When arguing against the completion of metrication, opponents sometimes claim that the UK’s current muddled use of metric units for some things, and imperial for others, gives us an advantage that should be envied when it comes to measurement, in that it somehow makes us ‘bilingual’ in both systems.
This alleged ability has even been said to be our ‘superpower’, a skill unique in the world, that allows us to move effortlessly between imperial measurements and standard metric units (presumably in the same way that Aquaman can live both on dry land and underwater), and as such we should not be seeking to complete the move to the exclusive use of one standard system for all official purposes.
The reality of course is very different. As a YouGov survey (commissioned by UKMA in 2013) showed, British people in general have a poor knowledge of both systems, but understand metric marginally better. This continues to be confirmed by an abundance of anecdotal evidence, some recent examples of which are presented here:
The Graham Norton Show – 2021-11-26
Graham Norton chats with guests Will Smith, Richard Osman, and Chris and Rosie Ramsey. The topic of conversation moves to American actor Will Smith’s weight gain during lockdown, and his subsequent weight loss:
WS: I’m down 15 kilo from that picture right now.
RO: I love it, in America that would get a round of applause, wouldn’t it?
GN: Here it’s like, “What’s a kilo?”
CR: We don’t have the metric system.
RR: What is that? How much is 15 kilos in pounds?
WS: Oh!, 30 pounds.
RO: Now we’re interested.
RR: Oooh! That’s really good!
WS: Wait! … So you don’t? … coz, i was only saying kilos because we’re in …
GN: In Europe.
WS: … in Europe.
GN: Think again!
CR: We had a whole thing, you might have missed it.
WS: Oh, we missed it in America too.
The apparently genuine inability to understand a weight loss of “15 kilos”, while living in a country that has sold sugar in 1 kilogram bags for nearly 50 years is really quite astonishing.
One can only conclude that, for some people, the prolonged use of different systems for different purposes has led to a disconnect so profound that body weight in stones and pounds has effectively become another arbitrary size system, like dress size, or shoe size.
This should be of concern to all weight loss organisations, diet magazines, and main stream media such as the BBC, who collectively help perpetuate the use of obsolete imperial units for body weight.
It should of course be pointed out that for all official purposes, such as health, the recording of body weight switched to kilograms many years ago.
Mastermind – 2021
The fact that basic imperial conversion factors are deemed worthy of Mastermind questions proves that such knowledge is far from common. Contestants regularly struggle to answer relatively simple questions on measurement units:
Host: What imperial unit of weight is roughly equivalent to 28.35 grams?
Contestant: A pound.
Host: No, an ounce.
Host: In the standard abbreviations for units such as microgram and micrometre the prefix ‘micro’ is represented by which Greek letter?
Contestant: … Theta.
Host: No, mu.
Host: What imperial unit of weight is roughly equivalent to 453.6 grams?
Contestant: … A pound?
Christmas University Challenge – 2018-12-13
The following question was one in a whole round of questions on the subject of Fahrenheit. It should have been straight forward for anyone with a basic understanding of the scale:
JP: In the Fahrenheit scale, at standard atmospheric pressure, the interval between the freezing and boiling point of water is divided into how many degrees?
Peterhouse – Cambridge: 212, I think.
JP: No, that was the boiling point.
It’s 32 to 212 – in other words 180.
The average age of the contestants in this celebrity alumni edition of University Challenge was over 60, thus putting paid to the long-running fallacy that weather forecasts need supplementary values in Fahrenheit for older people, which in itself contradicts the notion that British people understand both systems.
In conclusion, far from being our ‘superpower’, the failure of successive governments to complete our metrication programme continues to cause measurement to be our ‘Achilles’ heel’.