Overfitting – the elephant in the Cartesian plane

Just because it’s fun and because I’m still not on the other side of my blog holiday, here’s a nice picture of an elephant from Burnham and Anderson (2002) who got it from Wei (1975).

It’s all in response to John von Neumann who said,

“with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

But that was more hyperbole than quantitatively accurate. Further investigations by Wei (1975) revealed that the 30-term elephant

“may not satisfy the third-grade art teacher, but would carry most chemical engineers into preliminary design.”


Burnham K, Anderson D. 2002. Model selection and multimodel inference. Springer, USA.

Wei J. 1975. Least square fitting of an elephant. Chemtech 5: 128–129.

This entry was posted in Fun by Amy Hurford. Bookmark the permalink.

About Amy Hurford

I am a theoretical biologist. I became aware of mathematical biology as an undergraduate when I conducted an internet search to learn about the topic. Now, twelve years later, I want to know, what is it that makes great models great? This blog is the chronology of my thoughts as I explore this topic.

6 thoughts on “Overfitting – the elephant in the Cartesian plane

  1. Actually, a recent paper in American Journal of Physics showed that you can fit an elephant with 4 parameters with a 5th parameter to wiggle the trunk. Here’s the paper:


    And here are two related blogs:


    Cool stuff!

  2. Pingback: John von Neumann – Physicien et mathématicien Américano-Austro-Hongrois « Elephas Elephas Minimus

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