Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron? Hilliard Jason? Stephen Ross? Lord Platt? George Pickering?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained a few quotations that are often attributed to Albert Einstein. I think the following saying is very insightful:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

If I use this quotation should I credit it to Einstein?

Quote Investigator: QI suggests crediting William Bruce Cameron instead of Albert Einstein. Cameron’s 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” contained the following passage [WCIS]:

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

There are several books that attribute the quote to Cameron and cite this 1963 book. QI was unable to find earlier instances of the saying. Researcher John Baker identified this citation, and it appears in the internet compendium WikiQuote.

This maxim consists of two parallel and contrasting phrases:

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

The position of the two key terms “counted” and “counts” is reversed in the two different phrases. This rhetorical technique is referred to as chiasmus or antimetabole. QI hypothesizes that the two phrases were crafted separately and then at a later time combined by Cameron to yield the witty and memorable maxim.

When was the connection with Albert Einstein established? The earliest relevant cite that QI could find was dated 1986, however, this is more than thirty years after the death of Einstein in 1955. Thus, the evidence is weak, and the link to Einstein is not solidly supported. The details for this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1914 a precursor of one of the phrases appeared in a religious text. The topic was raising money [CSOH]:

Money is not the thing ultimately or even actually aimed at. Money is not what really counts, though it must be counted.

In 1956 a report published by UNESCO titled “Political Science in the United States of America: A Trend Report” by Dwight Waldo contained a variant of one of the phrases. The words were placed between quotation marks suggesting that the expression was already in use before 1956 [PSDW]:

There are those who see the movement as diverting political science from important to trivial matters simply because the latter lend themselves to study by the fashionable techniques (‘what counts can’t be counted’).

The phrase “what counts can’t be counted” suggests that it is impossible to measure what is important. This statement is an extremal version of “not everything that counts can be counted.” The latter phrase states that it is difficult to measure what is important and measurements are likely to be incomplete.

In 1957 a Professor of Sociology named William Bruce Cameron published an article in the bulletin of American Association of University Professors titled “The Elements of Statistical Confusion Or: What Does the Mean Mean?” Cameron discussed the difficulty of performing appropriate statistical measurements, and he deployed one the phrases [WCSC]:

Equally obvious, 100 evening college students taking one two hour course each are in no meaningful way equivalent to 100 day students, each with a sixteen hour load. The moral is: Not everything that can be counted counts.

In 1958 Cameron wrote another article that included the same phrase for the NEA (National Education Association) Journal [WCNE]:

Counting sounds easy until we actually attempt it, and then we quickly discover that often we cannot recognize what we ought to count. Numbers are no substitute for clear definitions, and not everything that can be counted counts.

In 1963 Cameron combined the two phrases and used the resulting quotation in his textbook on sociology. The details were given at the beginning of this post.

In 1966 a version of the saying was printed in the prominent medical journal JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). The article titled “The Current and Potential Use of Course Examinations” by Hilliard Jason attributed the words to another doctor [HJSR]:

These are best summarized in two propositions which have been neatly articulated by Dr. Stephen Ross, “(1) not everything we count, counts; (2) not everything that counts can be counted.”

In 1967 Lord Platt writing in the British Medical Journal deployed the maxim. He cited the 1966 article just mentioned, and hence he also credited Stephen Ross [LPSR]:

Research is supposed to train the mind into channels of scientific (and therefore respectable) thought, but does not this kind of research sometimes encourage the erroneous belief that only that which can be measured is worthy of serious attention? “Not everything we count counts. Not everything that counts can be counted,” was wisely said by Dr. Stephen Ross.

