There is a 12th century legend by Henry Huntingdon that tells of King Canute placing his throne on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in. Predictably, the tides did not listen to the King and he ended up with wet feet and a nice illustration of the fact that even as King his power had limits. This is a valuable lesson that Governments still apparently struggle with from time to time.
In 1897 the State of Indiana’s General Assembly heard Bill 246 “introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana”. Of the many incorrect mathematical assertions in the bill the most memorable was giving pi the value of 3.2. The Education Committee actually passed the bill but it failed to make it through the State Senate.
If Bill 246 had passed the impacts on pi, or any other math, would have been non-existent. Pi, like any number is just a word, some symbols that people use to make it easier to communicate about something that exists in the world. The ratio of a circle’s radius to its circumference is something that people can name, but it’s not something that governments have any actual impact on. People in power can decide to say that pi is equal to 3.2, or that the earth is the center of the universe, or that the tides can’t come in, but saying it doesn’t make it so.
Now the U.S. Federal government is in the process of trying to overrule the reality of gender. On October 21 the New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is in the process of defining sex for legal purposes in a way that denies the existence of transgender people.
While the HHS may want to narrow gender down to the idea that penis equals man and vagina equals woman the truth is that a person’s sex involves external sex organs, internal sex organs, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics like beards or breasts. For most people all these things end up in one category, but that’s not the case for everyone. Gender involves all that plus other things, like societal expectation and most importantly, a person’s own internal experience. Humans are incredibly diverse and sometimes a person’s gender is not the same as the sex they appeared to be at birth.
Transgender people have existed throughout history and being transgender is a medically and scientifically accepted fact. But unfortunately transgender people in the U.S. and elsewhere still face targeted discrimination, at the hands of individuals and even state governments. It’s unclear why people think that someone else’s gender is of any concern to them, but it is clear that transgender Americans should have the same civil rights protections as other groups that have historically faced targeted discrimination in the U.S. By changing this definition the HHS is taking a step that will leave transgender people with less protection from discrimination in the U.S. To put it another way, this change will have real negative impacts on real American citizens, with literally no positive outcomes for anyone. That should be reason enough to discount it out of hand.
The other big problem with HHS’s incorrect definition is that in the long run things like this weaken the power of the government. Indiana didn’t even end up passing Bill 246 with the wrong definition of pi, but over 100 years later it’s still being held up as an example of how irrational and stupid governments can be. The government doesn’t get to decide what reality is; it can’t command the tide not to come in, or change the value of pi, or define transgender people out of existence. When the government takes actions that contradict reality it just leaves us with the same reality and a less competent government.