The Metric System, the United States of America, and Scientific Literacy

Here’s a quick quiz: I weigh 71 kilograms, and am about 1.82 meters tall.

a.) Do you have an idea of about how much I weigh and how tall I am?

b.) Am I taller or shorter than you, and do I weigh more or less than you?

If you don’t live in the United States of America, Liberia, or Burma, you most likely can answer both of these questions pretty much without any hesitation. If you do live in one of those three countries, then without the help of a calculator, or a quick search on Google, chances are you would have to think a bit about question “a,” and would struggle with question “b.”

The issue.

There is a huge disconnect between the science that we do (SI units, commonly interchanged with the Metric System) and how we live our daily lives, (U.S. Customary Units, not Imperial Units). Is it possible that people are turned off by science and technology because they don’t understand the metric system? And is it possible that this makes us less scientifically literate as a country?

One of my favorite comic strips, Fox Trot, by Bill Amend, consistently brings up math and science humor.

I think the answer is most definitely. While U.S. scientists are used to converting units, an ideal scientifically literate society includes artists, public servants, business owners, and waitresses — people who don’t have to use the metric system on a regular basis — translating units is one more barrier to understanding the math and science that is used in research.

The only examples that come to my mind where the metric system is in common use in the United States are:

  • Miles-per-hour/Kilometers-per-hour speedometers in our vehicles
  • A 750ml bottle of wine
  • A 1-liter (1,000ml) Nalgene bottle
  • The 100 meter dash
  • 2 liter soda bottles
  • 5k and 10k runs/races
  • Most food nutrition labels (How many people actually read those?)

Yet all science is done in the language of SI units. If the goal is for the non-scientific public to be able to engage regularly and enthusiastically with science, wouldn’t it make sense for scientists and non-scientists to speak the same language?

To really make SI units and the metric system commonplace in the United States requires more than a little effort on our part. Imagine how many local, state, and federal authorities would be required to change millions of road signs, food packaging, gas station signs and sports fields. And on top of that, does the general public want to make the switch?

Some selected history.

The reasons that hold us back from converting range from stubbornness to cost (a 1996 concern in the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering and Education Practice). In 1975, thanks to President Gerald Ford and Congress, the Metric Conversion Act was passed which would have led to the metric system being the preferred system of weights and measures in the United States. This act created the United States Metric Board, which was abolished in 1982, by President Reagan.

From The United States and the Metric System, NIST LC 1136: “The efforts of the Metric Board were largely ignored by the American public, and, in 1981, the Board reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Due to this apparent ineffectiveness, and in an effort [by President Reagan] to reduce Federal spending, the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “We the People” petition that the White House website hosts. As of this moment, over 35,000 people have digitally signed a petition to make the metric system the official system of weights and measures of the United States. Possibly another act from the federal government is needed to really get things moving again.

A more detailed history can be read here.


Thankfully, the metric system has been taught in schools and this should continue. From my experience, however, it was only as a way to solve given problems. Physics was taught in the metric system, as was chemistry. But when I got to my algebra class, and even in shop class, (a prime opportunity to “feel” what 50 centimeters was), we measured 20 inches (not the same, by the way). I would recommend that all rulers in school should all be inches and centimeters, though I must admit I attended a science teacher workshop and we were given 12 foot tape measurers to take back home.

Should we discourage these words? Image from another blog post about the metric system.


When I learned Spanish, my most effective learning was not being told that café meant coffee — I was given a cup of café and told “este es café,” or “this is coffee.” We shouldn’t miss these tangible opportunities to become friendly with the system.

The next time you go to your doctor’s office and they take you height and weight, ask your doctor for the numbers in metric, and you will have that personal connection to some part of the metric system. Do you check the weather online or use online mapping? Change the units to Celsius and meters. These are a few simple changes people can make to become more familiar with the system.

You don’t have to look long to find bloggers who are asking why the United States has not yet converted to the metric system. One I found particularly interesting is a blog created in 2012 which focuses on documenting the creation of a documentary about how the United States was going to convert to the metric system, but never did. The blog is appropriately named “More than a mile behind.” Keep your eyes and ears open for this one.

The world and us.

I have always believed that no matter what language you speak, science and math are the same in any language. If we’re not speaking the same scientific language as scientists from other countries (many of whom have made the effort to learn English), we might be isolating ourselves scientifically. So with that, I’ll leave you with a clip from The Simpsons.

P.S. Even rocket scientists mess up.