In 1968 the adage appeared in the British Medical Journal again. But this time the words were attached to Lord Platt who used them during a speech [CMLP]:

He recalled a sentence in Lord Platt’s recent Harveian Oration, “Not everything we count counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

The earliest citation QI could find that associates Albert Einstein with the saying was dated 1986. But this work did not claim that Einstein was responsible for coining the expression. Instead, the business book “Peak Performance” attributed the saying to George Pickering. Yet, the text also claimed that Einstein wrote it on his blackboard [CGGP]:

Albert Einstein liked to underscore the micro/macro partnership with a remark from Sir George Pickering that he chalked on the blackboard in his office at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

The book “Peak Performance” does not provide any reference to substantiate this comment, and Einstein died in 1955 more than three decades before the volume was written. Currently, the first appearance known to QI for this adage is dated 1963 which is several years after the death of Einstein.

In 1991 the tale of the writing on Einstein’s blackboard was presented in a syndicated newspaper column [LBAE]:

Albert Einstein once wrote on a blackboard: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Cameron was not forgotten, and in 1997 a sociology textbook attributed the saying to him and cited the 1963 book that was mentioned at the start of this post [SCTS]:

As Cameron once said, “… not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” (1963, p. 13).

A version of the maxim was printed in a section titled “Probably Not by Einstein” in the volume “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” (2010) which is the most authoritative book about Einstein quotations [TUQE].

In conclusion, the attachment of this quotation to Einstein is tenuous. There is no evidence that he crafted it, and the evidence that he wrote it on a blackboard is weak.

QI believes that the preponderance of currently available information indicates that William Bruce Cameron combined two phrases to create the adage. He also seems to have coined at least one of the two phrases that were combined. In addition, current evidence suggests that the full two-part adage was created after the death of Einstein.

Thanks for your question.

Update history: On September 5, 2011 the article was rewritten. The quotation was split into two phrases for analysis and some additional citations were presented for these phrases.

[WCIS] 1963, Informal Sociology, a casual introduction to sociological thinking by William Bruce Cameron, Page 13, Random House, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Checked on paper: Fifth printing, January 1967; Copyright 1963) link

[CSOH] 1914, Our Home Mission Work by Charles E. Schaeffer, Quote assigned to Rhinelander, Page 178, Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, Philadelphia. (Google Books full view) link

[PSDW] 1956, Political Science in the United States of America: A Trend Report by Dwight Waldo, Chapter II: Contemporary Trends: The Behavioural Vogue, Page 30, UNESCO, Paris. (Verified on paper) link

[WCSC] 1957 Spring, AAUP Bulletin, Volume 43, Number 1, “The Elements of Statistical Confusion Or: What Does the Mean Mean?” by William Bruce Cameron, Page 34, Publication of the American Association of University Professors, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper; JSTOR) link

[WCNE] 1958 March, NEA journal, Tell Me Not in Mournful Numbers by William Bruce Cameron, Page 173, Volume 47, Number 3, National Education Association of the United States, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper)

[HJSR] 1966 October 17, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), Congress on Medical Education The Current and Potential Use of Course Examinations by Hilliard Jason, Start Page 289, Quote Page 290, Column 2, Volume 198, Number 3, American Medical Association. (Verified on paper)

[LPSR] 1967 November 25, The British Medical Journal, Medical Science: Master Or Servant? by Lord Platt, Page 442, BMJ Publishing Group. (JSTOR) link

[CMLP] 1968 July 13, The British Medical Journal, [Supplement], Christian Medical Fellowship, Page 80, Volume 3, Number 5610, BMJ Publishing Group. (JSTOR) link

[CGGP] 1986, Peak Performers: the new heroes of American business by Charles A. Garfield, Page 156, William Morrow, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Verified on paper) link

[LBAE] 1991 February 11, Ellensburg Daily Record, This and That: Shy Suffer Hay Fever by L. M. Boyd, Page 8, [Crown Syndicate, Inc.], Ellensburg, Washington. (Google News Archive)

[SCTS] 1997, The Student’s Companion to Sociology edited by Chet Ballard, Jon Gubbay and Chris Middleton, Page 92, Column 2, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview) link

[TUQE] 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Attributed to Einstein: Probably Not by Einstein, Page 482, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)

 

15 thoughts on “Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

  1. Epic site I’m so glad I stumbled here through my friend’s blog, Going to need to add this one to the blogroll.

  2. Many thanks! I realise now why the writer of the article in which I saw the statement was not willing to pass on her source .. academic writers are very protective of their sources ..particularly when they are unsure of them!!
    Yours is a great service!

