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Making Things Simple:

I was recently reminded of one of my favorite quotes, generally attributed to Albert Einstein:

The best explanation is as simple as possible, but no simpler.

jcz (mail):
From /www.quotedb.com
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

From www.quotationspage.com
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."

From en.wikipedia.org
"everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."
Attributed to Hoch, Stephen (2004). Wharton on Making Decisions. New York: Wiley. p. 137. ISBN 0471689386.
6.4.2009 2:37pm
jcz (mail):
All supposedly Einstein quotes of course...
6.4.2009 2:38pm
Ex parte McCardle:
My preferred version of this same thought is from Alfred North Whitehead: "Seek simplicity, and mistrust it." A scientist's version of "Trust in God and keep your powder dry."
6.4.2009 2:46pm
David Welker (www):
The quote is interesting. It also is hard to pin down. It seems to suggest a bias towards simplicity, but that all depends of how one conceives of "but not simpler." When does a shortcoming in a simple explanation that does not exist in a more complex explanation render the first explanation no longer "possible?" That is, how deep should our bias, if any, towards simple explanations run?
6.4.2009 2:47pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
Hmmm... plectics?
6.4.2009 2:53pm
Allan L. (mail):
how deep should our bias, if any, towards simple explanations run?

As deep as possible, but no deeper.
6.4.2009 2:53pm
Chaymus:
As a software engineer it's natural for us to over engineer something, creating unnecessary problems/bugs in things we shouldn't even care about. The flip side is not meeting our specifications for the product, which also happens all the time in this field. The quote makes perfect sense in my world; it's just not that easy.
6.4.2009 2:54pm
ys:
This reminded me for some reason of a quote by a sage that struck me the most ever:

The teacher said: "Study of incorrect views is harmful"

I often thought about its meaning when finding myself in different environments.

The sage, btw, was K'ung Fu-tzu

P.S. There is no doubt of the authenticiy of this one (ok, 2500 years may have played a role) since I read it in the book of Analects (not in Chinese).

P.P.S. I found it in the original. Any Chinese speaker - please, check the validity of the translation

子曰、 由、 诲女知之乎、 知之为知之、 不知为不知、 是知也。
6.4.2009 2:54pm
Ry Jones (mail) (www):
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Antoine de Saint-Exuper
6.4.2009 2:56pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
I think this quote is one of the earliest identifiable examples of HHOS. There's an amazingly deep truth in here that I'm not sure anyone but a mathematical physicist can really appreciate in the original spirit.
6.4.2009 2:57pm
jcz (mail):
I believe Einstein's context was that of a scientific theory, in which case any "shortcoming that does not exist in a more complex explanation" would disallow that explanation. This does beg the question of a case where a "simpler" explanation, e.g. Newtonian gravity, fails to explain something, e.g. perturbations of the orbit of Mercury, that a more complex theory, e.g. epicycles, might be able to explain. In a case like this, however, the simpler theory is preferred for other reasons....
6.4.2009 2:58pm
ys:
Oh, shucks! This was the wrong string in the Confucian original (I got confused). The right one is:

子曰、攻乎异端、斯害也己。
6.4.2009 3:02pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I prefer the test for domain knowledge. If you can't explain the ideas to a 5 year old then you don't understand the field.

I've never tried calculus on a 5 year old, but I have on a 7 year old with a reasonable degree of success so I can see the test as a valid one.
6.4.2009 3:05pm
illram:
The Tao of Einstein?
6.4.2009 3:20pm
Seeker (mail):
I think the principle of parsimony is explainable via probability. A simpler explanation is better all things being equal because the more assumptions you make the greater likelihood one of them is false (and in a coherent theory that probably means the whole house of cards comes down since your assumptions form an interdependent web).
6.4.2009 3:58pm
JWG:
And I thought the principle is generally referred to as Occam's Razor, named after an ancient dude, William Ockham.
6.4.2009 4:12pm
one of many:
I lost all respect for Einstein quotes when I heard of Bohr's response to his famous "G*d does not play dice" line.
6.4.2009 4:15pm
TRE:
Paraphrase from "Making of the Atomic bomb"/my memory:
Bohr had a rabbits foot/horseshoe pinned to the top of his office door. Someone was surprised to find it on the office of this famous scientist and says "Bohr, do you believe in such superstitious nonsense?"

Bohr: "I hear it works even if you don't believe in it"
6.4.2009 4:41pm
rosetta's stones:
This discussion reminds me of Yogi Berra's quote:


If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be.
6.4.2009 4:46pm
Anderson (mail):
Applying the quotation to itself, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler" would seem to be the preferable version.

