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)