Battle of the dinosaurs

Metric Views marks the end of 2011 by drawing attention to a recent exchange of letters in the Irish Times, one looking backwards, the other with a message to take into 2012.

This letter appeared on 15 December 2011:

“Sir, – Now that we are in the season where dissemination of accurate information about weather conditions can mean the difference between life and death, I can only hope that journalists will take the time to convert metric units into imperial ones when dealing with Met Office and other government-provided forecasts.

Like most people of my age group, when it comes to snow, I know what six inches looks like but the equivalent in centimetres is something that I cannot easily visualise. Likewise, with temperature, elevation and wind speed.

While EU-compliant officialdom may seek to kill off us old dinosaurs to hasten its goal of compulsory metrication by effectively withholding such essential information, I would urge the media to be more considerate. – Yours, etc,

John Eoin Douglas, Spey Terrace, Edinburgh, Scotland.”

Metric Views suspects that the author is using a nom de plume, and that his letter was sent to several UK newspapers as well as the Irish Times but only the latter saw fit to print it.

This response was published on 19 December:

“Sir, – I am puzzled as to why John Eoin Douglas (December 15th) has written to you. After all, his Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, which is governed by London; one of the last bastions of imperialism and things imperial, I would have thought. Has he considered writing to a London newspaper on this topic?

It has to be said that UK can’t be too averse to metrication: its currency is metric; UK subjects buy their petrol and (I believe) their food metrically. How is Mr Douglas dealing with this internal conspiracy? Mr Douglas decries “EU compliance”. I believe that for Ireland, it is much easier on the nerves of the average human being than was “empire compliance” when it was being introduced.

Being in my 70th year, I suspect that I may also be in “the old dinosaur” category that Mr Douglas is proud to belong to. I assure him that I am totally “metric compliant”. It was a painless transition and my only complaint is directed towards those fellow dinosaurs who so hate and resist change.

Such an attitude could well lead to the total extinction of us dinosaurs. – Yours, etc,

Vincent Mac Carthy, Cloncat, Athboy PO, Co Meath.”

Metric Views is pleased to remind readers that not all the real dinosaurs disappeared during the great extinction. Those that survived were the ones that were able to adapt to changing circumstances.

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13 Responses to Battle of the dinosaurs

  1. philh says:

    Those who argue that the UK should resist metrication to defy the EU merely expose their ignorance or their dishonesty.

    The international system that the UK decreed they would fully adopt several decades ago well before signing the treaty of Rome, is used globally. Even if the UK were to withdraw from the EU the case for completing the change would remain just as valid as it is now.

  2. kPa says:

    Mr. Mac Carthy brings up a very valid point. He asks: "It has to be said that UK can’t be too averse to metrication: its currency is metric; UK subjects buy their petrol and (I believe) their food metrically. How is Mr Douglas dealing with this internal conspiracy?"

    I for one would love to know how the average metric hater survives in the UK. Do they spend their waking hours looking for some rare imperial sanctuary in which to hide? When they shop and are surrounded by metric only labels, do they scour the shelves looking for those illusive labels that make contain a secondary imperial amount? Do they avoid the deli counter because the label that will be affixed to their package will show the metric amount purchased and not the imperial amount they asked for? Do they only go to small shops that may offer an imperial environment even of the products would cost more? Do they avoid buying petrol so as to pretend they never purchased by the litre?

    When encountering metric in the media do they surround themselves with calculators and conversion charts?

    What about the job? If forced to working metric do they quit rather than submit or do they whine constantly about the metric system to the annoyance of others? It can't be easy hating the metric system in a metric world.

  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    And as a follow-up to philh@, the ignorance and dishonesty he mentions becomes even more obvious when you consider what the UK would do (all the British EU-skeptics to the contrary, notwithstanding) regarding completion of metrication once the USA announces (whenever that day comes) that is it starting its own process of metrication.

    Pounds, shillings, and pence, anyone? (Or does anyone give a farthing? Or is it a guinea? Oh, wait! A half-crown!!! 🙂

  4. philh says:

    The "metric haters" as kPa refers to them, generally deny being so. They say it is the issue of compulsion that bothers them not the use of metric per se.

