Recently, the webcomic xkcd spurred some discussion with a description of the Saturn V rocket that managed to use only the thousand (or “ten-hundred”) most common English words. Entitled “Up Goer Five,” the strip provided a jargon-free explanation of rocket architecture and sparked a bit of reflection about the role of technical language in science and its wider dissemination.
In that sense, Up Goer Five is a bit like #overlyhonestmethods, which I covered here. Both highlight the possibilities (and pitfalls) of effective science communication, and both provide interesting opportunities for meditating on what role (if any) the social study of science might play in that process, and how such analysis fits with scientists’ own public self-reflection.
The phenomenon really took off with (1) Theo Sanderson’s web-based text editor (that spell-checks every word you type against the ten-hundred commonest words) and (2) a challenge from a pair of geoscientists, aimed at other scientists, to translate their research abstracts using the editor and tweet them or post them in the comments.
So many scientists took up the challenge that the pair started a Tumblr for the responses, called Ten Hundred Words of Science, that now has hundreds of posts. To give you a taste of what they’re like at their best, here’s an attempt (by Chris Rowan, one of the original pair who blogged about Up Goer Five here) to explain paleomagnetism and plate tectonics—without using the word “magnet”:
Pretty good, right? Of course, the posts vary in quality and clarity. Depending on the jargon in your field, you might be forced to swap in some pretty gnarly syntax, which can be less clear than straightforward conceptual explanations would be. Still, many are excellent—humorous, to be sure, but clear and evocative, too.
And, once again, scientists’ public procrastination furnishes an opportunity for thinking about how the way we talk
about science links up with how we do
it (not to mention what (and who) it’s for). Randall Munroe (the guy behind xkcd) seems to agree, as we can see from another cartoon he drew
(this time on “Simple Wikipedia
—which, if you haven’t seen, you check it out!). If you hold your cursor over the cartoon, you get an elaboration that’s quite revealing:
As with so much Munroe does, its a superb blend of the absurd and the astute. What’s at issue is how the language in which we conduct and communicate science—though essential—can be a handicap both to public understanding and to scientists’ own abilities to work out problems together. How much this hits home will depend on the area you’re talking about, of course, but there’s a certain truth to how technical terminology can impede—rather than expedite—collaboration, especially across subfields.
Up Goer Five has, unsurprisingly, produced two main (often competing) interpretations. While some—including a Popular Science blogger
—see the exercise as a defense
of jargon, others—including those original geoscientists
—see it as a valuable exercise in both science communication and conceptual reorientation. For its champions, the value comes when you “move beyond the straight replacement of forbidden words and seek to recast the concept you’re trying to explain.”
This seems right to me. One problem with the literature on the “rhetoric of science” (at least what I’ve seen of it) is that, in accounting for how experimental reports are written, it too often leaves out or mischaracterizes the experimental nature of the writing process itself. Words are chosen to express experimental results, they say, but I think we might better see that process as part of the experiment itself, not a separate rhetorical act (creative as it might be).
Take Charles Bazerman’s classic, Shaping Written Knowledge
(available online here
). Though he emphasizes the “intelligent responsiveness to complex pressures” and “fortunate concatenations of events” (14) of experimental reports, rhetoric remains “the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities” (6ff). People have aims, scientists have results, and they use symbols (bounded by complex pressures) to express them.
But what if it’s true—and it must be—that word choice and concept formation feed back on one another, that experiments spread from the bench to the desk to the bar and back? Then those of us who study how science works probably want a better way to account for how deeply “experimental” it is, a way that doesn’t divide experiments with molecules from experiments with words.
Of course, historians and sociologists of science have hatched a few ways of doing this. But Up Goer Five got me thinking that the “rhetoric of science” approach (which peaked in the late-1980s) could use a reboot, albeit one that got beyond (or re-imagined) both the classical rhetorical analyses
and the evolutionary data-mining
that framed those earlier efforts.