Einstein’s Pedagogical Thesis

“Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler”


This is a profound statement . I recently went on a Google exploration to find what others made of it. I discovered a blog post by a zen-buddhist-all-is-calm type that took this to be an instruction for how one should live her life- Keep things simple, don’t overload life with unbearable complexity, and, simultaniously, don’t undervalue life by dropping below the threshold of what life expects of you. This isn’t, I don’t think, what Mr. E-equals-m-c-squared was talking about. He was referring less to a kind of chinese proverb found in a fortune cookie and more to a method for explaining and teaching complex concepts. Let me explain.

Make things as simple as possible…
It might be best to think of this portion of Einstein’s statement as an Occam’s Razor for linguistics. Occam basically said that, when attempting to explain the presence of any given occurrence or fact, the most powerful theory or explanation is the one that employs the fewest steps along the way.

So, say Harry walks in his room and upon doing so discovers his owl, Hedwig, dead in her cage with a bruise on her head and a hammer laying nearby! At this point Harry attempts to understand how this tragic event happened. Here are two possibilities. Option 1: a dark wizard revealed himself sneaking into Harry’s room and Hedwig, being the clever owl that she is, recognised the wizard for who he was and began to sound an alarm of squawks. At that point the wizard summoned a hammer ex nihilo and, through complicated wand waving and magical chanting, caused the hammer-head to meet Hedwig’s cranium with a quiet ‘crack’, causing the owl’s lifeless body to fall to the floor of the cage. Or, option 2: Harry’s evil cousin, Dudley, snuck into Harry’s room and bonked Hedwig on the head.

According to Occam, both options fully explain what happened. However, the insertion of unneeded steps such as intruding wizards and complicated magic aren’t necessary to explain what happened. Therefore, the simpler explanation should be favoured.

Here’s the point- leave out the excess.

when explaining something there are two routes: simple and complex. The latter is often the route of the sophist or pompous rhetorician. The former is the act of removing the vocabulary-waste while retaining the essential message. This is, and I think Einstein would agree, more difficult. It means that the communicator has to so internalise the content that she can regurgitate it without the technical vocabulary while leaving the meaning in tact.

…but no simpler
This short ending is as crucial as the first half of Einstein’s statement. Things can only be so simple. It is possible that in an attempt to simplify the message there comes a point where an attempt to further simplify will only result in diluting the message at best and misrepresenting it at worst.

So, find that balance. Help others understand by simplifying the message, but don’t sacrifice the content in doing so !


1 Response to “Einstein’s Pedagogical Thesis”

  1. 1 marquitavazquez601 April 8, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I’m not Vietnamese – my wife is – and I had always understood that the tradition of naming the firstborn child “em hai” (child 2) was to keep the bad spirits confused about the whereabouts of the firstborn child. Come on http://tropaadet.dk/marquitavazquez601081830

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