Ronnie Cohen draws attention to an exchange of e-mails between a visitor to the UKMA web site and himself, on behalf of the UKMA Committee.
Two years ago, Jeremy Hastings contacted UKMA about the “Metric is foreign” myth that appeared on the UKMA website. It led to a series of correspondence between the UKMA Committee and Jeremy. It shows that UKMA takes feedback seriously from readers and is prepared to respond to valid constructive criticism.
Jeremy makes some challenging arguments about metrication. I am sure it will be something of interest to Metric Views’ readers and hope to hear their views on the correspondence between UKMA Committee members and Jeremy. For this reason, I am publishing this exchange of emails between the UKMA Committee and Jeremy.
On 9 October 2017, Jeremy contacted UKMA via its contact page under General Enquiries. Under the subject heading “Please have standards of discourse”, he wrote:
“To reject something simply because it is ‘foreign’ is both xenophobic and
stupid.” Found in adoption myths.
This is the type of argumentation style left to the Guardian and the Express. Please raise your standards and refute an argument without resorting to name calling. Your opinion of the argument is meaningless, you refute with facts. It’s a bit symbolic of the times that a website about something scientific can’t defend science with science. There may have been an argument at some point afterwards but by then you’ve lost the reader.
On 18 October 2017, Derek Pollard, Secretary of UKMA, emailed the UKMA Committee, saying:
Good to see that our web site still attracts thoughtful readers. Not sure what to make of Mr Hastings’ thoughts.
On 20 October 2017, Ronnie Cohen, an UKMA Committee member, emailed his response to the Committee, copying Jeremy in the email:
I think that Jeremy has a point. The first sentence appears to be calling those who make the claim that “metric is foreign” xenophobic and stupid.
I think that it is unnecessary for the refutation of this claim. Instead of using such labels, I would make the following claims, some of which are not covered by the text under the “Metric is foreign, …” heading:
- So what if metric is foreign? The metric system should be judged on its merits, not its origins. The development of the metric system was a truly international effort, including many valuable contributions from the British. This resulted in the Metre Convention, signed by 17 nations in 1875. The number of signatories has increased greatly since then via membership of the BIPM, the international governing body for the metric system. It now has 58 Member States and 41 Associate States and Economies (as of 17 August 2016). Clearly, the “metric is foreign” claim is not a concern among most BIPM members and associate members.
- The problem that defenders of imperial measures have with this claim is that most of the imperial units also have foreign origins. Most of them are of Roman, continental and Anglo-Saxon origin.
- Other everyday measurement tools and facilities come from abroad (e.g. the Roman calendar, the Greek Pythagoras theorem, Babylonian 360 degree angles, etc.). Do we care about their origins? Why should the origin of the metric system be any different? Why should it matter where it is from?
- If everyone rejected metric for being foreign, it would not have been universally adopted and we would still have mutually incompatible national measurement systems, which caused so many measurement problems for international trade and commerce. The metric system solved these problems.
- Can we imagine the Olympics without the common international universal metric system?
- Common standards for the internet were developed somewhere, which make the web and email possible. If these standards were rejected in most places for being foreign, would we have the benefits of the internet and would I even be able to communicate with you by email? The metric system was developed with common international measurement standards to meet the world’s measurement needs.
I hope that you can use my suggestions to improve the text under the “Metric is foreign, Imperial is British. It is unpatriotic to use metric” heading.
