Does anyone else find “Up Goer Five” a bit condescending?

Image: just a portion of the original “Up Goer Five” cartoon, diagramming a Saturn V rocket.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been enjoying the “Up Goer Five” phenomenon.  If you don’t know about it (unlikely!), it started as an xkcd cartoon in which Randall Munroe labelled a diagram of a Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words in the English language.  Munroe followed it up with a book along the same lines, Thing Explainer, and the idea really took off, with scientists in all disciplines trying their hands at it.  It came up most recently for me because the 2016 meeting of the Ecological Society of America had an Up Goer Five session.  I wasn’t able to get to any of it, but I got a taste via Twitter and via titles and abstracts posted online and around the convention centre.

Up Goer Five is fun – tons of it.  But I have the unsettling feeling that I’m missing something, because I don’t quite understand what Up Goer Five is for.  Or at least, I can see three things that people may think it’s for, but they seem at odds with each other, and I’m not convinced that any of the three does more good than harm.

The first possibility is that Up Goer Five and its ilk are intended as actual science outreach to laypeople (“SciComm”).  If it is, well, I’d expect most laypeople to find it pretty insulting.  I mean, “flying space car”?  “Ten hundred words”?  Restricting one’s vocabulary to the most common thousand words implies that you think you’re talking to a child.  And not a very bright one at that: the average six-year-old has an expressive vocabulary (words that they use) of around 2,600 words, and a receptive vocabulary (words that they understand) of over 10,000 (Owens 2011, Language Development). By talking down to our audience, we risk alienating them, and reinforcing the common preconception that scientists consider and hold themselves apart from non-scientists.  Even if we were addressing an audience that knew only 1,000 words, limiting scicomm to their current vocabulary would at best expand their factual knowledge without building their capability for future learning.  At best, I say, because it’s not clear to me how much knowledge we can really transmit via Up Goer Five.  Common words lack precision, and explanations limited to them are necessarily fuzzy.  While “jargon” is much disparaged, technical vocabulary exists to provide precision, and it’s perfectly possible to use (and explain) some technical words and still make SciComm accessible.

At this point, perhaps you’re protesting that we all know Up Goer Five isn’t actual SciComm; that we don’t actually think we’re talking to people with toddlers’ vocabularies.  Rather, you argue, Up Goer Five is something else, related to SciComm but not actually it.  I’m coming to that, but first: I’m not at all sure we all know that.  Some scientists, at least, seem to think Up Goer Five is a model for actual SciComm.  You’d certainly conclude that from this Scientific American blog post, for example.  And even if we don’t mean Up Goer Five as actual SciComm, the condescending damage will be done anyway as long as an audience thinks we do.

But actual SciComm was just one of my three possibilities.  The second: Up Goer Five may be an exercise to help SciComm practitioners practice their skills. It’s certainly true that the scientific writing we do for journals is packed with jargon – not all of it of the good kind.  The thousand most common words may be an unreasonably narrow vocabulary for SciComm, but the contents of Cell and Physical Review Letters are an unreasonably broad one.  Explaining science in accessible language is important, and without practice, we can and do miss the mark.  But surely we hope our audience’s consumption of SciComm won’t stop with Up Goer Five, and surely we’d like to be able to communicate complex ideas that need some precision in our language.  So don’t we need to practice making real vocabulary accessible, rather than practicing the use of a toy vocabulary?

The third possibility is that Up Goer Five is an impressive stunt, fun to attempt and to admire, but having no more to do with actual SciComm than slopestyle mountain biking does with riding your bicycle home from the office.  This isn’t meant to be dismissive of Up Goer Five – merely to correctly classify it.  There’s a long history of such writing stunts; perhaps the most famous is Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel Gadsby, which runs over 50,000 words but never uses the letter “e”.  (Startlingly and perplexingly, Gadsby is not the only such novel). The more general term for the genre is “constrained writing”, and many writers have had fun under a range of self-imposed constraints.  The results aren’t usually great literature*, but we can admire their ingenuity.  We can certainly admire a good Up Goer Five piece.  But if Up Goer Five is stunt writing, then labelling it as such seems to be important. Just as with the “exercise” hypothesis, there’s a danger of audiences – under the impression we mean Up Goer Five to be actual SciComm – being turned off by our apparent condescension.

