Scientists often complain that they are much misunderstood and they worry that they are failing to get their message across to the general public. At the same time, most scientists refuse to get involved in the campaign to persuade the Government and the general public to complete the metric changeover. Could there be a connection?
When challenged on their reluctance to get involved in the metrication debate, scientists, engineers and industrialists often reply: “It’s not our problem. We already operate entirely in metric. Obviously, it would be better if everybody used the same units, but we can cope with the muddle in the wider society. It is for the politicians to sort it out.”
Meanwhile, successive Ministers have indicated that they have no plans for further metrication. They claim that stakeholders (industry, professional bodies, consumer groups) have not raised the subject, and therefore the Government will not tackle the problem. Indeed, they fail to defend the progress already made and try to mollify opponents by blaming the EU or over-zealous trading standards officers, even suggesting that the law should not be enforced (see Times report).
One can perhaps understand the nervousness of politicians about confronting the populist tabloids on an issue that is so woefully misunderstood and misrepresented, but we should be able to expect more of scientists, engineers and industrialists, who would have much to gain from an educated and informed public comfortable with using the same units as scientists.
So what are the problems for science and industry?
It is half a century since C.P Snow drew attention to the intellectual gulf between science and the humanities. The “two cultures” still exist but they have been reinforced by a further gulf between people who speak metric, both at work and in the normal course of their lives (often people with a higher level of education, or those with some scientific or technical background), and people who prefer not to speak metric (often persons with little contact with the world of industry, technology or science).
As the Science Council recently observed1 (see this press release), scientists need to explain themselves better to society, especially to young people. This is because science is much misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, resulting in much public distrust. Symptoms of this are the growth of non-scientific (or anti-scientific) medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture, the drop in take-up of the MMR vaccine, with harmful consequences such as the preventable deaths of unvaccinated children, the campaign against genetically modified crops and in favour of “organic” farming, the growth of “creationism” as a serious alternative to Darwinism in science lessons in schools.
So what has this got to do with metrication – or, rather, with completing metrication?
It is suggested that one of the causes of this gulf of incomprehension and distrust is that scientists (and most industries) speak metric, whereas many non-scientists, even if they are partly conversant with metric units, generally default to “traditional” imperial units. The media try (often incompetently) to translate scientific reports into imperial units and dumb them down for public consumption. Thus, heights are measured in “double decker buses” and areas in “football pitches” or “the size of Wales”. Similarly, industries that are entirely metric for their internal operations (e.g. private housebuilding) convert to imperial in the show house; and NHS hospitals, having carefully weighed a new-born baby in kilograms, translate into lbs and oz for the benefit of the grandmother or the media.
The fact that scientists speak in a language (metric) that is perceived as alien and “unnatural” is an additional, unnecessary barrier that makes communication with non-scientists even more difficult than it would otherwise be. The challenge is to make metric the “natural” language of everybody.
There is also a more serious point to the intrusion of imperial measures into the NHS. As the recent reports from LACORS2 showed, 30% of NHS hospitals still use switchable metric/imperial scales (and some even use them in the imperial mode), with the potential for disastrous errors in calculating doses, especially for young infants.
Unfortunately, the answer does not lie in education (as the Government originally hoped). Indeed education is part of the problem. Although maths and science have used metric units in the classroom since at least 1974, this has not been carried through to other parts of the curriculum, and there is much anecdotal evidence that teachers default to imperial in other lessons or on the football field. Thus children learn that metric is for science and maths, but that otherwise imperial is normal. The “two systems” are entrenched.
It may even be worse than this. The current curriculum requires the teaching of rough conversions between metric and imperial – although without formal instruction in the relationship between units (i.e. 16 oz in 1 lb, 1760 yds in a mile, etc). The result is that many children leave school without a secure grasp of either metric or imperial but have to cope with a society that mixes both systems. There is evidence3 from both sides of the Atlantic that attempting to teach children two incompatible systems adds one academic year to maths teaching. Science relies heavily on a good grounding in maths, and anything that retards progress in maths must have an adverse effect on science education.
So what should be done about it – and how can scientists help?
The overriding objective should be that everybody should understand and use the same units for all purposes – including shopping, cooking, driving, in the hospital, in school, in the science lab and in the pub. The current “two systems” approach must be brought to an end and the redundant system phased out. There clearly is no question that we could revert to the 1950s and standardise on imperial. This would be a disaster for our international trade and for science, technology and industry in the UK. The only practical way of standardising on a single system is to complete the metric changeover.
To quote the CBI4 as long ago as 1970: “It never made much sense to talk of industry going metric in isolation. All parts of the economy are interdependent, and whilst timing and method must be left to individual decision it is likely to be in the interests of all that the economy should move forward roughly in step together.”
Scientists can both help their own cause and do society a good turn by overcoming their reluctance to get involved in the political debate. To their credit, the Institute of Physics supported UKMA’s publication, “A very British mess”, in 2004, but there has been very little comment from the scientific community since then. It is time for scientists, individually and collectively, to SPEAK OUT!
1 Science Council press release (7 November 2008). Available at http://www.sciencecouncil.org/documents/FutureMorphLaunch.pdf (viewed on 11 January 2010)
2 Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) The weight of the matter (August 2008 and June 2009) Available at http://ukma.org.uk/files/docs/19736.pdf and http://ukma.org.uk/files/docs/21749.pdf (both viewed on 11 January 2010)
3 Phelps, R.P. Education System Benefits of U.S. Metric Conversion published in Evaluation Review, February 1996.
4 Quoted in the 1972 White Paper on Metrication (paragraph 57). Available at http://www.metric.org.uk/Docs/DTI/met1972.pdf (viewed on 11 January 2010)