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In 1897, the Indiana legislature attempts by law to declare 3.2 as the legal value of the ratio of the circle’s circumference to its diameter (pi). They plan to resolve the ancient mathematical conundrum of squaring the circle as worked on by Archimedes and others with legislative decree. However, even approximations of 22/7 and 355/113 fall short. Pi exists as an irrational and transcendental number with an infinite number of digits that never repeat. Luckily, Clarence Waldo intervenes with a geometry lesson to state senators after which the bill becomes tabled indefinitely.

Higher stakes exist for today’s politicians claiming alternative facts. Such a world view betrays an attitude of unbridled arrogance morphing into irrationality. Laws of nature, unlike human law, don’t discriminate between party affiliations or ideology. Inability to arrive at scientifically based solutions guarantees future economic and mortality-rate forfeitures.

We must learn from Ginsberg’s theorem (parody of the laws of thermodynamics) in terms of a person playing a game of chance. First, you can’t win the game. Second, you can’t even break even. Third, you can’t even get out of the game. This mirrors today’s seemingly unstoppable pandemic. Unfortunately, we experience the additional handicap of not knowing all the rules of the game, such as mutation rate, transmission rate, fatality rate, genetic susceptibility and aerosol dispersion risks, among others.

Limited health care guidance and insufficient contact tracing increase the probability of contracting COVID-19. Our odds of evading COVID-19 improve significantly with social distancing and wearing masks in public settings. Human nature thrives on personal interactions (exchange, competition, conflict, cooperation, accommodation). These can lead to risky and irresponsible behavior. Hence, the arrogance of dismissing preventative measures gives the virus a marked advantage.

Ambrose Bierce warns us to avoid arrogance and to think clearly: “He who ignores the law of probabilities challenges an adversary that is seldom beaten.”

Roger Combs


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