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55 Responses to The Metric System, the United States of America, and Scientific Literacy

  1. Nic says:

    @Daniel Jackson, in the U.S. “meter” IS the correct spelling of both the measurement AND the instrument (though we call it a tool). But in U.S. English, metre is not a word. Just so your aware.

  2. Nic says:

    You must live in the U.S. … because ppl don’t usually state their height in metres/meters, but rather in centimetres/centimeters… that kinda through/thru me… I was born and raised in the U.S. and never lived anywhere else, and even I know that… but to be fare, ever since I could grasp the concept of measurement, and start to get a feel for how much a given measurement meant, I viciously denounced the U.S. customary units (yes, they ARE different from Imperial units, as they are closer to the older English units, then while England evolved English units into Imperial units, we evolved them into Standard units, the again into U.S. customary units, then England switched to S.I. units officially while the people tend to use the older Metric system that evolved into the S.I. units) Anyways, as I was saying… at about age 8 I viciously denounced U.S. customary units, and adopted S.I. units as my unit of thought, and implimentation… I do get the jest of U.S. customary units, but only use them when I have to, as I don’t really relate to them, nor have a feel for what they represent … like if I held something, I couldn’t even ballpark is poundage, but i could give a good gues as to the keys and grams of it. P.S. your both taller than me and heavier than I.

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  5. Alain Gaudreau says:

    I still do not understand why Americans have not changed to the Metric system and are still using the Imperial system !!!!! which by the way, as the word Imperial says it, dates back to the British colonnisation and occupation of North America. The Americans kicked out the British but is the only country that still uses the Imperial system; O sorry I forgot about Liberia and Myanmar they also use the Imperial system.
    If the only reason that the US resists the Metric system is because it’s a French invention well if it was’nt for a French general called Lafayette you would be using the Metric system because you would have remained British subjects and the British are now using the Metric system.
    I do not have an explanation why the Americans are still with the Imperial system other than the easiest explanation of refusal of change “WOW” .
    My admiration for the USA is severely hampered by that fact!!!
    The Eastern Townships of Quebec which was about 50/50 French and English Canadians was the pilot project for the implementation of the metric system in Canada back in 1974. The project led rapidly to the adoption in everyday life of the Metric system in Canada. Meat was sold in grams and Kilograms and gas in liters and we survived happily.
    Cant wait for you guys in the US to catch up. Sorry the rest of the planet will not change; the Metric system makes to much sense.

    • Charles E. Winchester, III says:

      “I still do not understand why Americans have not changed to the Metric system and are still using the Imperial system !!!!!”

      “The Americans kicked out the British but is the only country that still uses the Imperial system”

      As stated in the article: The USA use U.S. Customary Units, not Imperial Units.
      U.S. Customary Units are not identical to Imperial Units.

  6. testman says:

    FYI, it is not 5K or 10K race but 5k or 10k race. Upper K is Kelvin degree of temperature in SI unit. Lower case k is kilo prefix which means thousands.

    Metric system is precise 😉

    ALso most country talk about “5 thousands meter” race…

  7. eric says:

    Paul D. says: Exactly!
    “Most USA regard metric as vaguely but palpably “socialist” too!”

    Just shows how backward a lot of Americans are, especially those of one particular political colour. Those guys have yet to learn that nobody around the globe takes note of their silly ramblings.

  8. Ta Leck says:

    Thank you to the links Kickettes!!

  9. Don Pobanz says:

    Uh, what is this?

    No need to further confuse people. You mean?

    • Adam Blankenbicker says:

      Thanks for catching this. Error mended!

    • Charles E. Winchester, III says:


      Correct. And it should be noted that the SI-unit for speed is m/s (metres per second) – not km/h.

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  13. Daniel Jackson says:

    You said: “Here’s a quick quiz: I weigh 71 kilograms, and am about 1.82 meters tall.”

    How did you come about those values? By actual measurement or conversion? If by conversion, tray an actual measurement in metric and report it back here. It would be interesting to see if there is a difference as the USC measurement could be in error due to bias, over rounding or guesswork. Conversions could also introduce some errors for the same reason.

    Another point, it is not necessary to spell out the words when using SI, simply use the standardized symbols. Thus you will have a mass of 71 kg and a height of 1.82 m or 182 cm. By using symbols, you avoid using the incorrect spelling for metre. Metre is a unit and meter is a device to measure with.

  14. I think all American schools should only teach in SI, stop confusing and wasting time of the students with ‘conversions’, if todays employer has to have their employees understand and use American Imperial units, then have the employer spend their money teaching their own employees, the old antiquated units.

