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  • Americans Scientific Illiterates?

    Posted on May 23rd, 2017 admin No comments

    “Though the discourse of science is metric,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in a note to her book, The Sixth Extinction, “most Americans think in terms of miles, acres, and degrees Fahrenheit.  All the figures in this book are given in Englisn [Imperial] units…”

    This unfortunate observation implies several things:

    America is Scientifically Illiterate

    First, the average American is scientifically illiterate.  A scientific paper that mentions centimetres, or joules, or kilograms is incomprehensible.  A hectare  is meaningless.  Symbols like  kPa or kWh might as well be hieroglyphics.   Even my spell-checker, set to American English, marks “centimetres”  — the official Système International spelling — as incorrect; it expects “centimeters”.  Americans don’t even spell like the rest of the world, let alone speak the language of international science.

    America Gets the Kindergarten Version

    Second, reporting or explaining scientific terms or achievements or research to Americans thus requires an additional layer of translation or simplification.  To Americans, even more than to citizens of other countries, science is a foreign language, as incomprehensible as French or German (as when they write Voilà! as Wallah! or zaftig as softig).   This puts them at a distinct disadvantage in trying to comprehend the modern world: they can only grasp the kindergarten version, the watered-down summary, the oversimplification.

    How Many Pounds in 328.7 Kilograms?

    Third, it leaves average America open to errors of conversion, mistakes in translation.  Many examples of conversion error disasters exist; some of them are no doubt apocryphal, others are apparently well-documented.  Such famous errors have cost the US millions, perhaps billions of dollars, as well as lost time and international embarrassment.

    • 1998, a joint NASA/ ESA project, the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) lost all communication with Earth.  A conversion algorithm from English to metric units had been omitted from some of the control files.
    • 1999, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices reported a case where a patient received 0.5 g (grams) of the sedative Phenobarbital; the prescription was for 0.5 gr (grains; a gram is about 15 grains). Medication errors cause at least one death every day and injure approximately 1.3 million people annually in the United States, says the FDA.  How many of those errors are due to misreading of units?
    • 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter ($125 M) after a 286-day trip to Mars.  Miscalculations due to the use of English units instead of metric sent the craft slowly off course.
    • 2004, Tokyo Disneyland — The Space Mountain ride was derailed due to a broken axle.  The axle was the wrong size, due to a conversion from English to metric units
    • Probably hundreds of minor errors go unreported each year.

    Doesn't Use the Metric System

    You Have to Wonder Why

    One has to wonder why America ties itself so firmly to a version of the Imperial system.  After all, they fought a revolution to be free from England.  Why cling so tightly to the past?

    As early as 1866, metric measures were legal in the USA, with various acts and agreements passed during the succeeding century and a half (see 150 Years of Legal Metric Usage in the USA for the sorry history) yet today even Britain is more thoroughly metric than  America, according to that article.  The USA is woefully behind the times and most other countries, choosing alchemy over science, the past over the present, the antique over the modern.

    Okay, it’s not quite that bad, and America has managed to become a world leader in science and technology despite their handicaps.  Their trade deficit, on the other hand…

     

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