Opinion: Infamous ‘pi bill’ has lessons for Kansas

The celebration of Pi Day earlier this week reminds political scientists of the famous “Indiana Pi Bill” story — and provides an opportunity to warn Kansas legislators about the dangers of overreach and micromanagement.

Pi Day is celebrated every March 14 (3/14, or the first three digits of pi), and mathematicians, teachers, students and others celebrate one of the best-known findings in mathematics by baking pies — round, of course — creating artwork incorporating circles, writing “pi-kus” (haikus with 3, 1, and 4 syllables, respectively), and offering brief history lessons about geometry’s best-known value.

One such story is that of the Indiana Pi Bill, which originated in 1897.

Like most legends, this one is often told inaccurately. The bill did not actually purport to set pi equal to 3, nor did it have anything to do with Biblical literalism. It was not intended to make it easier for students to do their homework. In fact, the true story is even more interesting.

A renegade mathematician named Edward J. Goodwin claimed to have his own, unique proof showing that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was 3.2, not 22/7 as had been understood since ancient times. Goodwin failed to convince other mathematicians, so instead he sought to impose the new value by legislative fiat. The bill passed the Indiana House but when it reached the Senate, a mathematician named Clarence Abiathar Waldo was on hand to lobby for more science funding. Waldo set to work educating senators about the impossibility of legislating a mathematical value. The bill died, but a legend was born.

Unfortunately, the Kansas Legislature has not heeded the warning. Bills are moving this year that would legislate things best left to others. For example, legislation is moving quickly to ban the participation of transgender girls on girls sports teams. Never mind that the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) already has strict regulations on transgender girls who wish to do this. Legislators still think they know better.

Another example concerns attempts to ban diversity, equity and inclusion training. A budget provision inserted by Rep. Steve Howe would ban diversity training for social service professions unless it is done to comply with federal or state law. However, many licensing boards require such training above and beyond federal and state requirements, and most state legislators lack the knowledge needed to properly evaluate what training is appropriate. The provision could put Kansas care providers at odds with their licensure requirements, which in turn could create legal challenges and lead to insurance claims being denied. It could also compromise the quality of care.

Even though topics such as transgender athletes and professional licensure requirements are not as cut and dried as the value of pi, they still require oversight by those who know what they are doing. From the budget, to crime, to teacher shortages and a water crisis, the state Legislature has plenty to do already without such meddling. Kansans deserve better. Unlike pi, state legislators do not have to be irrational.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.


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