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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.