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Up-Goer Five and Science Communication

by Steven Novella, Jan 28 2013

Do you think you could communicate a scientific concept to a general audience using only the 1,000 most commonly used words? A thousand words sounds like a lot, but is it? Clearly this would not allow for the use of specialized scientific jargon, which is the point. A good science communicator should be able to translate complex science into everyday language, and use accessible analogies to make those concepts understandable.

This is something I do everyday, and not just on my blog and other social media. As a physician I have to communicate sometimes complex medical information to patients and their families. To make things more challenging my patients vary from being other physicians, health care workers, scientists or academics, to lacking a high school education or even not being a native English speaker.

Communicating to the public effectively means targeting a broad range of background knowledge. An effective science communicator should be interesting to experts while being understandable to a novice. Another challenge is to make scientific concepts simple without being oversimplified.

As a challenge to science communicators, geneticist Theo Sanderson created a website called Up-Goer Five – the concept and title was inspired by a comic by XKCD in which he explains the blueprints for a Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most commonly used words.  The Up-Goer Five site has a text editor in which you can place text, and it will highlight every word that is not on the list of the 1000 most commonly used.

Of course I had to test it out, so I took the first two paragraphs from a recent blog post on confirmation bias. The results are below, with each violation of the 1000 rule in italics.

 It is my contention that scientific skepticism is an intellectual discipline and a cognitive skill set more than anything else. It is also a philosophy, a value system, and an approach to knowledge – but these are hollow without the knowledge and skills to apply that philosophy. This is especially true in our complex world, with sophisticated pseudoscience alongside mature and highly technical real science, ideologies of every stripe pushing their agenda, governments with power to protect, and markets and corporations with a profit motive to deceive. The internet is also drowning us in information, much of it dodgy. It is therefore not enough to have a generally skeptical outlook, or even to call oneself a skeptic. Skepticism is a journey of self-knowledge, exploration, and mastering the various skills that comprise so-called metacognition – the ability to think about thinking. 

Yikes. Can you imagine if I had to write this blog without using the words “science,” “knowledge,” or “information?”

This highlights what I think is the point of the humorous XKCD comic – it is, in fact, impossible to adequately explain some concepts using language that does not contain the necessary building blocks for those concepts. This leads to descriptions such as, “things holding that kind of air that makes your voice funny.”

Of course the whole point of learning new ideas is that you are building them on top of more basic ideas, so science education is always about explaining concepts with simpler language. But then, of course, you learn the language (jargon) of that level of complexity which allows you to learn the next level of complexity.

What makes Up-Goer Five humorous and not an effective guide to actual science communication is that it can lead to significant level jumping – applying grade-school language skills to college-level concepts. The inherent problem here is that language is intimately connected to conceptual understanding. If  you don’t have some notion of the concepts of “science” and “information” then it will be difficult to follow an article about science and information.

When a skilled science communicator crafts an essay for the general public they still have to decide what their target range is. You cannot write for a 5-year old and a post-graduate student at the same time. A good communicator should explicitly understand their audience – where is the lower and upper bar of the target range? If you set the lower bar too low then you will spend an incredible amount of time explaining every basic concept, and the average reader will be bored. If you set the upper bar too high then you will spend too much time on technical details. Having a feel for the sweet spot is key.

I also think that good science writing pushes the reader a little bit – enough that they are learning new concepts and words, but not so much that they feel left behind.

Obviously the 1000 most commonly used words is arbitrary and a gimmick. It is interesting, however. A more practical approach is to avoid the use of specialized jargon, but to assume a vocabulary appropriate to the target audience and the concepts being discussed.

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7 Responses to “Up-Goer Five and Science Communication”

  1. Chris Howard says:

    Funny, my first thought upon reading your title was “Yeah, I could do it, but not very well, and certainly not effectively.”

    It strikes me that we live in a “micro-attention span” society, which is antithetical to understanding complex ideas, and concepts.
    There’s a reason why you can’t graduate high school with a science degree. Learning everything necessary in order to become proficient at any given science (field) requires a lot of time, discipline, and focus.

    Ultimately, “dumbing down” science is a horrible idea. I tend to think that many people watch science programming, like NOVA, and assume that they understand science. This may provide AN understanding, but it is only a cursory understanding. I think this is reflected by test scores and evaluations, internationally.

    Students from countries that self-report that they aren’t very good at science, because they have a realistic understanding of just how difficult the endeavor actually is, score higher in science related subjects than students in the U.S. who self-report that they are good at science.

    Perhaps encouraging students to rise to the challenge of understanding difficult concepts is a better idea than attempting to make the information acessable to everyone, thereby rendering it useful to no one?

  2. Gilles says:

    > This highlights what I think is the point of the humorous XKCD comic – it is, in fact, impossible to adequately explain some concepts using language that does not contain the necessary building blocks for those concepts

    It’s a good experience that confirms that we can only think and express ourselves based on how much words we know. Hence, having a low vocabulary is great social impediment.

  3. When a skilled science communicator crafts an essay for the general public they still have to decide what their target range is. You cannot write for a 5-year old and a post-graduate student at the same time.

    That is the challenge of writing for Junior Skeptic! It’s aimed at “kids,” which is an awfully broad demographic—yet the first audience for Junior Skeptic is the audience of highly educated adult readers of Skeptic magazine (which Junior Skeptic is bound within, as a magazine within a magazine). The trick then is to figure out some optimized balance between serving multiple audiences and making the fewest awkward compromises—but there are always some compromises (such as Junior Skeptic‘s lack of endnotes or bibliography). Such a mixed-audience format is also better for telling some sorts of stories than others.

    Even at that, it was still necessary for me to pick an arbitrary demographic “sweet spot” when I took over as the writer for Junior Skeptic back in 2002. The person I write for, I decided, is “Daniel Loxton at age 12″—that is, a strong recreational reader who enjoys mysteries and science fiction.

  4. Max says:

    There’s a tendency to dumb things down by reaching for an analogy, but it’s often better to just define all the terms, go step-by-step, give examples, and draw a picture of what you’re visualizing in your head.
    When I first learned about object-oriented programming, I heard the analogies about apples and oranges, but I didn’t really get how it works until it was explained in terms of memory allocation.

  5. Max says:

    The irony in the XKCD comic is that the awkward combinations of common words are less common than the uncommon words they replace, e.g. using “ten hundred” in place of “thousand.”

    Here’s an example in the same vein: Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable
    http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Math/Milnikel/boolos-godel.pdf

    Good thing he didn’t have to say “seven” or any number above twelve.

  6. Alan Grover says:

    Have you heard of Guy Steele’s, “Growing a Language” (e.g. http://web.archive.org/web/20080704034627/http://www.cs.umbc.edu/331/resources/papers/gls-grow-lang.pdf)? He starts with single-syllable words, and defines any multi-syllable word as he goes. A classic.

  7. Justin Starr says:

    I had a laugh when I read this:
    “Of course the whole point of learning new ideas is that you are building them on top of more basic ideas, so science education is always about explaining concepts with simpler language.”
    I laughed because I am a teacher (of music, but don’t hold that against me) and therefore have learned about various learning theories. All those words that precede the comma can be summed up in the educational term “scaffolding.” You’ve been jargonned, good sir! ;-)