Why the metric system isn’t the best for everything

So apparently pirates are the reason the US doesn’t use the metric system:

In 1793, botanist and aristocrat Joseph Dombey set sail from Paris with two standards for the new “metric system”: a rod that measured exactly a meter, and a copper cylinder called a “grave” that weighed precisely one kilogram. He was journeying all the way across the Atlantic to meet Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson — a fellow fan of base-ten systems who, Dombey hoped, would help persuade Congress to go metric.

Then a storm rolled in, knocking Dombey’s ship off course. The unlucky academic was washed into the Caribbean — and straight into the clutches of British pirates. […] The brigands took Dombey hostage and looted his equipment. The luckless scientist died in prison shortly after his capture; his belongings were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

An odd story, to be sure. Kind of funny how one little event like that may have had such a big effect!

This gives me an excuse to talk about the metric system. Here’s the thing: I don’t think the metric system is better for every possible use than the imperial system.

Before I get into my defense of the imperial system, a couple of caveats. First, the metric system is better for scientific and engineering purposes; I won’t dispute that. Second, people are adaptable; it’s not as hard to change over to another measuring system as some people think, and you’ll be used to any system if you grow up with it.

That said, I think the imperial system is better for everyday life.

When measuring height in the imperial system, the amount of feet in the measure can tell you a lot about the person by itself: 2 to 4 feet usually indicates a baby or young child, 5 to 6 feet usually indicates an older child, a teenager, or an adult. With the metric system, the amount of meters isn’t very useful: less than a meter indicates a very young child, more than a meter indicates anywhere from an average child to an adult. Grading within these main measures is easier in imperial as well, since there’s 12 inches in a foot, as compared to 100 centimeters in metric (decimeters aren’t really used widely, so I’m not counting them here). Basically, in imperial, there are five benchmark heights that cover the vast majority of the population (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and within these bench marks, there are twelve subdivisions that narrow the amount of nombres you must keep track of. In metric, there’s two benchmark heights (0, 1) and 100 subdivisions within those heights.

Measuring longer distance seems to be where metric system would shine, but does it really? Outside of school, how often do you have to convert a distance from feet or yards to miles, or meters to kilometers? Not often, since everything up to about 1,200 feet or 400 yards is a comprehensible distance to most people, after which we subconsciously convert over to a quarter mile and continue from there. (I know that’s not quite a quarter mile, but that’s close enough for everyday work.) So there’s isn’t really a good advantage for metric here, other than the conversion from meters to kilometers at 1000 meters being a conscious decision.

Temperature is where imperial really shines, in my opinion. You might say “but Jeffrey, doesn’t Celsius make more sense, since it has 0 degrees where water freezes and 100 degrees where water boils?” Well, guess what? The boiling point of water is a moving target! Gain some altitude, and it starts going down. Furthermore, why do I care about the boiling point of water in my everyday life in the first place? Better question: what benefit do I get from basing the entire temperature scale on the phase changes of water? None, really, since we most often care about temperature as it relates to the climate in our own general area. For Farenheit, local climate is simple: 0 degrees is really cold and 100 degrees is really hot. Celsius is a different story: 0 degrees is pretty cold, and 100 degrees is “dead about 25 degrees ago.” 0 to 100 degrees Farenheit in Celsius is -18 to 38 degrees, which simply isn’t as easy to use as the Farenheit measure.

So again, I’m not saying metric is inferior. It is better for science and engineering, where a systematic approach and easy convertibility is more useful than everyday usage. In my opinion, though, imperial has metric beat in everyday usage.

2 thoughts on “Why the metric system isn’t the best for everything

  1. Hi Jeffes,

    Being born in a country that uses the metric system since 1820 I have to disagree to your observations. I can relate heights of people in meters as easy as you can do it feet and measuring temperature in Celsius makes perfectly sense for me.
    For me the units of the Imperial system are strange and unfamiliar.
    I think it just depends which system you learned first and has become your “primary” system. Switching is always difficult and feels alien. It took me years to make the euro my own currency instead of our old currency.

    A more interesting question would be if the US would be the last country in the world to not use the metric system in 25 years.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Victor!

      We are actually in agreement, at least as regards to how growing up with any system will make you used to that system.

      As far as the US using the metric system, I feel the rest of the world thinks we ban the metric system here, which simply isn’t true. It’s not used much in everyday life, but it’s used in most scientific and engineering applications (well, not so much civil engineering, but most other engineering does). I recently did some repairs on my car from an American company, and never once did I touch my imperial sockets or wrenches; all I ever used were the metric ones. Furthermore, most food is labelled in imperial and metric, as well.

      So to say that the US hasn’t adopted the metric system isn’t true; we just haven’t passed a law declaring that the metric system is the only system we will use. We have adopted the metric system in areas that we feel it makes sense, though.

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