By the way, what does Randall Munroe think Up Goer Five is?  After all, it was his cartoon that started it all, and his Thing Explainer that put it in bookshops around the world.  Munroe seems to say quite clearly that it isn’t a model for actual SciComm:

Some people say that there’s no reason to learn big words in the first place… I don’t think that’s always true. To really learn about things, you need help from other people, and if you want to understand those people, you need to know what they mean by the words they use.  You also need to know what things are called so you can ask questions about them.     (Randall Munroe, 2015, Thing Explainer, Page Before The Book Starts)

 Instead, Munroe seems to come down somewhere between “exercise” and “stunt”:

I liked writing this book because it made me let go of my fear of sounding stupid.  After all – when you’re saying things like “space boats” and “water pushers”, everything sounds stupid.  Using simple words let me stop worrying so much. I could just have fun…trying to explain cool ideas in new ways. (Loc. cit.).

But while Munroe loosed the idea upon the world, it’s taken on a life beyond him.  So it matters how others see Up Goer Five.  What about you?  Let’s (completely unscientifically) do this:

As I’ve said, I strongly suspect that I’m missing something (hence the fourth option).  If you see what it is, please educate me using the Replies.  I’ll report back later with poll and Reply results (UPDATE – here you go, poll results and some thoughts on polling).

 © Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) September 20, 2016

UPDATE: Here’s Carl Zimmer two years ago expressing some similar thoughts (apologies for the dreadful ads there).  Hat tip to Ambika Kamath.  “Seldom Original” – it’s right there in the masthead 🙂

UPDATE 2: I had missed this post from Caitlin McDonough reporting on that session at ESA. You can tell from the post how much fun was had.


*^I’m certainly in no rush to read Gadsby.  I’m in even less rush to read Le Train de Nulle Part, Michel Dansel’s 2004 novel written entirely without verbs.

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27 thoughts on “Does anyone else find “Up Goer Five” a bit condescending?

  1. Abigail

    Re: constrained literature, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is written such that each chapter is exactly half the word length of the preceding one. She won a Man Booker Prize for the book, and I certainly enjoyed it.

    Perhaps the takehome there is that constraint can be a good thing, but in moderation.

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  2. Jonny from sci.casual

    I’m honestly a little ambivalent with “Thing Explainer.” Kind of a shame, since I felt his previous offering, “What If?” was easy enough for a curious if not scientifically-trained audience. But yes, the former may come off as a touch condescending.

    I’ve always been concerned how, as scientists, we may explain our science to non-scientists without flooding with jargon or condescending to what we think their level is. So easy to miss that happy medium…

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    The poll is a great idea. I’m glad that so far the “silent majority” agrees with me that UG5 is just stunt writing that might be good for a laugh, but otherwise serves no useful purpose.

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  4. Peter Apps

    Maybe going at this from the other end would be an interesting experiment. Take a longish piece of formal academic scientific writing and change all the jargon to words that lay people (including specialists from other fields) understand, then count how many different words the lay version needs.

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  5. Elizabeth Moon

    Scicomm needs a register (technical term in linguistics, thus jargon) for each major audience segment scientists wish to reach. As with storytelling, there’s no one right way to write scicomm, but many wrong ways and some ways that work best for audience segments of a given age, level of education, and life experience.

    Personally, I think Ed Yong’s _I Contain Multitudes_ does a great job at reaching a general adult audience with either above HS education or self-educated and already interested in the topic of “the microbes inside.” Someone with a biology degree and graduate work in microbial ecology may feel that some things didn’t need that much explaining, but I never felt condescended to, just that he was writing for an audience that, for the most part, hadn’t had that experience.

    I’m OK with a lower level of the field’s jargon as long as it’s presented as a general interest text for a general audience. But I can tolerate and/or enjoy “Up Goer Five” only as humor, because satire is a very sharp instrument and can cut deep. The last reaction anyone in sci-comm should want is a furious “I’m not STUPID!” from the reader or hearer, and that’s easily elicited from those defensive about their lack of knowledge when they think they’re being talked down to.

    OTOH, as a math tutor dealing with frightened students convinced they were no good at math, I used “OK, are you comfortable with 2 + 2?” in a non-judgmental tone, as a way to get them to realize there was math they *did* understand, and a base level from which we could then figure out where their tangles were. It was sometimes startling to discover that an 8th or 9th grader who was fine with single digit addition began to have problems with triple-digit addition, “borrowing” for two-digit subtraction, and was completely at sea with 3/8 + 1/3. Those kids could learn really fast once we started where they were, and I made sure they really did get the next steps before rushing on. Lockstep schedules are lousy for children–and the teachers who are forced to drag them along.

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  6. Margaret Kosmala

    I’m with you. The Up Goer Five session at ESA sounded like it was a ton of *fun*, but I don’t think it’s terribly useful.