  15. eric says:

    Re; Pat Gardiner

    Oh, dear, oh dear, there is old Pat telling us that almost 7 billion people got it wrong when it comes to measurements. Ah well, maybe it is true that not every one of us lives AND LEARNS?

  16. Jeremy says:

    Is there any actual evidence that the lack of metrification (I made that word up) has had any impact scientific literacy or interest, or is that merely conjecture?

    • Jeremy says:

      I ask because this article is being shared around on social media under the description that it “looks at the evidence” as to whether the lack of metrification has had an effect or not, but reading the article, the only bit that mentions a link is merely the statement that the author believes that there is one.

    • Adam Blankenbicker says:

      I did not find research leaning one way or the other. That in itself is a concern. Part of the reason I posted this was to put the question out there (with my opinion) in hopes of sparking some interest in the matter. Thanks for bringing that up.

      • bsci says:

        Lack of research could also be due to a weak hypothesis. As best as I can tell, your hypothesis is that people who don’t develop an innate sense of metric measures are less scientifically literate. A strong hypothesis requires a proposed mechanism of why this would be the case and hopefully some preliminary evidence backing it up.

        What is the proposed mechanism? Do people understand DNA less because they can’t internalize the length of an agnstrom? If anything the preliminary evidence also goes the other way. Preliminary data also doesn’t support the hypothesis. According to most surveys of scientific literacy I’ve seen, most countries are metric and US falls somewhere in the middle. There are many other factors (educations systems, wealth distribution, etc) that explain placement much more than any metric effect.

        Of all the things to study for improving science education, why is this one sufficiently likely to be true to be worthwhile?

      • Jeremy says:

        I definitely agree that the US should move to the metric system, and I’m glad I live in a country where we did well before I was born. You (America) should start writing dates as dd/mm/yyyy as well!

    • JohnS says:

      Scientific literature is predominately metric. Functionally, a reader who doesn’t understand the metric system is illiterate relative to reading scientific literature. Now, someone can remember his metric education and understand metric usage without using it in his every day life, but, frankly, what are the odds?

      So scientific curiosity, without metric awareness, limits one to reading warmed-over, converted pap from journalists. The AP Style Guide doesn’t even use accurate metric conversions. That is not how I would choose to get my daily science dose.

      • bsci says:

        Now, someone can remember his metric education and understand metric usage without using it in his every day life, but, frankly, what are the odds?

        Very good. There are thousands of great scientists in the US that use metric in the lab then look at their car’s miles-per-hour speedometer and can tell you their height in feet, but not meters. Is there any evidence that this makes them less of a scientist?

        Coincidentally, my daughter’s first grade class is learning about distance measurements this week. Her class is measuring things in arbitrary units of squares, beads, etc. They’re told to take objects around the classroom, write down an estimation of how many squares long the object is, and then measure it.
        The lesson disconnects the concept of measuring from any particular unit scale and universalizes the scientific concept in a way that is lost if kids are just handed a ruler. (That said, the squares looks suspiciously centimeter-like, but I didn’t pull out a ruler to measure)

        • Jeremy says:

          The article isn’t claiming American scientists aren’t as good due to their metric knowledge, it’s claiming that when students and the general public are exposed to scientific ideas that are expressed in metric units, not as many pay attention as would if there wasn’t the difference of units issue.

          • bsci says:

            Is there remotely any evidence to back up the claim that students and the general public pay less attention to scientific claims because they are less familiar with metric? Is there even a proposed mechanism to support this hypothesis. There’s something a bit ironic regarding an article and commentors asking for a fairly major change without even formulating the types of questions to ask to test their assertions.

            Why does this matter for the general public? How often are units of measure even used in science reporting? An lay article is more likely to say something is “the thickness of a hair” or “you can fit 10,000 X in the period at the end of this sentence.” Standard units, of any type, just don’t connect non-scientists to science articles.

            In classrooms, there are hundreds of things that can get kids more or less excited about science. Whether or not they use the metric scale in their daily life is very low on that list, if it even belongs at all.

            For what it’s worth, I’m not saying there’s no reason to push for metric standardization in the US. I’m just saying that improving science education is not that reason.

        • JohnS says:

          I actually want to respond to your next post, but it is beyond the depth to which we can nest replies.

          If you just measure a distance, the units are arbitrary, inches, beads, centimeters, no problem.

          That isn’t what SI is about. It is a coherent system of units. If I have an engine burning fuel of a certain heat content (BTUs) and I tell you the engine, with that fuel is able to do a certain amount of work in ft-lbs, can you tell me whether the engine has a efficiency of greater than or less than 100%. Can you tell a difference between a realistic claim and a charlatan saying your car can get 1000 mpg, burning water.

