Framing, The Metric System, Audience

I’m no scientist, and I’m no expert at climate change. I’m trying to learn a lot about global warming on the fly so I can be an informed citizen when it comes to what it currently going on with the debate. I kind of hate blogging on it, because I don’t like blogging on things where I’m not fairly certain I know fully what I’m talking about, and there are so many dimensions from climate modeling to political economy that it is kind of overwhelming.

So can I be completely honest? I didn’t realize, until I was halfway through trying to derive the Nordhaus Model, that the units weren’t Fahrenheit. Everyone, including myself, keeps saying “we expect there to be, on average, a 3 degree increase in temperature by 2080”, and I always implicitly mentally mapped that to Fahrenheit and not to Celsius. Be honest – did you? To scientists, and noted Francophiles like Jim Manzi, it is very natural to use the metric system. But to everyday Americans, that’s really an increase of “5.4 degrees (F)” in how we discuss weather.

(Feel free to mock the provincial Midwestern Mike if you want, with his natural discomfort with the metric system. But I’ve just been informed by a coastal elite that “Middle Americans” make the most reckless and passionate lovers, so I’ve got that going for me.)

Here’s an interesting question – should journalists report, and bloggers discuss, this to American audiences in Fahrenheit? Celsius? Both? When I say “It’s going to be 70 out” or “it’s going to be 5 degrees warmer than we expected” to my co-workers or family, it’s very clear what units I’m talking about. It seems trivial, but when a newspaper article says “An average increase of 3 degrees (C) over 80 years” or “An average increase of 5.4 degrees (F) over 80 years” it has a very different cognitive response from me, even though they are the same statement. The 5.4 seems like a bigger deal, and it is in the right units for how I think of weather day in and day out.

Buy American! Use Fahrenheit!

Buy American! Use Fahrenheit!

I know I’m forever kicked out of the respectable scientist community for suggesting the media discuss this in non-metric units. But I wonder how much “political capital” is being left on the table by phrasing it in polls and the public sphere in units not natural to regular discussion for Americans? Should the environmental blogs should start using (F), or dual-units, when writing and discussing this for proper effect? This might be a minor effect, but F scales faster (1.8x) than C, so a modest increase in C is a bigger increase in F, and the cognitive bias is for those who are used to talking in F to underestimate converting the increase in C. To say “the tail risk in an increase of 7 degrees” leaving the C out, versus “the tail risk is an increase of 12.6 degrees (F)” would probably make a big difference when it comes to “how much would you spend” questionnaires and other related public sphere discussions.

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12 Responses to Framing, The Metric System, Audience

  1. John the Cheap says:

    As an engineer, I am completely comfortable with metric units in general. However, like you I tend to think of weather in terms of degrees F. I think both units should be given in coverage of climate change (or for that matter any discussion of temperature), for the reasons you adduce as well as to help familiarize the American public with the metric unit.

  2. catallaxdeville says:

    As an architect who studied abroad, I am also comfortable with metric units – when it comes to units of length. Like JtC I also tend to think of weather in terms of Fahrenheit and not Celsius – the exception being the period of time I actually lived overseas (in Helsinki, where the temperature MATTERS).

    I feel the only way for the Celsius system to become integrated with our American Mind (a positive outcome, in my mind) is for there to be a concerted effort, possibly with the encouragement of Federal stipulation, to broadcast both F and C side-by-side in everyday media.

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    That’s a damn good point, Rortybomb.

  4. Tom Woolf says:

    There is no reason why Celsius should not be used. There is also no reason why Fahrenheit should not be used. The one requirement, and this stands for ANY time ANY measurement or figure is being reported, is that the unit of the value be reported.

    Reporters are pretty good about including currency codes when needed. They use the “$” symbol if reporting US dollars, $C Canadian, the Pound sign for the Pound, etc. Why not include C or F when writing about temperature? They can’t be lazy and assume degrees are in F just because the primary everyday usage is F – unlike currency, where the US$ is the only currency used in the States, both F and C are used.

    Include the units.

  5. Chris says:

    I’m a physicist, and I also generally think about weather in terms of degrees F. If I see a temperature difference in degrees C, I usually just multiply by a factor of 2 to get a quick and dirty conversion. It’s can also be helpful to remember that 25 degrees C is just under 80 degrees F (77, actually).

    The media should definitely report the numbers in degrees F, I think. Joe Romm at is pretty good about this.

  6. Funny, I can think in feet and inches or in metres and centimetres almost equally well, but I’m completely incapable of thinking in Farenheit.


  7. Greg M says:

    I concur. Even though I always am aware of the fact that (C) is being used, I have a hard time conceptualizing what it all means, becuase while I instinctively know what “10 degrees (F) warmer” feels like, I have no idea what “10 degrees (C) warmer” feels like, other than to do the conversion.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for the kind words all. I am very comfortable with metric units in terms of length, somewhat in terms of weight, but I have no conception of temperature, C. It was a weird moment when I realized “Oh this is really 5.4 degrees in terms of what I think, not 3.”

    My old biophysicist roommate, who works at the 5K level of temperature with electrons, was like “you aren’t using Kelvins?” so apparently C can be out-scientist’ed in the grand scheme of things.

  9. canuck says:

    “Scientists and noted Francophiles”? Truth be told, NOBODY outside US and A thinks in degrees Farenheit anymore. Not even the Brits, who still use miles and pounds. So Americans use common English words like “degree” and “football” to mean something entirely different from what those words mean everywhere else. No wonder there are communication failures. Mind that these are mostly one-way failures, since people elsewhere are usually aware of these American idiosyncrasies but Americans are not.

  10. Al in San Antone says:

    I’m another physicist and would never dream of doing a calculation in other than metric units (SI, actually): meters and kilograms and, yes, kelvins. But if the point is to communicate to the public, I take the results and convert to whatever the appropriate units are.

    By the way, Google’s search box has a great units conversion app hidden in it. Put in “35 C in degrees F” and it comes back with 35 degrees Celsius = 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

  11. Andrew Foland says:

    I think Al has the point. As a physicist, I personally may be totally comfortable with Kelvin or Celsius (or temperature in electron-Volts 🙂 ) .

    But that’s totally irrelevant. Global climate is a public issue, and its solution will necessarily be political. That requires education and mobilization of people who are not totally comfortable in Celsius. Even reporting in “C” with an explicit notation really fails; reporting for American audiences should be in F.

  12. q says:

    another thing to take into account is that by then — if current dietary trends continue — people are going to be essentially spherical by then. this will minimize the surface area to volume ratio, so it will be much harder to vent the heat generated.

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