  3. I was researching this quote as well, but something is bothering me about your analysis above. You don’t address the question of, if the quote originated in 1963, how did Albert Einstein write it on his chalkboard if he died in 1955? Or are you doubting that Einstein ever had anything to do with the quote whatsoever?

  4. J Graham: Thanks for visiting the QI blog. I have now rewritten this post and added some additional citations. For example, one cite shows that Cameron used a section of the quotation in 1957.

    The currently known evidence connecting Einstein to the quotation is not very strong. I hypothesize that Cameron crafted it after Einstein had “shufflel’d off this mortall coile.”

    I would enjoy hearing about your research results.

  5. Barrie Brennan, is unfortunately correct about some writers who purport academic credentials. However, the real work of scholarship includes making one’s sources transparent and accurate. The real test of scholarship–and one goal of the peer-review process in academic scholarship–is to create an opportunity for independent verification.

    If you find a supposedly “academic writer” who is evasive about his/her sources, run, don’t walk for the nearest exit. Quoting unverified or unnamed sources might be a technique for some journalists but it has no place in the academy.

    The reason I check quotes here (and in other places, as well) is to be certain that I don’t jeaopardize the credibility of my own scholarly writing by a mis-stated fact or quotation. Thanks for this valuable service.

  6. I would like to use this page as reference but it lacks an author. Can you provide some adequate reference details please

    Thanks

    Gerhard

  7. Gerhard: Here is some data describing the above article.

    Title: Not Everything That Counts Can be Counted
    Author: Garson O’Toole website owner
    Website: QuoteInvestigator.com
    URL: quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/26/everything-counts-einstein/
    Creation date: May 26. 2010
    Revision date: September 5, 2011
    Retrieval date: May 29, 2012 (or whenever you examined the webpage)

    I am glad that you wish to cite this webpage, but there may be some resistance to allowing a reference to an internet website in a formal paper. Good luck. You should also examine the citations given at the end of the article. You can include one or more of these citations to show that the information has a solid foundation.

    See the link labeled “About” at the top of the webpage. It leads to information about the website and Garson O’Toole.

  8. I think citing the author of the quote is one of the things that could be counted but does not count…

  9. I have read that Einstein had this quote displayed on his office door at Princeton. Is there any evidence for or against?

  10. M Carmichael: Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Einstein displayed this quote on his office door. The first appearance known to QI for this adage was dated 1963 which was several years after the death of Einstein.

    The story of a sign displaying the quote may have been derived from the claim that Einstein had the quote “chalked on the blackboard”. That claim appeared by 1986 as indicated in the post, but no supporting citation was given. Einstein died in 1955 more than three decades before 1986.

  11. I would be very surprised if the story about the sign at his office door would be wrong-clearly predates 1986. I have read that in several sources which emerged independently from one another. By contrast, I haven’t read the anecdote that he chalked it to a blackboard before I came across this site. But then again: Even if we assume that he did have it at his office door, then most likely the phrase wasn’t his own. More likely, I would take a look at what he and his buddies in their earlier Berne days chatted about – sounds more like something that could have emerged during one of the evenings of the “Akademie Olympia”…

  12. Oliver: Thanks for visiting the website. Would love to see citations before 1986 indicating that Einstein had the saying on his office door or wall. Could you share them?

  13. This site is a treasure. Many many thanks Dr. Garson O’Toole for your dedicated and invaluable work.

  14. Anjali: Thanks for visiting and leaving an interesting comment. The humorist and best-selling author William Bruce Cameron who is discussed in the Wikipedia entry is a different person from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron who wrote “Informal Sociology” published in 1963.

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