          In metric, both the fuel energy content and the work done by the engine would be measured in joules (with suitable prefix, probably megajoules) and you could make such comparisons. They are rather trivial

          If you can’t do things of that type, you are not really understanding science articles you are reading. Simple physics is non-understandable in Imperial/Customary. Hell, F doesn’t even equal ma, unless you invent poundals or slugs, units no one has ever heard of unless they have taken physics. In Imperial/Customary all the laws of physics have to have strange bugger factors added.

        • JohnS says:

          If the scientist is facile in SI, then ALSO being facile in Customary/Imperial does not make him less of a scientist (as long as he keeps it out of the lab).

          However, if he is only facile in Customary/Imperial, I would be dubious of his scientific credentials. Such people in technical fields cause problems like the Mars Climate Auger (was supposed to be an Orbiter) and the Gimli Glider.

        • Daniel Jackson says:

          When Australia and New Zealand metricated they chose to metricate the whole economy instead of just industry alone. They knew that people would not be able to switch from a metric environment during the working part of the day and an imperial environment away from the job.

          In a divided economy, those who were able to adopt to the metric system would fair well on the job and those who didn’t would find themselves either unemployed or working in low wage no-brains needed jobs.

          The situation would literally have divided the country between the metric elite and non-metric working poor. This is why governments throughout history established as their right to set the measurement standard for all, so that measurement understanding wan uniform across the country and could not be used as a means to divide and weaken the nation.

    • Daniel says:

      The correct word is metrication. There is no “if” in metrication.

      Pass this on to the social media. Let them know what the correct owrd is. Also tell them the US does not use imperial, the US uses USC (United States customary).

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  18. JohnS says:

    Some more examples of metric:
    *Water is generally sold in metric bottles. 1.75 L carafes have become common for orange juice and other juices.
    *Olive oil and specialty vinegars (wine, balsamic, etc) are sold in metric sizes while other vegetable oils and plain vinegar are sold in customer.

    More important than these examples are the businesses that are metric, at least internally, and need workers facile in the metric system:
    *The US automotive industry has been metric since the 70’s. The pharmaceutical industry and the electronics industry are largely metric (except display sizes).
    *Individual multi-nationals (for example, Proctor & Gamble) are metric internally. It opens up a world-wide supply base, facilitates exports and coordination with foreign plants.
    *Farmers sell domestically in bushels but understand metric tons for export. The USDA and various agricultural media report foreign sales of grains and other agricultural products in metric tons.

    Other businesses will have nothing to do with metric, and perhaps kids who can’t learn metric can work there. A reasonable number of jobs in the US require working knowledge of the metric system because the company operates internally in metric. This is not much discussed.

    • Adam Blankenbicker says:

      I am unfer the impression that if a student has enough motivation to follow a certain career, they will have the motivation to learn what is necessary for that profession. When I speak of a scientifically literate society, my concern is that those who do not work or live metric may be the same people who do not appreciate the science (or engineering) that is done.

      You are correct that there are a number of professionals other than scientists who work in metric. Thank you for pointing that out.

    • JohnS says:

      Not only professionals. Also machinists, tool and die makers, assembly line workers, etc. I would guess that not of all of these realize that some of their potential employers are metric internally and expect them to work in metric.

  19. Daniel Jackson says:

    Speaking of cost, how much did it cost the US not to metricate? How much in lost business? How much in lost jobs when US companies relocated to metric countries? How much money was lost due to calculation errors using non-metric?

    Metrication is a one time cost. Failure to metricate is a never ending cost. The money the US lost by not metricating would have paid for metrication decades ago. Go ask GM for proof.

    • Adam Blankenbicker says:

      I was contacted by Metric Maven, whos blog mentions some of these costs.

    • Bruce E Arkwright, Jr says:

      Ask how many companies left America, to relocate to Metric only countries? And why is congress forcing every American, for the last thirty five years, to buy two set of incompatible tools and hardware and then double all that between work and home? It is costing America a lot not Metricating. How about trying to sell the world products that is not Metric?h

  20. Daniel Jackson says:

    You are wrong about Liberia and Burma. Even thought hey have made no official commitment to metrication, they have none the less experienced enough metrication to know what their height is in metres and mass in kilograms.

    Any business they do with their neighbouring countries or the rest of the world is in metric. They are far to poor to insist traders deal with them in non-metric.

    It is time they are removed from the list of non-metric countries.

    As for the US, it is officially metric and many industries have changed, so the US is not at ground zero, but caught in a muddle somewhere in between. Americans often purchase metric products and don’t even know it.