Jeremy responded the same day. Here is his response:
A thought on your myth it’s foreign argument maybe you should say, “That’s why you’ll love the metric system so is Imperial, that’s why it is cool.” I don’t expect you to use the word cool but I hope you understand my point. Maybe make it a historical argument, make it a history lesson. It seems where the Imperial system ends metric begins, right? Has there been anything added to the Imperial System since the creation of Metric? Clearly an indication it’s dead. Being dead doesn’t work for me, I think everyone should be required to learn Latin but I think I’m in the minority. If the education system goes Metric than I will teach my children Imperial. Some schools have stopped teaching cursive which means I will need to teach my children myself. I don’t know if any of my tangents make sense. I found your website because I was interested in how the metric system came to be, and your website was educational and gave me a greater appreciation of the Imperial System. I also learned that the Metric system is British, is that true? The way everything is labelled British in the markets in England I’m shocked it hasn’t already been labelled, “The British Metric System.” But I guess that would require everyone to love their measurement system as much as their dairy, meats, and raspberries. Anyway, thanks again for responding.
Ronnie Cohen replied to Jeremy on 22 October 2017, copying the Committee in his reply:
I read your both of your replies. I found them very interesting.
While you see the British and American measurement systems as links to the past and part of history, we must not forget that other countries also had their own national measurement systems. This includes other European countries, Japan, China and many others. Other European countries had measurement systems that also included units called pounds, ounces, feet and inches but they were all different in size from the English versions of these units.
One key point I would make against the “metric is foreign, imperial is British” argument is whether it would be better to have competing, incompatible national measurement systems or a common international measurement system. If other countries had the same kind of attitudes towards measurement, we would still have the former.
The metric system has brought great benefits for international trade and commerce, manufacturing, multinational co-operation and research, science, technology, sport, information sharing and exchange, publishing, travel and many other fields. These days, we take it for granted that when we travel abroad virtually anywhere in the world, we will encounter familiar measurement units that are used in the UK and mean the same thing all over the world because of internationally agreed measurement standards. The development and worldwide adoption of the metric system made this possible. Metric units are exactly the same all over the world. Compare that with the use of non-metric tons, gallons and pints that represent different quantities in the UK and the USA.
On 27 October 2017, Jeremy emailed the Committee the following reply:
I understand your point but does this mean we are going to have an internationally agreed language so no matter where you go you understand everything everyone says? Who’s language will it be? Please don’t let it be Esperanto. A question I don’t know the answer to: How many of these countries willing accepted Metric? I can’t help but feel many of them had it rammed down their throats by that I mean colonialism. I make that statement blindly though and am ignorant of the actual process of everyone accepting Metric. Will we be doing the same with currency? Universal measurement, language, and currency would all seem to have benefit to trade and commerce. Any barrier to communication would benefit trade but is capitalism the pinnacle of all value systems? I can see a common measurement system as important for international matters but why force it on a nation? Is it really to save a few pennies on a label in the supermarket?
Why can’t International matters be conducted in metric and then leave national measurement systems alone? Most people don’t travel more than 25 miles from where they are born. That’s in the US, god knows what it is in less developed countries. Why does it matter if their bottle of HP is in ml or oz’s? The more I think about this after reading your argument I can’t help but think this has more to do with trade than anything else. It’s easier for me if I just need one setting on the machines in my factory, and I only need one label. I get to make more money.
I think it’s great that everyone used to have their own form of measurement. Let people have their own form of measurement. If you go to a different country it gives you something new to learn. It’s good for the brain, any idea of difficult it is to drive on the left side of the road after driving in he right for twenty years? I still sometimes almost make a right hand turn into oncoming traffic. Would I say everyone should drive on the right side of the road? No, because for the first time in my life I have to think about what I’m doing when I’m driving and pay attention.
As for science that is performed by a small segment of the population. I’m assuming most scientists are fairly intelligent so they can learn an extra measurement system and if they’re not intelligent the measurement system won’t matter. Anyway, I know I might come off as illogical or basing an opinion upon emotion but that’s not my point. My only point was, please don’t resort to name calling and please don’t assume one is xenophobic and stupid because they prefer their imperial system over metric … I’m just stupid, I can’t speak for everyone else.
Jeremy expresses interesting views and perspectives on metrication that many Metric Views readers probably have not heard before. What do readers think of Jeremy’s views and of Ronnie’s replies?