    The other strand of their argument is that mixed measures are OK and people should be allowed to choose.

    To win the argument we have to make the case for a single system, from which it follows that the international metric system must be the one to fulfil that role. From there it is not difficult to show that legal compulsion has to be used in some areas (principally in trade and advertising) and contractual obligations in others.

    Realistically we cannot compel it at a personal level but with proper leadership and the right environment (such as changing road signs) where they can see it working properly and begin to appreciate its advantages, people would adapt voluntarily.

    Those who steadfastly refuse to accept the case for metrication will probably never do so no matter what we say, but we can't win them all and as pointed out in the article, those who refuse to adapt will become isolated on this particular issue.

  5. kPa says:

    Phil, human nature left to itself resists change. But in reality we all change and adapt to new situations, technology, etc. It is all due to some sort of pressure or force. Sometimes we are not even aware of the pressure. Someone takes the lead and the rest follow (peer pressure).

    In our present economy the power of advertizing is meant to change peoples habits by purchasing goods and services they wouldn't normally buy or by adopting a new views on the world around us. Whereas in most of the world when metrication came about, it was planned in an organized fashion and promoted (forced) in such a positive manner that the majority of people accepted it just like a hundred years ago people switched from riding in a horse & carriage to riding in automobiles. The force to change was greater than the force to resist.

    But in the UK & the US (one a former world power & the other a declining world power), imprisoned by their past, the force to promote and educate is not strong enough. Metrication is not advertized with the same level of strength that cell phones, ipods, etc. are advertized. Thus the resistance to change is able to overcome the force to metricate and the status quo remains. But even if the UK & US are holding back, others have made the leap forward and are being rewarded for it. Former empires and powers always fall to the very bottom and never recover when their time is up, the UK & US are no different.

  6. Wild Bill says:

    PhilH says "The “metric haters” as kPa refers to them, generally deny being so. They say it is the issue of compulsion that bothers them not the use of metric per se."

    I've heard this claim before and it puzzles me. Are these people ignorant of the fact that from 1824 when the Imperial Weights and Measures act came in (replacing the old "English" measures of Queen Anne), that the full force of the law was directed against those who tried to trade in the old measures, in that only the new "imperial" measures became legal to use?

    There is a reference on the net to traders being threatened with legal action for persisting in selling potatoes by the "barrel measure" in the early 1900's - if this isn't "compulsion" what is? Amusingly this reference comes via the USMA(!), but clearly references a British situation (fine in shillings).

    Compulsion has always been a part of a government's responsibility to protect citizens from traders doing dodgy things to rip them off. It's exactly the same now, with imperial giving way to metric. The difference is that the governments of yore would likely have been a lot more proactive about enforcing weights and measures issues. A trader using Queen Anne measures after 1824 would likely have been deported to Australia. Or hanged. Or fined Forty Shillings if the judge was feeling particularly upset with them.... 🙂

  7. philh says:

    Wild Bill asks "Are these people ignorant of the fact that from 1824 when the Imperial Weights and Measures act came in (replacing the old “English” measures of Queen Anne), that the full force of the law was directed against those who tried to trade in the old measures, in that only the new “imperial” measures became legal to use?"

    Probably yes. The so called "Metric Martyrs" who tried to defy the 1995 ammendment to the 1985 weights and measures act, requiring loose goods to be sold in metric from the year 2000, gained public sympathy on the basis of ignorance. Their appeal was emotional. They allowed people to think that the law enforcing metric was a new draconian type of legislation and poor innocent market traders were being persecuted by big brother EU.

    People are not generally aware that it is quite normal for measurement units used for trade purposes to be regulated by law, let alone the 1824 act. Whilst they can naturally appreciate that measuring equipment must be calibrated and checked regularly by a recognised authority, it usually escapes them that in order to achieve this, the units used must have a legal definition and consequently selected by law.

    Metric units were legalised in the UK around 1897 but imperial units were allowed to continue, (although many of them were gradually withdrawn over the course of the twentieth century). The trouble was dual measures (and the messy confusion) were allowed to persist for far too long and whenever metric was used it was made to look awkward and unfriendly with irrational quantities.

