Monday, February 01, 2016

Why I Hate the Metric System

Living overseas gives many Americans an opportunity to embrace the metric system. I'm not one of them. I'm conversant enough to figure out what's going on, but I resist adopting the metric system.

Let me tell you specifically why Celsius temperatures are stupid. "It makes so much sense; zero is freezing and 100 is boiling!" And as a result, each degree is doing the work of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. So less information is being communicated when citing a temperature, unless you're going to go full pedant and use tenths of degrees. And what temperature range do people experience in normal life? Is there some reason we need to be able to talk about temperatures near boiling? The Fahrenheit scale gives you about a 100-degree range of real-world temperatures (shockingly enough, ranging from zero to 100). The Celsius scale gives you half as much. Zero is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is cool, 30 is nice, 40 is hot.

When I thought about writing this post, I thought, "Someone could raise the objection that you just like Fahrenheit because it was what you were raised with." But my real objection is to the hubris of engineering systems that are better than what emerges from social convention. There is a certain outlook of authority that goes with thinking, "There are efficiency gains waiting to be gathered in once we take away people's right to choose an 'inefficient' system," and it is an outlook I completely oppose.

About this big-picture disagreement regarding authority, let me share a recent event from our lives. A few weeks ago, a woman in our building had smoke pouring into her apartment. There was a cardboard box fire in the stairwell several floors down from her. She WeChatted the building's English-language-residents group and several families evacuated. In the aftermath, a discussion arose concerning the question of why our building doesn't have a fire alarm. Our Chinese handler told us, "The building does have a fire alarm: when there's a fire in the building, an alarm sounds in the neighboring guard booth."

Here's how the system works: the guards next door get notified there's a fire. They then knock on each door to tell us there's a fire. (Remember, the guards speak NO English, even though the guards all received 12 years of English instruction in school and many of the building residents speak only English.) Problem solved.

The Westerners in the WeChat group were dumbfounded. How does anyone think this is the most-efficient way of notifying a 14-story building of fire? (I joked with a colleague that the guards' reaction to the alarm would be, "Don't go in that building; it's on fire!") But it helps point out the fundamental divide on views regarding information. Westerners generally believe that broad dissemination of information is best, while Chinese generally believe information should be dispensed from above. You don't tell residents their building is on fire, you tell the guy in charge of the building and he decides if anyone else needs to know. Not only is information "need to know," it's also "get to know." As in, "you haven't curried favor with your authorities, so you don't get to know something you need to know."

Americans who support the metric system tend to have a more-favorable view of top-down, coordinated behavior. They distrust the masses to make uncoordinated decisions, and they take it for granted that any uncoordinated decisions cannot be efficient. They favor things that "make sense" over things that work. They have a view of society that involves the enlightened and the benighted, and they are among the enlightened. It would be great if the benighted allowed the enlightened to run the show, but the benighted have crazy notions of equality and human dignity, and so the enlightened have to trick/cajole/constrain the benighted to create the more-efficient world we have within our possible grasp.

I completely oppose all of this. I am willing to live in a less-efficient world if it allows for more liberty. This isn't just because I was raised with Fahrenheit thermometers. This is because God made man to be free.

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