Q: “Why does America stick with the Imperial system instead of going to the metric like the rest of the world?” - Vick T.
While the metric system does have advantages over the imperial system, it’s not “clearly superior”, and I offer you something you don’t hear very often…a defense of the imperial system of measurement!
#6 – The Metric System Stinks for Everyday Life
Sure, the metric system is great for science and math, but it stinks for everyday life. That’s because of the way it is designed. The metric system is designed to be easy to convert and plug into math equations. But, the imperial system is designed to be the most practical in the ways we use it the most – in day-to-day life.
Despite claims from those who are ‘pro-metric-system’, neither system is based on arbitrary numbers. The metric system is based largely on something abstract – numbers – in order to make conversions easier. The imperial system is based on the way our brains work and based on what we actually use measurements for.
#5 – Our Brains Can’t Handle Certain Numbers
As much as we like to think of our brains as being perfect tools for perceiving the world, they are actually very imperfect. Our brains are not made to understand abstract numbers. This is why we have such problems with money, and why we make so many dumb decisions. How much money is $1,000? What does 1,000 jelly beans look like? The only way we know how much $1,000 is, is by relating it to something we know that costs that much. But how does the cost of a car relate to the cost of dinner? How many dinners is a car worth?
How much is a million dollars? How much is a billion dollars? That’s why you have these shocking illustrations that relate these large numbers to something we can understand better. Like, if you count one number a second, how long would it take you to count to one thousand? What about 100,000? What about a million? A billion?
The only way to figure those things out is to do the math. But, even though you can figure the answers out, that doesn’t mean your brain can really UNDERSTAND the amount. We can do okay with small numbers, but the larger the numbers get, the harder it is for our brains to truly comprehend it.
Our brains are made to help us survive in this world. We need to be able to understand the number of things we can see at any given time. How many kids do we have? How many people fit in our hut? How many bison are there? Once the number got large enough it no longer really mattered how many, just that there were “a lot”. There’s not much difference between 50 bison running straight toward you and 1,000,000 of them. If you don’t move, you are dead either way.
The imperial system is designed to allow our brains to handle it easily. You never need to visualize more than 11 inches. With the metric system, you have to measure things with up to (and often exceeding) 100 centimeters. That’s extremely hard for our brains to comprehend.
#4 – Conversion Isn’t that Important
In science and math it’s necessary to be precise. But, in everyday life, it’s not that important. The imperial system is made for what we use it for the most. Every unit of measurement is tailor-made for what we need it for. The downside of that is that the different units don’t convert very easily, but why would you need to?
Assuming you aren’t a scientist or a mathematician (or an architect), how many times in your life have you had to convert anything? Not very often, if at all! If it fits in your lap, you use inches. If it’s bigger than that you use feet. The only time you need to convert is usually because someone insists on using metric.
#3 – Visualizing is Important
In everyday life, the main reason you need something measured is so that you can either visualize it, estimate something, or compare two or more things. Will this TV fit on my stand? How tall was the man you saw? How big was the fish you caught?
There are times when things are described that you need to visualize, and measurements are an important part of that. If someone says how big the fish they caught was, you need to be able to visualize it. If the forecast says it’s going to be 80 degrees on Saturday, you need to be able to feel that in your head. If google maps tells you how far your destination is away, you need to be able to understand how long that is.
In order to visualize things, you need a point of reference. Our brains aren’t like our computers. Computers rely on algorithms and programs. Our brains rely on associations. They aren’t equipped to understand certain things, and the metric system doesn’t take this into account.
What’s the most common thing we use measurement for? Just going on personal experience, I would say it’s the measurement of people. How tall is she? How tall am I? How much has he grown? Human height has to be the most common use of feet/inches in everyday life! Yet, the metric system is HORRIBLE at measuring people. Outside of the U.S. people’s height is measured in centimeters! That’s insane! It takes a lot of work for the brain to be conditioned to the point where 133 centimeters can be visualized.
For most things that we need to measure, a centimeter is too small and a meter is too big! But, feet and inches are naturally easy to visualize and they are the perfect size to measure most things we deal with.