    At ComSciCon, we did an exercise where we had to do a 1-minute elevator pitch on our research to present. Audience spanned all disciplines, so the goal was to eliminate jargon. Audience got big orange signs that they held up high when someone used a bit of jargon. This worked *really* well — immediate feedback on avoiding jargon.

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      Your comments here really surprised me Margaret in light of your comments on that old DE thread. Have you changed your mind re: the utility (as opposed to fun) of Up Goer Five, Margaret? If so, can you elaborate on why you changed your mind? Or am I just misreading you here?

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      1. Margaret Kosmala

        Oh, man, now I need to be temporally consistent?!?

        In all seriousness, I don’t think I’ve changed my tune. It’s more a matter of degree. If you want to use Up Goer Five as an exercise in getting rid of jargon, then fine. It’s not intrinsically bad. But as you’ve noted and Stephen’s noted, it’s got its downsides.

        At ESA, I was in the next room over and could hear all the noise from the Up Goer Five session. One one hand, I was glad that *choice of words* was getting so much attention at the national meeting. On the other hand, I thought it was a little oversold to say that the session was educational. It was clearly fun.

        Maybe I should qualify my above comment. We shouldn’t discount “fun”. Snapshot Serengeti was so fun than tens of thousands of people did research for us for free. Up Goer Five is so fun that many scientists who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention have started to notice their use of jargon. Fun can be useful and perhaps in getting large numbers of scientists to think about jargon, the Up Goer Five framework is useful.

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        1. Jeremy Fox

          “Fun can be useful and perhaps in getting large numbers of scientists to think about jargon, the Up Goer Five framework is useful.”

          This is reminiscent of the argument that scientific bandwagons are useful because it’s one of the few ways to get large numbers of researchers all focused on one topic. Which arguably is essential for scientific progress on certain topics, even though the processes that lead to and perpetuate bandwagons have *huge* downsides.

          I note this merely out of interest. It’s a form of argument that crops up in many contexts, and that I find difficult to evaluate.

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          1. Margaret Kosmala

            I don’t like the argument in the context of choosing how to do research. But in the context of grabbing attention to things that aren’t directly research related, I think it makes sense. (See 12 Hats Problem.) The Up Goer Five session asked for an hour of people’s time. Research bandwagons ask them for many years.

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    2. Ambika Kamath

      We also got neon green signs with “Awesome!” for parts of our elevator pitch that made lots of sense or worked well. I loved this exercise, and think it could be super useful in a variety of academic contexts. Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend taking a class where the jargon is not being defined and is going over her head–made me wonder if handing out these cards on the first few days of class would be a good way of gauging what jargon students know or don’t know.

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  7. Jeremy Fox

    Re: writing under constraints not usually resulting in great literature, it depends on the constraint. Yes, writing a novel without the letter e is a party trick, like a dog walking on its hind legs. Not done well, surprising that it can be done at all, etc. But if the constraint is, say, “write a sonnet”, the constraint can be an essential ingredient to the creation of great literature. Like Robert Frost said, writing free verse (i.e. verse without any constraints) is like playing tennis with the net down.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, it’s funny, to some extent we probably wouldn’t even call the sonnet form “constrained”, although it clearly is, likely because it’s successful enough that we can point to great works of literature in that form. Whereas we apply the term “constrained writing” to things like “no e” or “no verbs” maybe exactly because they are too severe to work?

      An only-tangentially-related point that foreshadows a future post a bit. Is there “constrained painting”? Does anyone ever deliberately try to paint a plausible landscape without using green, for for example?

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Well, various genres of painting have at various times had various conventions. Which great painters have sometimes been able to break with success (sometimes founding new conventions in the process). Would you call such conventions “constraints”?

        Or think of black and white photography. Is working without any colors except black, white, and shades of grey a “constraint”?

        I’m not aware of any “stunt” painting exercises like “try to paint a scene that would ordinarily contain lots of green without using any green”. But that probably just shows that I’m too lazy to google it. Which I am. 🙂

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Yeah, I wouldn’t call conventions (such as compositional rules) “constraints”, nor would I call stylistic choices (pointillism, cubism) “constraints” either. But black-and-white photography is an interesting example – I’d be tempted there. But to me it seems closer to “sonnet” than to “write without the letter e”. And that is a position I can’t possible defend by rational argument 🙂

          Have we wandered off topic? If so, it’s sure fun.

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  8. Manu Saunders

    “So don’t we need to practice making real vocabulary accessible, rather than practicing the use of a toy vocabulary?”

