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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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Jayne: Metric system measures up

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

We’ll blame Thomas Jefferson. Oh, not entirely; there are more than 200 years’ worth of criticism to dole out.

But in wondering why the United States is not entirely on the metric system, the blame apparently starts with Jefferson. As the nation’s first secretary of state, Jefferson was charged with choosing our system of weights and measures. He selected the convoluted one in which a foot is 12 inches and a yard is 3 feet and a pound is 16 ounces.

There are, indeed, more pressing issues. There is a surging pandemic and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and persistent attacks from within against our democracy.

But the recent Olympic Games served as a reminder of the absurdity of our system of weights and measures. It’s hard to get excited about a shot put going 23.30 meters when you first have to Google a conversion chart.

Not long ago, we were told this would all change. Well, I was in grade school, so maybe it was long ago. But back in the day, we were told the United States would switch to the metric system and we needed to learn it.

A meter is 100 centimeters and a kilometer is 1,000 meters and a kilogram is 1,000 grams. And it all makes sense because everything is on a base-ten model and is converted using decimal points.

Let’s face it, adding 1.33 meters to 2.08 meters is simpler than adding 4 feet, 4 3/8 inches to 6 feet, 9¾ inches. Isn’t it?

And don’t get us started on trying to figure out why water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and boils at 212. In the Celsius system, water freezes at zero degrees and boils at 100, which seems a bit more logical. That’s not technically metric, but it fits in with the discussion.

Anyway, some Americans have periodically broached the metric system without success. And in 1975 Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act to increase use of the system and to create a United States Metric Board. The key phrase? The board was tasked with coordinating “the voluntary conversion to the metric system.”

Asking Americans to voluntarily do anything is like asking them to wear masks to protect public health and slow a pandemic. It’s going to be met with resistance. And when an idea can be portrayed as being foreign or having European origins, it is going to be met with more resistance. We are nothing if not provincial and obstinate.

So, a few years after Congress passed the act and President Gerald Ford said, “The truth is that our continued use of the English system of measurement was making us an island in a metric sea,” President Ronald Reagan disbanded the U.S. Metric Board.

That island has shrunk in the past 40 years. The United States is one of three nations — along with Myanmar and Liberia — that has not officially adopted the metric system. Nothing against the good people of Myanmar and Liberia, but they probably are not the nations we want to share an island with. Even England has officially abandoned the so-called English system of measurement, joining the rest of Europe because having common standards makes it easier to do business.

Of course, the United States is more metric than we probably realize. Soft drinks are sold in two-liter bottles and prescription medicine is taken in 40-milligram doses and road races are run at 5 kilometers. Your car even has kph as part of the speedometer, although we typically ignore it.

But resistance to officially adopting the metric system remains a fascinating and uniquely American phenomenon. Well, American and Myanmar and Liberian. And it seems that joining the rest of the world in a common language of measurements would make it easier for U.S. students to join the global economy when their time comes.

As a professor at Northwestern University told LiveScience.com: “The paradox is that the way we choose to measure things is banal and boring, but it’s also super important because it structures the way we live and interact with each other.”

Even Thomas Jefferson would probably agree with that.

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