#2 – The Imperial System is Based on Things that Make Sense
Hold your hands out straight in front of you, arms locked. Turn your palms toward each other as if to say “it was about this big”. The distance between them is a foot (or pretty stinking close to it). Now stick your index finger and thumb out so they are parallel to each other like you are saying something is “itty bitty”. If they are parallel, they are an inch apart (or pretty stinking close). The length of your forearm is about a foot, and your actual foot (in a shoe) is about a foot. The length of your knuckle to the tip of your thumb is about an inch. These are units we can easily visualize because we see them every day.
One of the big complaints evangelists of the metric system uses is that the imperial system doesn’t have any unit of measurement between a yard and a mile. But, that’s just the point. When is the last time you’ve ever needed to measure something too big for yards that wasn’t related to driving distance?
But, even with driving distance, miles isn’t the preferred unit of measurement unless talking about geography. We use time instead because it’s better at getting the job done! Distance is very relative. What we need to know is how long it is going to take till we get there. So, our culture has evolved to using that as the main unit of measurement. “It’s about 30 minutes away”
Really the only other thing that we need to visualize that’s larger than a yard are skyscrapers. Obviously, this is a relatively new thing and wasn’t a concern 100 years ago. Feet and yards are too small of a measurement, as is a meter, and a kilometer and mile are too large. So, we use “stories” to communicate height. That’s the most effective unit of measurement. We can visualize how tall a story is because we’re in rooms every day. We can visualize how tall an average room is from floor to ceiling.
But what about temperature? Celcius is based on the freezing point and boiling point of water. That makes sense, right? Well, maybe if you are a scientist. But, how does that help us in everyday life?
What do we use measurement of temperature on probably 90+% of the time? The temperature of the air, right? We want to know how hot or cold it is outside, or what the thermostat is set on! This is why Fahrenheit makes sense. It’s based (intentionally or not) on the temperature we can tolerate. If it is higher than 100 or below 0 outside, stay inside! That’s the typical range of weather. In Celcius, that’s -17 to 37 degrees and it relies heavily on decimals because it’s a much larger range of temperature per degree.
Anything past about 120 degrees F or below -10 degrees is just a number, anyway…something we can’t possibly comprehend because we’ve never experienced it. Can you conceive of what 180 degrees F weather would feel like? I doubt it because you’d be burnt to a crisp!
The only time I can think of when we use temperature outside of a lab is in cooking. But, even then, it’s not something we need to really visualize or perceive of. If the oven needs to be set on 375, just set the oven to that number. If water needs to boil, heat it on high till it boils. Problem solved. If water needs to be frozen, put it in the freezer till it freezes. Water won’t get hotter than the boiling point, nor will water get colder than the freezing point, so the precise temperature doesn’t matter.
I’m not too familiar with cooking, but I would guess the non-metric system of cups, quarts, and gallons, and teaspoons is based on what is most efficient for following recipes. And unless you are a scientist, I doubt you ever use volume measurements outside of the kitchen!
#1 – It’s Easier to Learn
Both systems require some memorization and getting used to. However, I believe the common argument that the metric system would be just as easy for the normal population to use as the imperial system if they were used to it is wrong. There is some truth to it, but it is a much bigger strain on the brain to learn the metric system because it’s based on things our brain doesn’t do well.
As I stated above, our brain works on associations. So, the only way we can know how tall 133 centimeters is, is by memorizing something that is about that tall and associating that number with it. The imperial system fits in wonderfully with what our brains do normally. Sure, you have to memorize that 32 degrees is the freezing point of water, but that’s a whole lot easier than memorizing the seemingly arbitrary range of -17 to 37 and what they all relate to.
The imperial system takes what your brain does automatically and allows you to project and visualize things you haven’t seen before. Very little memorization.
Both the metric system and the imperial system have their purposes and I don’t see it as a competition between them. They serve two different purposes. The metric system stinks in everyday life, but is great in areas where measurements need to be extremely precise and/or where uncommon things need to be measured.
The imperial system is based on what is most efficient for the individual purposes of the people doing the measuring, while the metric system is based on abstract things like math so that conversions are easier.
So, in everyday life I suggest we use the imperial system to be more efficient and effective. And the sciences and architects should use the metric system and then convert the results when informing the public. They already have to convert results anyway, because when dealing with such large or small measurements we have no base of comparison.
So, what’s the big deal?