... I hope EV included that in his legal-writing book, since it's excellent advice in that context as well.
6.4.2009 4:48pm
zuch (mail) (www):
Shouldn't that be "the best explanation is just simple"?

Cheers,
6.4.2009 5:12pm
Bill reynolds (mail):
Pareto Optimality
6.4.2009 5:22pm
can't read chinese:
ys's two posts may be the first use of Chinese characters in comment threads that aren't spam. Has anyone ever translated those long posts that appear fairly regularly?
6.4.2009 5:25pm
Mikeski (mail):
add 'KISS principle.'

add 'Airplane rule.'

There are too many of versions of this, so apparently the concept doesn't work on itself.
6.4.2009 5:26pm
Crunchy Frog:
My favorite comes from the movie Cocktail:

Everything ends badly - otherwise, it wouldn't end.
6.4.2009 5:27pm
kumquat:
can't read chinese -

I've taken a few over to babelfish, and they were all just lists of services presumably available on the websites they were advertising for.
6.4.2009 5:50pm
Laura Victoria (mail):
I've noted that with emails, it's become common for me to receive responses that are just too short and simple, so that I have to write back to further tease out a complete answer, etc. There is a judge I detest who writes rulings this way. As much as I admire and strive for as taut a writing "as possible," I think in the legal sphere it is better to over-engineer to ensure you get your point across and that it addresses the issues comprehensively.
6.4.2009 6:01pm
traveler496:
It strikes me as ironic that such a quote appears on a law blog.

(I was going to add "and also a mite hopeful" when I remembered my aging father's last response to my last suggestion that he try to simplify his life: "It ain't gonna happen.")
6.4.2009 6:55pm
Splunge:
I have no idea to what Einstein was purportedly referring, but it couldn't have been science, and he was full of much sophistry and nonsense outside his area of expertise.

It couldn't have been science because we do not believe there are multiple correct explanations of natural phenomena, and that we have the luxury of picking which we prefer on the basis of its "complexity," even assuming such a nebulous word has a useful definition in this context, which I doubt.

There is exactly one correct explanation for any set of empirical data, and that's that. It may be "simple" or it may be "complex," but this doesn't matter one bit, because the only question of importance is whether it is right or wrong.
6.4.2009 7:30pm
Larry K (mail):
Ockham's Razor anyone?

"A rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. Also called law of parsimony."
6.4.2009 7:39pm
Desiderius:
"And I thought the principle is generally referred to as Occam's Razor, named after an ancient dude, William Ockham."

The Razor covers the first part of Einstein's rule, but doesn't quite get there for the second, leading to things like the disastrously reductionistic 20th Century, for instance.

How about calling it Einstein's Mach 5 Turbo?
6.4.2009 8:18pm
Just an Observer:
And I thought the principle is generally referred to as Occam's Razor, named after an ancient dude, William Ockham.

My understanding is that Einstein actually made his statement as a reaction to Occam's Razor. He was criticizing physicists he thought were too quick to fall back on the principle of Occam's Razor as a substitute for rigorous thinking. Hence the second part of his statement: "but no simpler."
6.4.2009 9:13pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):

It couldn't have been science because we do not believe there are multiple correct explanations of natural phenomena, and that we have the luxury of picking
which we prefer


Except there are times you do have a choice, an example being frequency vs wavelength. They both describe the same property, they are in fact directly related. But there are times that it is easier to use one and times easier to use the other. It would not surprise me at all if there are different ways to describe the universe, each of which is simpler within some domain.
6.4.2009 10:10pm
SFH:
Kip Thorne has examples in "Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy" of different theories of describing the properties of a black hole that turn out to be equivalent although they don't resemble each other at all.
6.4.2009 10:20pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Splunge, you only illustrate how little you know about how science is actually done.
6.5.2009 2:19am
one of many:
Splunge, you only illustrate how little you know about how science is actually done.

it is more a confusion of terminology, if you substitute "a specific set of causes" for "explanation" then the statements are a valid summary of current belief held by the majority about the scientific community.

What Splunge demonstrates with the first sentence is harder to explain, it seems to be a confusion about Einstein. He was not an experimental scientist, he was a theoretical physicist who's "area of expertise" was in deciphering how the universe works. The confusion might be from the fact that today those who claim to be theoretical physicists often engage in experiments (hoist by their own petard, if they work at the super-collider which discovered the Higgs Bosun their physics is not theoretical anymore) so it might be less confusing to call Einstein a natural philosopher.
6.5.2009 3:54pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
one of many,

Unless I am far behind the times the Higgs boson is as yet unobserved. Are you perhaps thinking of some other particle?
6.5.2009 8:32pm

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