imperial and not as a coherent system. Only a select set of units are taught instead of each base unit and the prefixes. Neither are the unit symbols taught correctly.
Thus, as far as the population is concerned, there is only the millimetre, the centimetre, the metre, the kilometre, the milligram, the gram the kilogram, the tonne, the millilitre, the litre, the hectare, and maybe a few more.
Taught this way, there is no advantage of SI over imperial other than the false belief that metric units relate to each other in factors of ten. When in fact the factor of ten relationship only relates to the prefix ranges.
If SI were taught as having interrelated units with scaling prefixes and unique specific symbols the majority would see the superior advantage and use it and support it. But, I don’t see this happening.
@ Daniel Jackson
I’m sure you’re right, but one step at a time. Everybody, unless they light their home by candlelight, will have heard of the unit Watt. (And with the changes in light bulbs in recent years they may even have heard of lumens if they light by candlelight!). I agree most people will not encounter many units beyond the ‘basics’. But that’s just the way it is. I am not an ‘expert’ myself in what I might call the ‘higher registers’. I’m not a teacher and I don’t know exactly how metric is taught, but if all official communications could at least be in the basics you mention, and we could get rid of Imperial from public life, especially on the roads, that would already be significant progress.