Boris Johnson announced last week his intention to revive the use of imperial measurements as part of a way to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Now the government has launched a public consultation to find out the views of consumers and businesses on this subject.
The UK currently uses a mixture of metric and imperial. Metric measures (things like using metres, centimetres, kilogrammes etc) were introduced from as early as the mid 1960s. (Discussions, however, had been in progress since 1818!)
This means that many of use grew up mainly using metric. However, Britain does still use imperial measures for things like beer, milk (to a certain extent) and distances on roads (miles).
There are, perhaps surprisingly, some very strong views on both sides of this debate, and I thought it worth taking a look.
Imperial or metric?
The first thing that I would like to state is that there is nothing special about units. It doesn’t really matter whether we measure distance, for example, in miles or kilometres. They are only units, and as such, they are neutral.
Not that you can tell from the way that some people go on! The government’s own consultation document states right at the beginning:
“Now we have left the EU, the UK can take back control of its measurement system and take decisions in the best interests of British businesses and consumers.”
Notice the “take back control” phrase. We have always been in control. More on the consultation later.
For now, it’s enough to say that units are neutral in themselves. There is no good and evil in imperial or metric.
Understanding imperial measures and number bases
Not good or evil but…
There is confusion, especially for those who didn’t grow up with imperial measurements, or who are not naturally maths geeks. To really understand imperial measures is to really understand number bases.
In most of normal life nowadays, we use base 10. So we count from 1 to 9 and then move into double figures with 10, 11 and so on. Then when we get to 99 we move to triple figures with 100. That’s easy.
However let’s imagine we used base 8.
In base 8, what we think of as 8 would be written as 10, what we think of as 9 would be written 11 and so on.
This is particularly relevant when we think of imperial measures. I will use pounds and ounces as an example. One that seems to particularly excite those who want a ‘return’ to imperial measures.
Maths with pounds and ounces
Hopefully you are still reading. Feel free to scroll on if what you really want to read about is the government consultation. However, this is relevant and important.
One pound (lb) = 16 ounces (oz).
Let’s start with something simple. Let’s say that you have 3 items, all weighing something different, and you want to know the total weight.
Question: What is the total weight of 2lbs 3oz, 4lbs 8oz and 3lbs 15oz?
Answer: The easiest way to do this is probably to add the pounds and ounces separately.
So adding the lbs gives 2 + 4 + 3 = 9lbs. All good so far.
Now add the oz to give 3 + 8 + 15 = 26oz.
So the answer is 9lbs 26oz? Right?
No wrong. Or at least not the most helpful way to give your answer.
Remember that 16oz = 1 lb. So you start with the 26oz and figure out how many lbs are there.
26oz = 16oz + 10oz = 1 lb 10oz.
Now add this to the lbs that you already had.
This makes the final answer (to a simple addition) 10lbs 10 oz.
Now let’s extend this idea to include stones (st). We all know that 1 st = 14 lbs.
14! Why not 16? It’s just the way that it is!
And then let’s think about division.
Question: Divide 4st 10lbs 5oz by 3.
Answer: There is more than one method to solve this problem.
Convert the whole weight into ounces only. So we will look at the stones, pounds and ounces separately.
4 st = 4 x 14 lbs = 56 lbs = 56 x 16 oz = 896 oz.
10 lbs = 10 x 16 oz = 160 oz.
Therefore, the total weight is 1061 oz.
We need to divide this by 3.
So we get 1061/3 = 353 2/3 oz.
We now need to convert this back to stones, pounds and ounces.
First get it into lbs and ounces by dividing by 16.
353 divided by 16 gives us 22 remainder 1 (because 16 x 22 = 352 and then subtract that from 353).
So our answer now becomes 22 lbs 1 oz.
Now convert the pounds to stones by dividing by 14.
22/14 = 1 remainder 8 so 22 lbs = 1 st 8 lbs.
So the final answer is 1st 8 lbs 1 2/3 oz.
Hope you enjoyed that!
Shorter but you need to keep your wits about you and be able to do old fashioned division! Have a look at the video.
And we haven’t even begun with furlongs, chains, bushels, pounds, shillings and pence!
The government consultation on weights and measures
The paper states that it wants the views of “a broad range of stakeholders”. It says that it wants to allow for more choice for businesses and customers. It gives a “Brexit benefit” as the following:
“The UK’s exit from the EU has created an opportunity to review the law on units of measurement for consumer transactions and to take back control of our measurement system so that it better reflects the needs of British businesses and consumers.”
It then gives a separate link for questions and answers. You have to download the questions and then email your answers to a given email address. A surprisingly clunky approach to data collection in my opinion.
It is also a disappointingly biased questionnaire for an organisation that purports to genuinely want opinions. Here is an example:
“a) If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items:
- in imperial units?
- in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?”
With no option for “in metric units”, this question could be used as an example of a loaded/biased question for students learning about questionnaires. I intend to do so.
I am not convinced that the government is serious about wanting to consult the British public on the subject of imperial and metric units of measurement. If they were, then someone should have checked that the questions were fair and balanced.
I am equally unconvinced of the government’s accuracy in telling the story of measurements. We do not need to take back control as we never lost it.
I started with the statement that units are neutral, neither good nor evil. However, given that metric works very well, is much simpler to use, is much more familiar to more people and is used in practically the whole of the rest of the world, I am firmly of the opinion that we should retain our metric system as much as possible.
Please do go to the consultation site and send your responses.