Pi Is What We Say It Is

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I would file this one marked, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.” Our local newspaper offers an “On this date” column, and this morning I found there:

1897: The Indiana House of Representatives passed, 67-0, a measure offering a new (as well as hopelessly flawed) method for determining the area of a circle, which would have effectively redefined the value of pi as 3.2. (The bill died in the Indiana Senate.)

There is something laughable but also frightening about partisan attempts to legislate realities beyond human control. How can false mathematical outcomes (like the miscalculation of pi) be passed into law so that legally they become facts when they remain contrary to fact in reality? We are now in the 21st Century C.E., and partisans still want to legislate their own facts to ban certain scientific arguments from use in debate over policies. Now it’s climate change that is not be discussed scientifically or the biology of female human beings.

Our democracy is designed to protect minorities within our population from the tyranny of the majority.

Voting on facts is embarrassingly foolish and also dangerous, but it is not the only betrayal of reason and responsibility in which legislatures may engage. Another is putting to a public vote by referendum a matter of the rights of unpopular minorities or, in the case of women, a majority long regarded with condescension.

Our democracy is designed to protect minorities within our population from the tyranny of the majority. Think about it. If a hypothetical group consists of 90 green people and 10 blue people, what happens when a simple majority vote can privilege green people and deny the rights of blue people? The green can win every time, no matter how unfair and hurtful the outcome.

Ours is a representative democracy, meaning we elect representatives to consider, debate, and vote upon decisions which affect all of us. Contrary to current popular opinion, it is not the responsibility of representatives to vote the will (opinion) of their constituents but to consider what is right and good for the whole body – the state or the nation. Representative democracy protects us from the follies of easily swayed public opinion, widespread public ignorance, and pervasive public prejudices and fears that disregard both facts and human rights.

Putting to a referendum a matter of public policy regarding human rights, especially the rights of an unpopular minority, evades legislative responsibility and displays a lack of moral courage. We elect representatives to consider issues of public concern rationally and thoroughly and to make decisions deemed after due consideration to be best for the whole state or nation and to be right for all the people, with a special eye out for those whose rights might be denied by popular opinion or custom.

For forty years, I served as moderator of first one and then another Presbyterian church’s elected council, called under our polity the session. The session was elected to make decisions for the church under the Presbyterian church’s constitution and subject to review by higher councils. Importantly, the session was not permitted to evade its responsibility by putting to congregational vote matters that might prove divisive or unpopular. The elected representatives had to make the decision if it was to be made at all. The church’s constitution severely limited matters to be decided by a congregational vote. I might wish some of our states had similar understandings of the nature of representative democracy and the responsibility of elected representatives to be more than mouthpieces for what they perceive as public opinion. Representing us should not be about getting reelected.

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