It was 1897 and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin had done what scholars had been baffled by for over 2,000 years: squaring a circle. Without going into any lengthy mathematical discourse, he had created a proof to what had been thought of as impossible — the Holy Grail of constructible geometry (that is, he had done this only with a compass and straight-edge).
He was arguably proud of his accomplishment, and wanted to actually copyright his proof, so that anyone using it would have to pay him and his heirs a small royalty. He wasn’t without charity, though; he would allow educators within the State of Indiana to use it for free.
Goodwin had a friend in the state legislature, who became equally excited about his friend’s accomplishment and introduced a bill in the Indiana House.
The legislators, swelling with state pride and eager to advance education within their state passed the bill though the House unanimously, and sent it to the Senate.
But there was just a small problem with Goodwin’s proof. Embedded at the very core of it was that π=3.2 and the √2 = 10/7, not the infinitely expanding decimals that we know today.
Lucky for the legislature, Professor Clarence Waldo, dean of mathematics from Purdue University was visiting the legislature that day to lobby for funds for his department.
Legislators eagerly showed Waldo their prize find for the State of Indiana.
Waldo immediately saw the fault of the proof — mathematicians had proven this impossible in 1882 — and he set his mind to ‘educating’ the senators in Indiana as to why they should not support this bill that had been unanimously passed in the House.
However, it was newspapers catching wind of the story — and mocking the legislature for being bamboozled — that did more to kill the bill than Waldo’s tutoring of the senators.
In the end, the bill was allowed to die in the Senate, but only after leaving a nicely recorded public record that we ought to learn something from in modern times.
Jumping Ahead to 2016
The moral of this story is just as valid in 2016 as it should have been in 1897 — legislators need to stay out of the business of legislating scientific fact.
And yet our lawmakers do this every single day — from climate change, to medical procedures, to pharmaceuticals, to even housing codes and standards of primary and secondary education. Legislators are relying on their own set of ‘experts’ to tell them what the facts are, then they rush out to create the laws that they wanted to create in the first place.
Legislators need to stay out of the business of legislating scientific fact.
It seems that legislators are all too eager to have an idea for a bill in mind, then find their own ‘expert’ opinions to back up their idea, regardless of what the collective body of science and mathematics might tell them.
And they are even worse when it comes to high-ticket budget items bought on credit, where, for example, a $100 million purchase for computer upgrades won’t even get paid off before the system becomes antiquated.
This lack of veracity and understanding of mathematical facts leads legislators into believing that some quick-fix scheme might actually pay down our national debt — instead of a thought out, difficult path of both fiscal responsibility and taxation.
The government is complex, and it needs to regulate a great many things (we don’t want buildings falling down around us, talc in our flour, or ‘snake oils’ in our pharmacies), but even so, they need to have more faithfulness to the sciences when making their decisions.
Instead of running out to find someone to prove what they already want to do, legislators need to fully understand the problems, gather scientific opinions, then make decisions.
Otherwise, they risk ‘re-inventing’ math and science itself, something that they should have learned not to do after Indiana’s great pi debacle.