How big? What big?

Want to know how big I am?  Don’t snicker, this is a clean column!

How big am I?  What does this mean?  Big as in height from head to heel?  Or my weight?  Perhaps you’d rather know my mass, or the distance around my waist.  Lots of questions, but they all pertain to our subject of the day.  Why do we even care?

It’s all about precision.  Precision in measurement, and precision in communication.  How can I know that you know what I mean to say, if I also know that you don’t know exactly which form of the word I know is what I meant?  I can’t!

There is a great debate in our nation (the USA) still raging on about using Imperial versus metric units.  We are one of the last holdouts using the Imperial system.  Is it a good or bad thing?  We already know that it’s not as precise as metric, but does that make it bad?

As students of behavior we know that there is no bad or good; labels like this simply impose our own value judgments on the decisions of others.  We don’t want that to happen.  However, we must realize that every decision comes with benefits, and costs.  It’s up to us to figure out what those benefits and costs are.  And that will help us understand why the USA is still Imperial.

First off, the Imperial system is more ambiguous than metric.  Weight and mass can be the same thing, but they really are not.  Volume and weights share the same names as well – I can have an ounce of sugar, and an ounce of water.  For that matter, I could also take a tablespoon of sugar and water mixed.  It sounds intuitively nice, but exactly how much is that?

Second, the Imperial system likes to make the use of fractions and strangely related limits.  For instance, 3 teaspoons make a tablespoon.  2 Tablespoons make an ounce.  8 ounces make a cup, and 2 cups make a pint.  2 pints make a quart, and 4 quarts make a gallon.  A US gallon, that is.  Quick, how much water is 1 quart, 1 cup, and 3 tablespoons?  This isn’t a problem in metric world.

Third, it costs time, money, and aggravation to migrate from any system to another.  The USA is a large place, and the cost of transitioning everyone over from Imperial to metric is going to be much larger than it was for any other nation on Earth.  That said, there is also a cost to not changing over.  NASA had a mission to Mars where the lander was supposed to gently maneuver over its landing site, then touch down.  In the metric units that they used, everything worked out beautifully.  Unfortunately, the subcontractor was using Imperial units and somewhere along the way someone didn’t convert all the numbers correctly.  As a result the poor lander thought it was much higher above the surface than it really was.  It did not survive the impact.

Fourth, there is also a cost to making things too precise.  Do you cook, making things from scratch?  If the recipe asks for a tablespoon of water do you take the time to find the right spoon, measure out the water precisely, and then put it into the mix?  Or do you find a big spoon, throw some water on it and toss it in?  Maybe you don’t even need a spoon?  For 99% of the time it doesn’t matter if you put in 12 milliliters or 18 milliliters.  Most recipes are pretty forgiving.  So telling you that you need 15 milliliters all the time can get pretty annoying, especially when you don’t have to be so exact.

Fifth, there is a certain joy that comes with being different.  Hey you, you drive in kilometers?  I drive in miles!  Take that!

You may think that from the above I’m very pro-metric, and I am, but only for reasons of precision.  And being precise is what will drive our ultimate decision to become metric.  At the same time, however, there is a lot to be said for imprecision.  Fractions are more intuitively easy to use, and both the inch and the foot supposedly derived from naturally anthropomorphic sources.

Which do you choose?



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