I HATE Fahrenheit ... and its link to presidential elections

The past few days have seen wild thermometer swings in my neck of the Blue Ridge woods. Overnight lows are hitting a few degrees below freezing and by the mid afternoon it's almost room temperature. Measuring all that in Fahrenheit only makes more confusing. What this country really needs, says this Canadian ex-pat, is a presidential candidate who thinks in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit....

OK. Not really. I'm talking metaphorically. But for me there really is a connection between American resistance to the metric system and the absence of anything more than lip service paid during this election campaign to the most serious public policy challenge of our time. That being climate change, of course.

It's not just that Celsius, like the other S.I. units with which any scientist is familiar, is so much more user-friendly than Fahrenheit ;;;;; although it is. I mean, what could make more sense that setting the freezing point at 0? Degrees Fahrenheit, on the other hand, are just plain inscrutable. How is one supposed to know the difference between +7 and -7? They're both cold. The only consolation is that this part of the world never gets below 0°F.

Life was so much easier when I was growing up north of the 49th. I miss those days. It rarely went below 40 below and never topped 40 above. What a delightfully elegant scale.

The rest of the world would agree. Except for the United States, where a Houston TV meteorologist recently introduced Celsius alongside Fahrenheit in his nightly forecast, only to be greeted with howls of outrage, such as "Where does it stop? I guess when we become a Spanish speaking nation." To be fair, the station also got plenty of positive feedback. But it raises the bigger question of why America is the lone hold-out against metric?

The answer, I have concluded, is that this country is currently in a backwards-looking phase. Change, progress, reform ;;;;; they're all bad. Let's not expand the definition of marriage. Let's not tell our kids that evolution explains the diversity of life. Let's not invest in embryonic stem cell research. let's keeping burning coal like it's crack cocaine. And let's not ever use Celsius.

What we really need now is a presidential candidate willing to lead, even drag, this country into the 21st century. Do I expect anyone to call for the widespread adoption of metric units of measurements? Of course not. What I would like to see, though, is a candidate who doesn't just want change for its own sake, but one who wants to move the country forward.

John F. Kennedy was the last president who dared to challenge the country to look ahead. Sure, putting a man on the moon was a product of a cold war with the Soviets. But whatever the political motivation, the 1960s were all about moving forward. They bred, among other things, the optimism of Star Trek, a vision of the future that declared humanity was not only worth saving, but could save itself. (And do so mostly in metric.)

Not long after the last episode of the original series' third season, the dream began to dematerialize. We got to the moon, but JFK, RFK and MLK were dead and Nixon was in the White House. Since then, both our science fiction and real-world politics have been dark and depressing, full of fear and withdrawal. It's high time America started believing itself again. And to help bring about this renewal, we need a candidate who understands what's on the horizon. One recognizes both the nature of the challenge of climate change and the opportunity it presents. One who knows that the unfamiliar isn't necessarily evil, that going where no one has gone before can be a good thing. We need a leader who's not afraid of the future.

That's my bottom line. Given the imperceptible differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's energy and environment platforms, I am forced to compare and contrast the more abstract qualities that dwell at the intersection of intelligence and imagination. And when I do, I find there is a difference.

For example, this weekend brought this news (via the AP):

Obama ...said he would start developing the U.S. position on a pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol before the general election in November.

"I've been in conversations with former Vice President (Al) Gore repeatedly, and his recommendation, which I think is sound, is that you can't wait until you are sworn into office to get started," Obama told a news conference in Seattle.

"I think we need to start reaching out to other countries ahead of time, not because I'm presumptuous, but because there's such a sense of urgency about this."

I'm beginning to understand why so many have invoked the memory of JFK when describing Obama, and I'm beginning to suspect that Obama really does get it. Another Obama quote from the weekend:

Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up.

Not that original, maybe, but close enough to metric for me.

[Thank you, everyone who posted answers to my call for help on this choice. Your responses and my wife's insight are bringing things into focus.]

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But it raises the bigger question of why America is the lone hold-out against metric?

The answer, I have concluded, is that this country is currently in a backwards-looking phase.

The answer is the scale of our economy. We're the lone hold-out against metric because we can be. The US market for products is sufficiently large that it makes sense for even European companies to make products calibrated in non-standard units, because they'll make more money by doing that than it costs to tool up a separate manufacturing line.
The same is not true of, say, the UK, or France, or Canada-- those countries would feel pressure to standardize their units if they were to try to change, because it's just not worth it to manufacturers to make special parts just for the French market.

It's nothing to do with recent changes in the national psyche, because opposition to metric units goes back at least thirty years. And, in fact, the change to metric was opposed in most other countries that used the Imperial system, back in the day. They all eventually gave in, but the US has the economic muscle needed to continue thumbing its nose at the Systeme Internationale.

If China decided to mandate that everything sold there be tooled according to some ancient Chinese set of units, they'd probably be able to get away with it, too. Smaller countries, not so much.

I think that there's at least one other factor beyond just economics. I'm Canadian, and recall well the conversion and the gradually fading resistance against it. I also recall that this gave the right in the US one more reason beyond "socialized medicine" to thrash at Canada.

The link is clear - metric was developed where? Right ... France. Known best for ...? Right - the French Revolution!. Sounds like a Communist conspiracy to me!!

Silly, of course, but I can remember considerable linking of socialized medicine to metric in right-wing commentary from the US. I have no idea how serious a factor this was, but it would have been a bold US politician in the 70's to call for a switch to metric.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 11 Feb 2008 #permalink

I'll believe that the rest of the world truly intends to move to the metric system when it stops using the 360 degree compass and the nautical mile for navigation. The original metric proponents invented the grad and kilometer for that purpose, and even though the French used them for a while, even they have long since returned to traditional units. So... tu quoque!

;-)

India and China use metric, so expect the US to change as the economies and manufacturing capacities of these two countries rise.

Once I heard that there was a metaphysical reason as to why US should not change to metric system. That was back in the seventies; so I no longer have the source. You would get a good laugh from that "reasoning."

nicky 02/11/08

The US hasn't switched to the metric system because, for the average person, there is no compelling reason to do so. Seriously, how would switching to the metric system improve the lives of people who already fully understand and are used to another system? What compelling reason can you give to convince them to go through the effort and learn a new one? Sure, it's easier to do things in multiples of ten, but it's more difficult to get a good feel for estimating the new units. Unless trade makes non-metric products harder to get, there's just not much motivation other than "That's what all the cool countries are doing," or "That's what the Scientists do."

Switching to the metric system is just one step closer to the Mark of the Beast. Don't believe me? Go to Rapture Ready and ask end timers.

Why do you use a system for describing intervals of time that's split up into 24-60-60 units? Why do you have twelve uneven months instead of simply numbering the days in each year? Why do you continue the British practice of putting redundant letter 'u's in words that don't need them for phonetic spelling?

Convention and familiarity.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 19 Feb 2008 #permalink

Celsius? It's not even a proper SI unit, we want to use Kelvin!

Having a temperature scale with negative and positive values reinforces the idea in people's minds that "hot" and "cold" are separate phenomena, rather than just arbitrary points along a scale. Using an absolute temperature scale would force people to have some understanding of thermodynamics and hopefully thus give better energy policies.

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