Roger’s Rants: Switch to the Metric System, Already!

This article represents the first one where I take a step away from a strict personal finance issue to wail, rave, and generally, well, rant about subjects that are close to my heart. They will likely have some application to the world of money, as it usually doesn’t take too much effort to connect to money in some manner, but don’t expect them to be directly money related, for the most part. Do expect them to be interesting and thought-provoking, though, as it usually takes something important to make this Roger go into a rant, something like:

The Metric System

You can probably guess my position; even without the helpful title written above, it is hopefully easy to guess that a scientifically minded man like me happens to support adopting the metric system here in the United States (aka, the last remaining substantial non-metric country). The metric system otherwise known as the International System of Units, the SI system, is much simpler to understand and even simpler to use in calculations than the American standard system we continue to use. (As a side note: Although I know that the preferred term is SI system, I will use the term ‘metric system’ throughout this article as it’s what my fellow Americans generally use when referring to this measurement system.)

I could go on quite a rant about how much having America switch over the metric system will help us as a country, and as the world as a whole (and will, in just a bit), but first, quiz time! Any Americans reading this, particularly any who feel we should NOT change from the American standard system, try to answer the following questions as quickly as possible:

a. How many inches are in 18.5 yards?

b. How many liquid ounces are in 4.3 gallons?

c. How many ounces are in 1.3 short tons?

How long did it take? Did you have some trouble coming remembering things like how many ounces there were per gallon or pounds per short ton? Or what a short ton was, period? (It’s another acceptable name for the regular 2000 pound ton, just in case you’re curious.) The answers at the end of the article, so you can gauge your performance.

This should give you a pretty good idea of just how tricky the American standard system can be, and I didn’t even get into the really tricky units like drams, hogsheads, or picas. (All of which are legitimate American standard units, I promise, even hogsheads.) Just in case you think I’m letting all the metric system users off the hook, let’s give them a similar quiz:

d. How many millimeters are in 1.3 meters?

e. How many milliliters are in 5.6 kiloliters?

f. How many grams are in 8.4 kilograms?

It should take only a few seconds for anyone with a basic understanding of the metric system. Even if you’ve never used the metric system before, you might be able to notice a few trends, like each unit making the same type of measurement ending with the same base unit (meters, liters, grams) and the same prefixes are used for each types of base unit (milli- and kilo- were both used twicein these questions, for example). All of this leads into the main point of this article:

Why Use The Metric System?

1. It’s Simpler: Hopefully, these short quizzes, and particularly the American standard system one, will help to remind anyone intent on sticking with that system that it is tricky at best, and downright confusing at worst. The metric system does take some time to learn, this is true, but compared to trying to learn the American standard system, it’s not that tough, and certainly more logical. It simply takes a little time for those of us who didn’t grow up using it to adapt to it. While we’re talking about learning:

2. Any Science Major Will Need to Learn It, Anyway: I’ve noted, more than once, that I’m a biochemist who has spent most of the past decade in universities, either as a student or a tutor. I’ve discovered that nearly every introductory science course starts by teaching students who are used to the American standard system how to use the metric system. That’s several weeks, sometimes as much as a month (or most of the semester, for some of the supplemental courses) spent teaching students something not directly related to the material of the course, time that could be spent on the material. Why spend so much time teaching a whole new system to these students? Besides being simpler to use for complex science calculations, there’s also that fact that:

3. It’s Used By Nearly Every Other Country On Earth: One thing that you need to do as a scientist, or in many other professions, is being able to communicate across country lines. You need to be able to read articles written by foreign scientists, and have your own writing be understood around the world. With the United States being one of the very, very few countries (along with Myanmar and Liberia, a grand group) to not use the metric system, being able to communicate and understand anything from any of the other countries in the world requires at least a basic knowledge of the metric system.

4. We’ve Already Started to Convert (At Least, a Little Bit): In spite of all the opposition to the metric system by some very vocal (and apparently, surprisingly influential), there are metric measurements showing up in more and more places in the U.S. From 2 liter bottles (and increasingly, 1 liter and 500 milliliter bottles) to measurements of nutrients in grams and milligrams, there’s plenty of areas where even people who vigorously oppose the use of the metric system have started to give way. Add in the fairly common uses of both the American and metric system measurements in numerous places (like the speedometers on cars), and most Americans are getting at least exposure to the metric system, in spite of what they might think.

5. It’s Easier: Yeah, this is pretty much the same as point number 1, but it is still incredibly important. As tricky as the metric system can be at times, compared to trying to do complex calculations with the American standard system, it’s amazingly simple. It’s a base ten system (aka, you can do most conversions to different sized units, like ones I listed above, by moving the decimal points). In short, it’s profoundly easier.

Look, I know there’s plenty of opposition to switching to the metric system. But there’s really no reason that we shouldn’t, and plenty why we should. So, why haven’t we? Please, someone tell me why we haven’t done so yet. ┬áLet’s be honest, if there isn’t a good reason, there’s only one thing left to say:

Switch to the Metric System, Already!

Answers: a. 666 inches; b. 550.4 liquid ounces; c. 41,600 ounces; d. 1300 millimeters; e. 5,600,000 milliliters; f. 8400 grams.

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