A Liter Bit of Mathphobia

The television reporter stuck his microphone inside the driver’s side window of the Cadillac. The driver, a blue haired woman in her eighties, was quite agitated. She sat in a line of cars that was three blocks long. In fact, all but one of the four gas stations located on each corner had lines that were three to four blocks long. It was the gas crisis of 1973. Gas was suddenly expensive, scarce, and rationed. The reporter asked the lady why she was sitting in line when she could go across the street and fill up without waiting.

“They cheat you over there,” she said. “The dial thingy goes so fast you can’t even read it.” The Standard Oil station in question, was in fact, using a gimmick. They were selling gas at 25¢/liter. In other words they were selling gasoline using the same units of measure that the rest of the world uses. In the space of six weeks the price of gasoline in the U.S. had almost tripled from 35¢/gallon to $1.04 sending shock waves throughout America. What the woman didn’t understand was that even though the mechanical dial spun four times as fast, she would actually save 4¢/gallon if she went across the street. Of course she would have to know that there are about four liters in a gallon. And that was unlikely. Up and down the row every driver had a similar response for the reporter. He explained to the home audience why and how gas by the liter was a better deal. But when it comes to anything mathematical, Americans want nothing to do with it. The gas station abandoned its experiment within a month.

The gas crisis caused the price of most things to climb dramatically. Since transportation costs also tripled for manufacturers, those costs were passed on to consumers. And since people had less money to spend on things that were not gasoline, the whole economy was in chaos. American ingenuity reared its head and some companies jumped in to try and take advantage of the new consumer mindset. The soda companies, for example, had figured out a way to ship soda in plastic bottles. These were much lighter than glass and were disposable (something environmentalists hated) instead of needing to be shipped back to the factory for recycling. This saved the companies money on one end and eliminated paying for trucks to haul empty bottles on the other. But it was the 7-Up company who designed a brilliant marketing strategy for the new packaging. Prior to the plastic disposable bottle, the largest soda size was a ½ gallon bottle.

Exhibit A in the argument that Americans are mathematically challenged is the ads that 7-Up used when they replaced their ½ gallon glass bottles with 2 liter plastic ones. If you examine them, a two liter bottle looks the exactly same as a ½ gallon bottle. But it has about 6 tablespoons more soda in it than the ½ gallon one (that’s three shot glasses for the cocktail crowd). So 7-Up launched an ad campaign touting the fact that their 2 liter bottle contained a ”liter bit more” soda than the Coke or Pepsi ½ gallon ones. The ads worked so well that for months the shelves were devoid of 7-Up. Finding 7-Up to use a mixer for my Christmas party was harder than buying bullets during a black President’s administration. Not only did all of the soda companies end up switching, but Coke bought out 7-Up.

A reasonable person might ask why Americans can figure out how to buy soda using the metric system but not gas. Part of the problem is an education system that makes the metric system seem much harder than it really is by making students do useless conversion problems. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment the next time you are driving. When it is safe, look at your speed in miles per hour. Then look at the metric scale. What does it say? If you are traveling about 60 mph, the scale will read roughly 100 kilometers per hour. How much math did that take? None. Only in America does anybody have to convert English units to metric ones or vice versa. And even then that’s only engineers and scientists who have to do it. I can teach anyone all they need to know about the metric system in 10 minutes. You only need to memorize six things and one rule. There’s a reason why everyone else in the world uses metric. It’s not only easier but more efficient.

That being said, the idea of switching to the metric system in America is as likely as the Koch brothers embracing climate change. It will happen eventually but probably not in our lifetime. It doesn’t matter what the logical arguments are. It doesn’t matter how much it hurts our economy (six trillion/ year). It doesn’t matter how many jobs are lost (tens of thousands). We are not going metric even though there are Presidential candidates who advocate it. Why? Remember the blue–haired grandmother from earlier? It’s mostly her fault. Her recipes that she handed down are mostly to blame. Studies show that opposition to the metric system coalesce around three areas: 1. Cost 2. Mathphobia 3. Women. Cost is easy to dismiss. The cost of converting signs etc. will be more than offset by increased exports and reduced costs to international companies who won’t have to do everything twice. And this is not speculation. Both England and Australia gave up the English system and saw tremendous economic benefits.

Mathphobia and women are tougher obstacles. But fear of math is easier to overcome than it seems. My speedometer and soda examples show that no one really needs to do any math if we switch to the metric system. But women are a much tougher sell. They have grandma’s recipes for pie, cakes, and meatloaf. They don’t want to give those up and they don’t want to convert the measurements. The fact that measuring cups, like speedometers, have two scales doesn’t seem to reassure them.

So for those who are afraid of the metric system, I have a scenario I’d like you to consider. Imagine it’s two AM in the roughest part of your town. People who want to get high are doing business with people who are already high. These drug dealers and their customers have to use the metric system. Their products come from other countries and are sold in grams and kilograms. Sometimes they even have to covert grams to ounces. And the price of a mistake is getting shot. Yet every day, hundreds of thousands of tweakers, crackheads, and junkies conduct business using the metric system. Many are high school dropouts and most are high and carry weapons. AND NONE OF THEM GET SHOT FOR MAKING A MATHEMATICAL ERROR. Oh, druggies get shot for lots of things, but never for their math. I know, I work with them every day.

So the next time someone mentions having our country switch to metric, relax. If a toothless methhead can navigate the metric system at 2 a.m. without getting killed, it can’t be too hard for you. And who knows? Maybe you’ll like it. The rest of the world does.