Monday, April 15, 2013

The Dantzig Fallacy

Some like to understand what they believe in. Others like to believe in what they understand. Stanislaw Lec

"George Dantzig arrived late for a statistics class. He copied down the two problems on the blackboard and turned them in a few days later. Apologizing for the delay, as he had found them much harder than usual,  Professor Neyman threw it on a disheveled desk. Six weeks later, the professor banged on Dantzig’s door. The problems that Dantzig had assumed were homework were actually unproved statistical theorems and Dantzig had proved both of them."

There are hundreds of variations on this story. The names change, the places change, the nature of the problems change and there is a version that would became the movie Good Will Hunting. Regardless of the large variations in the details, the parable of each variation is the same:

It is amazing what you can do when you don't know it is hard.

As a parable - it is nice, warm, fuzzy and wrong.

It appears that the version I presented above is the most accurate and there are plenty of Dantzig and Neyman quotes confirming this. So let's take a closer look at Dantzig.

Dantzig's father held a PhD in math and challenged him with thousands of geometry problems in high school. Dantzig would go on to become the 'father of linear programming'. Essentially creating the field of programming used to optimize production and logistics. It was the 'google' algorithm of his time.

A famously decorated mathematician, Dantzig was more than likely to attempt a problem because no one else had solved it. Arguably, he would have proven the theorems that Neyman presented, even if he had known the circumstances.

The implication of the parable is that you are better off with less knowledge and taking blind leaps of faith. The facts just don't match up with that. If you want to create change, if you know it could BE different, then knowledge is your friend.


  1. Hmmmm . . . but in the Dantzig parable, it became hard so the tale is actually one of persistance, challenge, and the assumption that there is an actual solution. Most people dislike this sort of test of themselves. Chance favors the prepared . . . and open . . . mind.(modified Pasture). To be prepared, you need to have a base of understanding. We call that knowledge. My long winded way of saying I agree with you.

    Joseph K.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, I should have said '...when you don't know it is impossible' !!!

      Thanks for visiting