    So in 2000 when imperial was finally deselected the UK government were only doing what they should have done a century earlier.

  8. Ken Cooper says:

    @Wild Bill

    I still have a photocopy of the "barrel measure" notice above my desk at work (along with a copy of the Weights & Measures verification charges from around the same time)

    The original documents are still in the county archives.

  9. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I wonder what people who hate the metric system, like John Eoin Douglas, do when it comes to paying their electricity bill? Do they demand that the electricity provider state the amount of electricity used in (non-existent) imperial units? Why do they not protest and not buy electricity, as it is metric units, and simply 'freeze in the dark' (old Canadian expression when Alberta got a bit ticked off by Ontario using all its oil)? No-one forces them to buy electricity, so presumably they must be happy at using some metric units in their life. And if they can use some, it's not too much to expect them to use all, whether that is buying food in the shops, measuring the temperature in the weather forecasts, or measuring their speed and distance on the roads.

  10. WJG says:

    It is commendable that Mr Mac Carthy has taken the time and effort to become "metric compliant". He has not had the advantage of the "under 45's" who have had a metric education. As for Mr Douglas he sees the exposure of metric units but fails to do the mental conversion from Imperial units. Exposure to (ie the displaying of ) metric units is a significant step in the education of the general public to metric units. Generally the public are exposed to metric units by 2 main sources, groceries in the supermaket/market (shoppers) and road signs (road users). The metrication of road signs will be a significant step towards full metrication but will require mandatory metrication (ie no dual signs).

  11. philh says:

    John, I doubt if the likes of Mr Douglas are even aware that electrical units are metric, and probably wouldn't care much if they did.

    Reading between the lines of him and others like him, the real issue is one of change and who (to their way of thinking) is asking them to do it. When they refer disparingingly to metric units they are thinking of metres versus yards and feet etc, kilograms versus pounds, or litres versus pints; in other words units and applications of measurement where we typically encounter both imperial and metric.

    You make a perfectly valid point of course John, that the objectors have used metric units all their lives often without knowing it. As another example I have not so far come across any complaints about the pharmaceutical industry and their use of the milligram and microgram. Maybe they realize there are no sensible imperial alternatves (except possibly the grain which is not well known in the UK but even that would be awkward for a dose a small as say, 25 micrograms - e.g. thyroxine tablets).

    In terms of the wider public I think part of the problem is getting them to recognize the value of a coherent system. I am convinced that it would improve their general understanding of measurement if they did. If we could break down that particular barrier, the international metric system would start to assert itself as the natural choice.

  12. MV editor says:

    One of our readers has followed up the suggestion that Mr Douglas’s letter found its way to more than one newspaper in the British Isles. He reports:

    “It seems that, as suspected, in addition to writing to the Irish Times, he did in fact write to at least one other paper, the Belfast Telegraph:
    Interesting that only papers in Ireland decided to print his complaint. Maybe they found the idea humorous.”

    Perhaps the last word on this subject should go to another of our readers who laments the diversity of the units used in weather reporting around the world. He says:

    “One area that I feel should be ripe for standardised metrication is meteorological reports. For instance, our forecasts give rainfall either in inches or cm, tide levels in metres, wind speeds in mph, heights of terrain in metres (eg. snow above 100 metres), barometric pressure sometimes in inches. In Canada, pressure is in kilopascals; in Eire wind speed is in km/h and on the continent it is in metres/sec; rainfall in Germany is in litres per sq metre. With these variations, how can anyone make sense of a met report when abroad?”

  13. Ronnie Cohen says:

    One thing that I would like to point out is that familiarity with measurement units comes with usage. For John Douglas, I suggest that he visits the thinkmetric website (web address:, which gives examples of the size of measurement units by using real-life objects and avoids conversions to imperial.

    For too long, governments have been reluctant to remove the imperial crutch so people have been encouraged to continue using and thinking in imperial and given no incentive to become familiar with metric units. Citizens in other European countries and in much of the world have no trouble with comprehending the size of metric units and thinking in metric. If successive UK governments had adopted the clean-break approach to metrication (as they did with decimalisation), we would not have a problem with the lack of familiarity with metric units.


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