    Metrication in the US is not a changeover, but a completion of what has been started.

  21. Keith L says:

    WE NEED 150 SIGNATURE QUICK FOR THIS PETITION FOR BECOME PUBLICE. PLEASE SIGN AND SHARE WITH EVERYONE . THANK YOU! The will amend the Fair Pakaging and Labeling Act to allow Metric only labeling.

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  23. Pat Gardiner says:

    There is nothing to beat the duodecimal system (vaguely the Imperial-US system.)

    I have used and been used to both Metric and non-Metric all my life, and the old cranky British-American system was by far the best. It was also our culture.

    My happiest moment was meeting an ex-U-Boat commander, on a merchant ship in the 1970s, unhappily staring at a chart. “What is the matter with your Admiralty? Why are all this charts in silly metres. I know my ship’s draft in fathoms (6 feet)”

    Familiarity is everything. When you can divide 10 by 2 and come out with a whole number, you win. Until then the USA is pretty well the only place making me feel at home. It is absolutely lovely for a poor old Brit, shrinking from his six foot downwards, as he stares at your broad acres. OK you don’t use yards a lot, shake at furlongs and worry about stones, but who knows, maybe it will all come back.

    A trend, where it will become fashionable to return to out roots!


    • Daniel says:

      Sorry, but the US doesn’t use the same system as the UK. First off, go to any bar and ask for “pint”. After they stop laughing (people just ask for beer or a glass, never a pint) and give you what is a pint in the US, you will feel cheated. A US pint is almost 100 mL shy of a UK pint.

      Nobody in the US has a clue or even cares about fathoms., nor would they understand you if you told them your weight in stone.

      Most Americans only know a few basic units, because most Americans don’t do much measuring in their life. All of the good paying manufacturing jobs where measurements are mostly used went to metric countries and the products once made in the US and made in inches are made in metric countries in millimetres. The Chinese even change the actual dimensions slightly so the metric numbers are round.

      The middle class in the US is dying out and becoming the working poor, that is working for low wages at part-time service jobs. But modern Germany and China are booming, buying up industries world-wide and flooding the world with metric products.

      An ex-Uboot commander? How old is he, 100? German U-boots WWII era were all metric and their gauges were in metres. There were no fathoms or feet in Hitler’s navy and there will be none in the modern German and soon to be unified EU military.

      It seems there are only two types of people who cling to obsolete measurements. 1.) very old people and 2.) Those who are not employed in any worthwhile profession, such as engineer, doctor, scientist, technician, etc. The metric system is what divides the men from the boys, the winners from the losers.

      And yes, I can divide 10 by 2 to get 5. Can you?

    • JohnS says:

      Frankly 12 in/ft is nearly the only 12 in Imperial/Customary.

      16.5 ft in a rod, 4 rods/chain, 10 chains per furlong, 8 furlongs per mile. Where’s the 12’s in that?

      Or 16 oz (or 7000 grains) in a pound, either 100 or 112 pounds in a hundredweight, 2000 or 2240 lbs in a ton. Where’s the 12?

      128 fl oz or 231 in³ in a US gallon, 10 lbs of water or 160 fl oz in an Imperial gallon (or 8 pints). Where’s the 12 in that?

      To borrow a British phrase, both Imperial/Customary are a dog’s breakfast of oddball factors, and indicate no systematic structure whatsoever. If 12 is so sacred, why are there 1760 yards in a mile instead of 1728. Hell, 1760 isn’t even divisible by 3, moreless 12.

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  25. A. says:

    I’m curious about WHY the United States would not convert to the metric system. The answer HAS to be much deeper than simply cost. The Oatmeal‘s take makes so much sense. Even your paper size has to follow this “child-like association” standard.

    • Daniel says:

      It has nothing to do with cost. It is simple laziness and a touch of arrogance. The US still expects the world to drop metric and adopt its units. Not goingt to happen!

    • Daniel Jackson says:

      In many respects metrication failed due to the “not invented here” belief present in some American thinking. When you believe you are the best in the world, then someone wants you to change to someone Else’s method, claiming it is better, your ego steps in and gets in the way of logic.

      Most Americans will tell you that USC put a man on the moon and no metric country to this date has achieved it. Whether it is true or not (Werner von Braun loathed USC and never used it. He did all his rocket designs in metric, behind the scenes), this is one of the arguments that Americans use to defend the use of USC.

      When you feel superior to everyone Else, the last thing you will do is discard your ways and adapt someone Else’s, especially when it is believed that the French invented the metric system and most Americans have contempt for the French.

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