Jun 06 2019

The Metric System Is Not a Conspiracy

Oh boy. I probably shouldn’t do this, but my “someone is wrong on the internet” instincts are overwhelming me. Tucker Carlson recently had on a guest, James Panero, who essentially repeats the arguments he laid out in this article. Who is Panero? Apparently he is an art critic. I don’t know if he is truly a conspiracy nut, or was just looking for an issue to propel him onto the media for his 15 minutes of fame.

I will also say at this point that I don’t think Carlson is worth responding to. He, in my opinion, is just a highly paid troll catering to an extreme political view. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes, but I wouldn’t assume he believes what he says. Performance art is a more likely hypothesis.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. He put the arguments out there, complete with factual errors and poor logic, and it’s worth setting the record straight.

Carlson starts:

“Almost every nation on Earth has fallen to tyranny: the metric system,” said Carlson. “From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only country that is resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.”

He mispronounces “kilograms” then makes a funny face – performance art.  But on to the actual arguments. Panero makes the point that “It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.”

First, regarding NASA going to the moon, this is only partly true. Both metric and customary units were used by NASA in the Apollo era. NASA “went metric” in 1990, but still uses a mixture of both systems. Going forward NASA plans to use almost exclusively metric, including on any future missions to the moon.  They use of both systems famously caused the crash of a probe on Mars. NASA also is increasing working with other nations, and having one standard system is therefore critical.

But also – so what? The implication is that metric advocates argue that customary units don’t work, but that is a straw man. Of course they work. You can get to the moon using feet and ounces if you want. Just because the system worked in the past that is not an argument for resisting change to a better system.

Right now America uses a hybrid system of both metric and customary units. We buy liters of soda, use lenses measured in millimeters, and take drugs in milligrams. In fact the entire medical industry is essentially metric. The only exception I can think of is that we still tend to use Fahrenheit for measuring temperature (sometimes).

Panero also argues:

“Proponents of the metric system have been metering out contempt since their inhuman invention emerged from the French Revolution.”

This is not quite right. The system was first proposed in France by Gabriel Mouton, the vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Lyons, in 1670. It became popular with French scientists, and was eventually adopted by the French Revolutionary National Assembly. Perhaps that is how Panero is confused.

But again – so what? This is an example of the genetic fallacy – judging something by its origins rather than its characteristics, its strengths and weaknesses. I don’t care if Hitler invented the metric system in order to make his concentration camps more efficient. If it works, it works.

Panero is also making a common logical error of conspiracy theorists, assuming that something’s origins determine its current purpose. Of course, using this logic one could argue that the metric system is a Catholic conspiracy.

His worst factual error, however, is this:

The meter is unfathomable, calculated (imprecisely) as a tiny fraction of the Earth’s circumference.

There is a kernel of truth here, twisted for Panero’s purposes. This was the original definition of the meter, one 10-millionth of the meridian through Paris from pole to equator. This, however, was replaced with a platinum-iridium prototype. This is a precise standard and worked well for decades. This, in turn, was replaced with an objective standard which does not require a physical artifact – The meter is the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.

With the replacement of the kilogram, the entire metric system is based on abstract principles, not physical artifacts. This is a benefit, but Panero writes:

The metric kilogram will now be determined through a new fixed agreement of Planck’s constant, the length light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, and the amount of time it takes a cesium-133 atom to vibrate 9,192,631,770 times. It’s so simple!

This is a good example of shifting criteria. He criticizes the meter (falsely) for being imprecise, and the precision of the kilogram for being complex. It also doesn’t matter that the science behind the kilogram is complex. It is an incredibly useful standard, that is scalable and easily reproduced.

I will say that Panero has one legitimate point to make:

The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.

This is true. There are 12 inches in a foot and 60 seconds in a minute because these numbers divide easily. This is also an advantage in certain situations over a 10-based system like the metric system. Twelve is a great number to work with because it can divide evenly by 2, 3, 4, and 6. But even though this one point reasonably goes on the side of the scale toward the customary system, it is outweighed by the many more advantages of the metric system on the other.

Base 10 is also easy to work with. Conversions among the various standards are also easy, and the metric system is very scalable. It’s just a better system. Further, it is the international standard and there is something to be said for that. This is not tyranny, it’s practicality. It is just efficient, convenient, cost-effective, and serves to minimize error to have one standard international system of measurements.

Of course this can easily be presented as the evils of globalization, which I think is the point for Carlson.

For Panero, I don’t know him well enough to determine if this is all also just a farce or if he is serious. His article can easily be read as humorous satire. Maybe he is trolling Carlson. Maybe they are both, with a wink and a nod, trolling his audience of rubes. This to me is the real problem. News is now performance art, and everything is, on some level, a satire (or can be claimed to be so). There is no shared reality, no intellectual honesty, no standards.

Is this bit by Carlson and Panero serious, or just make believe, a way to rile up the rubes with the equivalent of click-bait? We don’t really know, and I think that’s the point.

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