An old habit dies hard

One of our regular contributors, John Frewen-Lord, observes that the beauty and value of the built-in simplicity and coherence of the metric system is not being learned by the UK population despite forty years of teaching.

He writes:

“This is a subject that I and others have touched upon before in past posts on Metric Views, but it seems that it perhaps needs revisiting in light of the recent YouGov survey commissioned by the UKMA. The survey showed conclusively that the British public prefers to still keep using what is a rather cumbersome and clumsy collection of disjointed measuring units, eschewing the simple and rather well integrated metric system that is not only easily available, but is what a majority of the UK population has been taught (if not actually learned) during their school days.

People keep saying that the metric system is for scientists, engineers and other specialist applications, but is not suited to everyday use. That is so wrong. One anti-metric website even states that the metric system is for bureaucrats. Considering that 95% of the world’s population uses only (or at least primarily) the metric system for every part of their lives, that makes for rather a lot of bureaucrats! Obviously that statement is simply ridiculous. The metric system is, to use its well-known tagline, ‘for all people, for all time’ (Condorcet, 1791). So why does a majority of the British public not use it, when it is so obviously much easier to use, even for ‘everyday’ calculations?

In fact, there are many occasions when, faced with a measuring problem, I find that use of the metric system really provides the only easily achieved solution – imperial simply just doesn’t ‘cut it’. The following are just a few of these problems that I have encountered that show just how simple using the metric system is in our everyday world (apologies if these sound a bit like school exam questions, but they genuinely are real problems that use of the metric system helped me to easily solve).

  1. When our previous house was being rented, the estate agent needed to measure how much heating oil was in the tank. He ‘dipped’ it by inserting a long measuring stick into the tank, and reading the oil depth mark. He noted the depth in inches, which, considering he was a chartered surveyor, rather surprised me. He then proceeded to phone his office with the depth and tank diameter, where they had ‘conversion tables’ that would give him the number of litres in the tank. Before he had even got through to his office, I had worked it out on my mobile phone calculator. [The depth, measured as 19-3/4 inches, I converted to a rounded 50 cm. The tank was 1.96 m in diameter, as per its manufacturer’s label. Using the formula Pi x r² x h, the calculation was 3.142 x 98 x 98 x 50 ÷ 1000 = 1509 litres. Or 3.142 x 0.98 x 0.98 x 0.5 x 1000 – it comes to the same thing.]
  2. A colleague who walks as a hobby mentioned that it takes him 23 minutes to walk from his house to the railway station. He knew that he walks at between 3-1/2 and 4 mph, and said that ‘one day’ he must work out exactly how far the railway station is. I immediately told him it was around 2.3 km. He picked up on the relationship between 23 minutes and 2.3 km, but was intrigued as to how they were connected like that. After I told him, we now have at least one person who has switched to SI, at least for his walking activities. Considering that less than half the YouGov respondents did not know how many yards there were in a mile, it is perhaps not surprising that people find it very difficult to do this kind of calculation in imperial units. [Using an average of say 3.7 mph, this converts to 6 km/h. Dividing by 60 gives us 100 m/min – a very useful and easily used value when calculating walking times and distances.]
  3. Similarly when driving. Anti-metric types say that imperial has that wonderful relationship of 60 mph equalling a mile a minute, and that metric doesn’t have that. Actually, it does, and better. At lower speeds over shorter distances (say a mix of urban and two-lane rural roads), we tend to measure our journey times in minutes. A good average speed for this type of journey is 60 km/h, or 1 km/min. A journey of 20 km can therefore be expected to take 20 minutes (obviously it could be very different from that). Conversely, over long distances, we tend to measure our journey times in hours. Assuming primarily motorway/dual carriageway driving, we can probably average 100 km/h. A journey of 300 km can therefore be expected to take 3 hours.
  4. My other half could not find a measuring cup to measure out 150 mL of water needed for a recipe (she does cook in metric). I came to the rescue by taking a regular cup, placing it on the electronic kitchen scales, then zeroed the scales, and poured in water until the scales read 150 g. Until that moment, she had not realised the one-to-one relationship between litres and kilograms.
  5. Likewise when our local shopping centre hosted a blood donor clinic, a young lady who was obviously a nurse of some kind accosted me and asked whether I wanted to give a pint of blood. I said that that I didn’t do pints, but might be persuaded to give half a litre. No problem, she said, and then asked if I knew what percentage of my body’s fluid content half a litre was. After a few seconds calculating in my head, I said a little over 1%, with which she concurred. She said that most people think it’s much more than that, assuming they even know that the human body is about 60% water by weight (can vary quite a bit). Considering that it is all but impossible to relate stones and pounds to pints, no wonder people have no idea how little a ‘pint’ of blood is as part of their body fluid content. [I weigh 66 kg. 60% of that is 40 kg, which means I have around 40 L of body fluid within me. 0.5 L is 1.25% of that.]
  6. Our heating system is getting old, and is not very efficient. I was pricing out the running costs of a new system, and calculated that a set of new radiators probably could give out around 12 kW of heat output on maximum heat (it’s a large old house). Our gas is priced at 5.5p/kW.h, meaning that it would cost £0.66/h to heat the house on maximum heat at 100% efficiency. I now could compare a new boiler at 97% efficiency with our old one, which the plumber has said is probably no better than 70%. (Annoyingly, new radiators are still often rated in BTUs, which is less than helpful.)

