Advantages to the imperial system over the metric system

An idiotic car park entrance sign in London

Why would the U.S., Liberia, and Myanmar be the only nations not “fully embracing” metrics? It may surprise you, but the metric system stinks! Both systems have their uses, but the imperial system of units may be more useful…to the common man that is. I have compiled here some interesting excerpts from three different sources that argue the fact. The basis of the argument is that while the metric system of units is based on scientific constants, the imperial system is based on the size of every day items.

From Real Clear Science:

While the metric units’ association with physical constants makes them accurate, it makes them less practical for common use. The units of cups and tablespoons developed naturally because these objects were right there in the kitchen. The gram, on the other hand, was not developed with cooking and baking in mind, so it is much smaller than it needs to be. For the same reason, the foot and the ounce are also much more user-friendly than their metric counterparts. Also, because they have a base of ten, metric units cannot be divided into as many even fractions as imperial units. A meter can only be evenly divided into 2 or 5, while a foot can be divided into 2, 3, 4, or 6.

So if you ever have to measure a third of a meter, good luck.

The argument that metrics will replace imperial units merely by educating future generations of kids in metrics falls flat because kids will naturally find imperial units easier anyway.

From Ask A Wise Man:

Despite claims from those who are ‘pro-metric-system’, neither system is based on arbitrary numbers. The metric system is based largely on something abstract – numbers – in order to make conversions easier. The imperial system is based on the way our brains work and based on what we actually use measurements for.

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As much as we like to think of our brains as being perfect tools for perceiving the world, they are actually very imperfect. Our brains are not made to understand abstract numbers. This is why we have such problems with money, and why we make so many dumb decisions. How much money is $1,000? What does 1,000 jelly beans look like? The only way we know how much $1,000 is, is by relating it to something we know that costs that much. But how does the cost of a car relate to the cost of dinner? How many dinners is a car worth?

What’s the most common thing we use measurement for? Just going on personal experience, I would say it’s the measurement of people. How tall is she? How tall am I? How much has he grown? Human height has to be the most common use of feet/inches in everyday life! Yet, the metric system is HORRIBLE at measuring people. Outside of the U.S. people’s height is measured in centimeters! That’s insane! It takes a lot of work for the brain to be conditioned to the point where 133 centimeters can be visualized.

For most things that we need to measure, a centimeter is too small and a meter is too big! But, feet and inches are naturally easy to visualize and they are the perfect size to measure most things we deal with.

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Really the only other thing that we need to visualize that’s larger than a yard are skyscrapers. Obviously, this is a relatively new thing and wasn’t a concern 100 years ago. Feet and yards are too small of a measurement, as is a meter, and a kilometer and mile are too large. So, we use “stories” to communicate height. That’s the most effective unit of measurement. We can visualize how tall a story is because we’re in rooms every day. We can visualize how tall an average room is from floor to ceiling.

And from the blog of Stakeventures:

Thus a foot is well the length of a human foot. Miles come from the latin word for thousand and basically means 1000 paces and goes back to the roman days. A cup, is well a cup. An inch is a thumb length.

Most of the old units are gone now, but the most useful ones are still with us. Why? Well because they reflect useful sizes in daily use. So if you take a moment and look at it from a usability dimension like most of us web application designers like to think we can do.

A cup or a foot or a pound might just be more usable during actual daily use. Lets think about it. For measuring the length of something smallish like a notebook 15 inches just seems easier to relate to than 38 cm. I’m sure a psychologist could explain it better.

When measuring a room feet just seems an easier unit to eyeball. I could eyeball meters but not as exactly as with feet. The keyword here is eyeballing.

Another excerpt from Real Clear Science notes:

The meter was initially defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the pole to the equator. Now length of a meter is tied to the speed of light in a vacuum, which is something that can always be found in nature and will never change.

Almost all of the metric system’s units have now been linked to some sort of universal constant, except one–the kilogram. Originally, a kilogram was defined as the mass of a cubic decimeter of water. Later, the experts forged a cylinder of mostly platinum and declared it to be exactly one kilogram. This hunk of metal has been used to calibrate the world’s scales ever since.

However, earlier this year [2011], the International Committee on Weights and Measures finally met to discuss the kilogram and its lack of a constant. The committee recommended the use of Planck’s constant, but the new standard has yet to be made official.

The reason for the continued use of Imperial Units in the U.S. is because of tradition and the purpose they serve. The real reason any society would prefer one form of measurement over another is the purpose it serves. Whereas Imperial Units are the unquestionable dominant in America, no American institution in its right mind at any point of history ever attempted measuring the length of a wave of light in Imperial Units.

Same goes for other countries. As most people just assume that other nations around the globe unquestionably use metric units for everything, most countries on earth uses some remnants of a different measurement system. I recently talked to a Canadian man who says that two-by-fours are referred to as “two-by-fours” in Canada. Another unit that is in wide use around the globe is the acre.

