People don’t understand science.
A bit sweeping, undoubtedly. A tad harsh, perhaps. But there’s a reason I keep reading so many people, in so many blog posts, explaining basic concepts like hypothesis-testing and falsifiability, over and over again. Most people don’t pay as much attention to my RSS feed as I do, and aren’t even peripherally aware of the world in which I keep myself immersed.
Most people aren’t the exact same type of nerd that I am, and don’t know much about science.
Which is obviously a problem that many of us nerd-types spend much time trying to address. And one interesting recent effort to bring an accessible understanding of scientific ideas, to people who might not otherwise do the heavy reading usually required to develop an expertise in these areas, is the Ten Hundred Words of Science tumblr.
It’s a project inspired by this XKCD cartoon, which diagrams the Saturn V rocket and explains what each part of it does – but only selecting from the thousand most common English words to do so. As a result, the “Up Goer Five” has a door, and chairs, and a people box, and an end marked: “Lots of fire comes out here. This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.” (You’re allowed derivations as well; because “go” is on the list, you can have “goer”, “going”, “goes”, etc.)
The tumblr project features scientists describing their jobs, using this thousand-word vocabulary, with the obvious intent of making scientific ideas and research easier for the non-scientifically literate to understand. Here’s a good example from an atmospheric chemistry modeller:
I tell people if the air will be good to breath tomorrow.
Where people live, smoke and other things which are bad for us, are put into the air by cars and other things in towns and cities.
Some days the air comes from parts of the world a long way away from cities which means it is clean. When it rains this cleans the air. On other days the winds are very slow and so all the bad things we put in the air stay where they are – the places where we live. This makes it hard for some people to breath and so we warn them when this will happen.
We use computers to tell us where the winds will come from, if it will rain and where the smoke and other bad things in the air will go to. Then we work out if the air in their city is good or bad and tell people about it.
Now, I’m pretty smart, but I reckon I understand the basics of what this guy does for a living at least as well now, having read the above paragraphs, than if he’d explained it in entirely his own terms. And so, I suspect, would many other people who’d be less inclined to listen to something that sounds more like science.
But I’m bothered by a problem which seems to stop this from being as useful a science communication tool as it could be. “Only the thousand most common words” is a neat idea to make people think about the accessibility, or the jargonistic nature, of their language – but it can obscure more than it helps, if you’re too busy following the letter of the law to abide by its spirit.
Randall Munroe’s own rocket diagram – and the follow-up of a cruise ship he did for JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 – provide a few examples of this. The ninth deck on the “Crazy Water House”, for instance, is labelled: “The floor between eight and ten”. Now, they’re his arbitrary rules and he’s sticking to them, because it’d make the whole linguistic exercise kinda pointless to ignore the fact that “nine” happens to be the only number from one to ten not in the commonest thousand words in the language. But when translating that idea over to science communication… you’re really not preventing any confusion by avoiding the word “nine”. It’s far simpler, in fact, to say “nine” than to employ any euphemistic or synonymous phrase.
The diagram also has an “area where you can run in place so you don’t die as fast”; it actually took me a little while to figure out this must be a gym. And sure, physical exercise and extending one’s life-span are relevant to the idea of a gym – but most people probably have a pretty good idea what a gym is already. The entertainment factor comes from the fact that, while constructed from simple language, this is not a very natural way to describe the thing he’s talking about.
The Up Goer Five, meanwhile, has an area described as: “The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said ‘Oh, the [humans]!’ (used for burning)”. Which is a fantastic way of describing hydrogen, and totally fits in with Randall’s original intent with his cartoon – which was mainly to be cute. Again, it’s not his work I’m seeking to criticise, but the idea of using the thousand-word vocabulary stratagem as a one-stop solution to more accessible communication.
It’s the same problem as I had with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – In Words of Four Letters or Less. For the most part, that thing is so well written that you don’t even notice the incredible limitation being worked around. For a page or two it’s an absolute delight to read; it talks you through some basic science background and thought experiments in a way that’s wonderfully simple to follow. There’s almost no chance you’d come up with these kinds of easily readable sentences unless working against a ridiculous and arbitrary restriction.
But while this arbitrary restriction forces you to eschew a great deal of unnecessary jargon, it also stops you from using some really helpful jargon. The word “light”, for instance, comes up a lot in traditional discussions of relativity, and with good reason. It’s crucially important to the topic at hand. It’s also a whole five letters long. While it’s always good to consider how you’re defining your terms, it’s not so great when the same rule which prompts you to do that makes you always talk about a “wave”, instead of light, and a “pull”, instead of gravity. Sometimes a slightly longer or less common word is more helpful, and confuses things less.
Ben Goldacre’s submission to the tumblr is pretty great, but some of them could be improved on by putting some of the jargon back in. Here’s an example:
I work at a school in a very cold place, where I study groups of stars in the sky. Most stars live together in groups of hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred stars (imagine that)… All of us live near a star that is part of one of these big star-groups, called the White-Drink Way.
This is a case where the thousand-word rule provides a great starting point for explaining things in simple terms, but actively makes things worse if taken too seriously. Not being able to use the word “galaxy”, or correctly name our one as the Milky Way, is a hindrance to communication.
Great science communication is really hard to get right, and #upgoerfive seems like a great way to get people thinking and talking about how they might do it better. But no single, all-encompassing rule is going to be the answer to everything – especially not if we refuse to bend it a little when common sense tells us we should.
Mostly for the sake of completion (I’m not a scientist), here’s an #upgoerfive-valid description of my job (created with the help of the text editor):
People work at their jobs most of their lives, to get money to buy things, like a house and food, and also fun stuff like games and books. When you stop working because you get too old, you’ll still need food and fun things, but you won’t have this money from your job any more.
You might have a family who can help look after you, but your family might not have enough money themselves to make sure you have enough food and can stay safe and happy. Or you might not have a family who can help you anyway.
If things were good for you, then when you were working you got more money than you needed to spend, and kept some of it to spend later when you got old and didn’t have a job any more. But you might also have made a deal, with the people you worked for, to put some money in a sort of money-box.
The way this money-box works is, you agree to put some money in there each month, out of the money you would get for doing your job. But you can’t just take it out of the box when you like – you have to agree to leave it in the box until you get old and aren’t going to work at your job any more.
So far it sounds the same as any other money-box you might put money into, only not as good because you can’t take the money out when you like. But there are some more good things about it that make people want to use these money-boxes. One good thing is that the people who give you a job put some money into the money-box too, for you to have later. Another is that the people who control the bit of land you live on won’t take away a little piece of the money when you put it in the box, the way they do with the other money you get from your job.
This money-box is also different because of what happens when you open it when you get old. You don’t just get to take all the money out and spend it, but you can use it to get someone else to pay you a small bit of money, every so often, for the rest of your life. A big group of people will take the money-box and then pay you as if you still had a job (though it will probably be quite a bit less than you were paid when you did have a job.)
People often have lots of questions about how much money is in their money-box, and how much money that means they will get every month when they’re old. They also might have another money-box somewhere else, and maybe another and another, and they want to put all their money from all their boxes into one money-box, to make things easy. They ask me things like this and I write them letters with answers which will help them (if I am good at my job). They also might decide that they have got old enough to open their money-box sooner or later than other people usually do, and I can help them do that.
There are lots of other things about the money-boxes too, because there is a very big set of things you are and aren’t allowed to do, set down by the people who control the bit of land we live on, and this set of things keeps changing and making things hard to understand easily. These other things probably aren’t that interesting and I’ve done lots of talking already so I’ll stop now.
(Can you feel how badly I wanted to just call it a pension? It would’ve made things much easier.)