    Totally agree. Useful Scicomm is about education and explaining concepts and terms beyond the discipline. I think avoiding the use of the complex terms just compounds the problem – teaching people the term relative to its meaning, and also giving people the ability to research something themselves if they’re not sure, is more rewarding than dumbing down complexity. ‘Give a man a fish..’, as the old saying goes!

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  9. jlundholm1970s

    I’ve always thought this kind of thing was an attempt to make English more accessible to non-native speakers (or “English as an additional language” speakers, as seems to be the preferred term these days). Someone tried to introduce “Basic English” back in the 1920s or ’30s. It was a stripped down version of the language containing maybe 800-1000 “essential” words. Given the possibility of verb phrases like “go up” as a substitute for “ascend” in English it seems like this could work. You can get pretty far in another language by learning ~1000 words along with some basic grammar if your pronunciation is half decent. I guess the main problem with “Basic English” is getting native speakers to adopt it.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s actually an additional possibility I hadn’t thought of. But in terms of “this could work” you might be interested to know that “plant” and “roof” are both NOT in the 1000 most common words… although “building top” is apparently OK….

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  10. AthenaC

    Speaking as a layperson who enjoys learning foreign languages (it’s relevant, I promise) and is reasonably fluent in certain types of scientific jargon, I think it’s fun. Part of the exercise is using a limited vocabulary to talk around a more precise, fitting word. In a cartoon like this (or the whole book in fact) when we’re all basically in on the joke and we know that these precise terms exist, it’s interesting to see how one might explain these concepts if you didn’t have access to those words for whatever reason.

    I had a Russian teacher in high school who had no sympathy for us if he challenged us in conversation to say things we didn’t know how to say. “Talk around it,” he would say. So my classmate’s grandmother was “in the ground” rather than in a cemetary. At one point I talked about “the time when Clinton was trying to be President” because I didn’t know how to say “election.” Another classmate who was late because there was no parking apologized because there was “no car stop” (same word for bus stop or train stop). As I’ve continued to try other languages, the “talk around it” skill is very useful for effective communication. So I like the fact that he’s “talking around it” even in the same language.

    On top of that, while reading the rest of the book, I understand conceptually (for example) how a nuclear reactor works, but I really enjoyed the detailed drawings and the simple explanations. I think the understanding I gained from seeing that level of detail and the descriptive labels of all the different pieces set me up nicely to look at an actual technical drawing with the real terms and understand what I was looking at.

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  11. Pingback: What is UpGoer Five for? Poll results, and thoughts on polls | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  12. jpschimel

    And of course, if you only use the 1,000 most common words, you don’t really. The whole idea is a fiction. An “up goer” is a new compound noun that only looks like two simple words–it’s actually a single complex term. But it’s still now an “up goer” and that is truly no clearer than calling it a “rocket.” If you viewed an “up goer” as two distinct words, it would make no sense at all–you couldn’t distinguish among a rocket, an elevator, a mountain climber, or any or probably 100 other possible interpretations. You still need to learn the specific meaning of this new compound word. After all, a “blackboard” is not just a board that is black. So creating new jargon by assembling a small set of building blocks into new compound expressions for complex concepts is not in any way eliminating jargon.

    So yes, that reinforces my agreement with Stephen Heard that “up goer five” is a game or perhaps a training exercise, but not a real communication strategy.

    You eliminate jargon by using terms from “common language” that are adequately accurate (where possible) and by making sure you define necessary terms that might not be familiar to a particular audience when you must use them. But you can’t express complex ideas in only simple terms. You need new terms to express new concepts: those might be completely new words or they might be new compounds: rockets or up-goers.

    An example of “adequately accurate” I used in my book is “net primary productivity” vs. “plant growth.” To communicate to ecologists about your measures of plant growth, you need to specify it was NPP because there are other approaches that have different implications. But to communicate to a broader audience, you can probably get away with “plant growth.”

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    1. Peter Apps

      Very true about the new jargon made from strings of ordinary words. An even worse problem comes when an ordinary word has a jargon meaning and a different ordinary meaning – like “register” in Elizabeth Moon’s post. Register also has different jargon meanings in different technical fields; a linguist would not usually understand it to mean how well two parts of a mould fitted together for example. Worse yet is when ordinary words are co-opted as jargon and then strung together in convoluted Sokalesque sentences in which their ordinary meanings make no sense.

      Writing that really needs the precision of the technical terms rather than their adequately accurate equivalents in ordinary words should probably be in the technical literature rather than being aimed at lay people.

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  13. Pingback: Is this blog a “science blog”? If not, what is it? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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