In the middle ages, an acre was considered the amount of land that could be plowed by a yoke of oxen in one day. Because turning around a yoke of oxen was so difficult, one acre would have a very rectangular shape. The specific size of an acre is 66 feet by 660 feet–or one chain by one furlong. One furlong being one eighth of a mile. This made so much sense as a unit to survey land, that according to wikipedia, the acre is still used to survey land in:

Antigua and Barbuda, American Samoa, The Bahamas, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Grenada, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Montserrat, Myanmar, Pakistan, Samoa, St. Lucia, St. Helena, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos, the United Kingdom, the United States and the US Virgin Islands

From the blog of Stakeventures:

England is listed as being metric. That is a joke. Everyone in England thinks in pounds, stones (yes stones), miles and feet. Panama is listed as being metric since the 20s. But if you go to the meat counter in the super market and order “medio kilo de carne molida” you will receive blank stares (and possibly a “gringo loco” under the breath). They use pounds, inches etc just like the US.

Obviously there are lots of countries that are metric, such as Denmark, Germany and Franche. But even highly metric Denmark still has remnants of it’s evolved units that stubbornly refuses to die purely for reasons of usability. Recipe’s don’t talk about using 15 milliliter’s worth of sugar but 1 tablespoon.

From the British Weights and Measurements Association:

Metric fails to produce consistent or easily understood sizing scales. Unlike the 16oz pound that is geared to multiples of two, the kilogram cannot comfortably accommodate successive halving. Thus, while some metric packaging builds up as 100g, 200g, 400g, etc, this will not integrate with one kilogram meaning that other packaging progresses as 125g, 250g, 500g, etc. Other packaging uses 75g, 150g, 300g, etc while others still use 110g, 220g, 330g, 440g. A large variety of packaged foods has no identifiable sizing scale at all, for example, tomato ketchup and brown sauce.

The above factors have contributed to a general failure of metric units to find common acceptance by British people for food and drink packaging. Technically, metric indicates quantity as accurately as the customary system, but it fails to convey meaning or value. Whereas six ounces of cheese actually sounds like a quantity of cheese, 180g of cheese is just a very large number.

The BWMA is a very interesting and easy to navigate site. A special interest group that pushes for the re-standardization of the Imperial System. Apparently, the metric shift has come at a loss for many industries in Britain. The below table demonstrates this a little.

metric chart

From the BWMA website, we also read this:

On July 4 2000, a[n] undercover female consumer protection officer made a “test purchase” of 34p worth of bananas, advertised at 25p per pound, which Mr Thoburn weighed out in lb/oz. Shortly afterwards, two more trading standards officers arrived and told Mr Thoburn that he was breaking the law. They stated that they were to impound the offending lb/oz weighing machines. When Mr Thoburn objected, two police officers were called, and Mr Thoburn was warned that his behaviour could lead to arrest for causing a breach of the peace during an operation that Mr Thoburn later described as “frightening and heavy handed”.

Mr Thoburn had three sets of weighing scales impounded, worth £1,304, and Mr Thoburn was forced to tell four of his ten staff not to come into work the following day. A Sunderland city council spokesman said: “Our advice from the DTI is that our legislation is perfectly valid. From Jan 1, it has been illegal to use machinery weighing imperial measures. If metric equipment is not installed the imperial machinery can be seized with a view to forfeiture”.

Amazing. In Britain, one could have his property seized for the mere crime of selling foods in the wrong unit of measurement. This government action protects the lives, liberty and property of no one!

Of interesting note from Stakeventures:

The metric system was originally developed by scientists during the enlightenment, but became the political tool it is today as part of the French revolution, yes it was brought to you by the good folks who also brought you the guillotine. Thus it was imposed on people from above to better their lives.

Consider that in a planned economy, like that envisioned by the radicals of the French Revolution, statesmen of the old USSR and utopians and authoritarians throughout history, the metric system is the preferred system. The government managed distribution of food, wealth, land and everything else is much more easier with metrics! Recall that in Orwell’s 1984 the old units of measurement were completely disbanded for units of measurement that made a planned economy much more easier. (If you don’t remember this part of the book, it was when the protagonist attempted asking an elderly man about the way things used to be. Also, all food rations were distributed in grams. Orwell wrote this before Britain turned to metric.)

One of the resolutions of the Communist International in 1930 noted:

You may recall that soon after the Communists captured the government of Russia, they issued a decree, which decreed–to the centimeter–how much living space a man “needs,” and if you happened to have money, they sent some ”masses” to move in.

Am I saying that if the U.S. were to go metric, we’d turn into some dystopia? That is crazy talk! If we were to become dystopic though, a commonly used metric system would indeed make ruling much more easier to the elites. Standardization of the metric system is not a requirement for an authoritarianship, as Liberia and Myanmar have both suffered internal wars and tyranny for decades.

In conclusion, leave the imperial system alone! Imperial units are more useful in day-to-day life. The metric system may be more useful in scientific areas but those who make scientific measurements on a daily basis already know the metric system as a second nature. Contrary to popular opinion, America is very far from being the only nation to use imperial units. We are not even the only nation whose population prefers imperial units. Though disinfonauts are a well-informed crowd and most would already know that Liberia and Myanmar still use the imperial system, I must stress that America isn’t even the only “first world,” “western,” “stable” or “advanced” nation whose population prefers imperial units.

The imperial system is so convenient, so conditioned among the people, so easy, so tied to the people of America, you can expect our great grandchildren will grow up being ecstatic to reach the height of “four feet and one quarter of an inch.” Not only can you expect the imperial system to stay around, but you should be happy with that. At this point, the only thing that could normalize the metric system in America is if it were to be forced upon the people. Mussolini did “make the trains run on time,” but at the expense of great personal freedom.

Also: See wikipedia page on Township.