So why do we still cling to yards and miles, to stones and pounds, to pints and BTUs, and all the other weird and disconnected units of imperial measure, which make the sorts of problem solving and price comparisons noted above all but impossible? An informed public is a valuable safeguard against getting ‘ripped off’ by manufacturers, retailers and contractors alike, as well as enabling us to make correct decisions in many aspects of our lives. Yet continuing to use imperial measures, with their extreme difficulty in making meaningful comparisons, all but guarantees a public that cannot be properly informed. I guess we get what we deserve.”

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56 Responses to An old habit dies hard

  1. BrianAC says:

    It is all so true. Very sad to hear this perception of UK from across the big pond, not just the channel.
    To make this even more bizarre for you, it is quite normal for UK people to use kg for weight gain, however weight LOSS is measured in stones, get it right please!! Kg for gain, stones for loss, right?
    Distances of less than a few metres are given in feet, thereafter in metres. Longer distances are of course in miles.
    Lengths of less than 30 cm are in inches until it is down to 3 cm, then it is OK to use mm so long as it is compared to a finger nail or something.
    Degrees Celsius (centigrade to me) is used in winter, Fahrenheit in summer, that makes it all sound better.
    Snowfall is in cm up to about 2.5 cm, then in inches or even feet if it is in USA. Flood water is always in feet, it sounds better then metres. Tide height is metres as is normal water depth, unless it is very deep, then feet sound better.
    There seems to be emerging a very definite set of 'rules' for the integration of the two systems and I do not think they (the media) even realise just how ridiculous it sounds. I personally find it very difficult to follow and frankly am more than a little embarrassed by it all.
    I feel it is so ingrained into our culture (yes, our culture thing!) that it will never recover. Remember 'old habits die hard' and this habit is here to stay. Bad habits are easy to start, not so easy to cure.
    Quote me in 50 years time, those that are still posting here then.

  2. philh says:

    Re Ezra's comment: "Who knows? Maybe David Cameron will actually do something useful if he persuades Britons to pull out of the EU, ..."

    A bit off topic but just to set the record straight. The Conservative party line is to "renegotiate" the terms of UK membership rather than withdrawal. The latter is more the territory of UKIP.

    The Conservatives say they will hold a referendum if re-elected next year but only after they have done their deal. My guess is that if that comes to pass then whatever the outcome they will spin it as a great success and urge people to stay in.

    No criticism Ezra I can well understand confusion given all the rhetoric. I do agree though that the EU factor is a nuisance for metrication but I think it would be better to explain to people that the case for it remains in or out of the EU.

  3. The Glob says:

    If members the British public wish to continue with imperial non-units in their private lives - at home, in informal conversation (in my opinion) - that's their personal choice, so long as they keep this away from their professional lives and official usage (including when they drive - but this is after the road signs changeover).

    Of course, life is a lot easier when one thinks only in metric - time is saved and mistakes are avoided, it's simply a lot more efficient and better. From my own experience, I refused to use imperial when I was younger even for my own height and weight - conversions were just horrible and luckily for us, they were not examinable for my GCSE Maths (or Science, Geography etc). I believe, sadly, that I am one of the exceptions, most of my age group and younger have adapted to this wasteful measurement mess.

    People will, I think, adapt to only using metric units, once the changeover is complete - provided that they are given help, support and publicity beforehand. It is difficult to expect people to change their habits if the government is not giving the lead.

    Indeed, it is ultimately up to the government to sort out this mess, by finishing the metrication job at last. This whole issue needs to be depoliticised without further delay.

    Speaking of depoliticisation, I was wondering when the media and certain politicians will get the message that metrication has nothing to do with the EU? They seem to forget that that the UK wasn't even allowed to join the then EEC when metrication finally started.

  4. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Thanks to all for the clarifications. What a mind-blowing mess over there in Old Blighty. The word "muddle" is more than apropos even if too mild!

    Yes, confusion on all fronts (political, measurement, etc.) is the rule of the day in the UK. Completing metrication would certainly help enormously though apparently not likely anytime soon. And Labour doesn't seem to be well positioned to take over the next Parliament from what I read over here.

    Now, if only we in the States would even just get started metricating in a serious way! Not much chance of that anytime soon, alas. (Although I was both pleased and surprised to watch fairly recent National Geographic nature programs using metric exclusively. That gives me a sliver of hope! 🙂

  5. Martin Vlietstra says:

    May I back up the last poster's statement "Speaking of depoliticisation, I was wondering when the media and certain politicians will get the message that metrication has nothing to do with the EU? They seem to forget that that the UK wasn’t even allowed to join the then EEC when metrication finally started." My understanding is that in the early part of the twentieth century, the argument for retaining imperial units was to lock existing importing nations into staying with British products. By 1960 this policy was back-firing so the forerunners of the CBI petitioned for a change-over to the metric system.

  6. BrianAC says:

    Thanks to BWMA I have just read an article from the Mail (22March2014) about Basingstoke Council changing the way they measure the allotments. (
    Apparently allotments are measured in RODS (poles or perches), yes, really, a 'tradition' going back 600 years. Anyway, 'everyone' is up in arms about them changing to the dreaded METRE.
    Very strange it seems, as the EU no longer require us to do this, yes, they do say that!!
    So, if metric change is not dictated by EU law, we should not be doing it, thus we should oppose it. If it was dictated by EU law it would be an imposition, so we should oppose it.
    We can't win, can we?
    It also suggests in the article that land measure for allotments is still officially poles (apparently a pole is 5.5 yards (5.0292 m), but I guess you all know that.
    Long live the pole, bring back the cubit.
    Strangely for the Mail though, most of the comments seem to be pro metric in tone.


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