Up Goer Five: Can you describe your research using only the 1,000 most common words?

When I attended the BEACON Congress at MSU this summer, there was a great session on social media led by Danielle Whittaker, the Managing Director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. One of the activities during the workshop was writing an Up Goer Five description of one’s research. Up Goer Five started with the popular web comic xkcd, and aims to describe complicated things using only the 1,000 most common words. (And, since “thousand” is not one of those, people often say that the aim is to describe complicated things using only the ten hundred most common words.)

Since I was going to judge the entries of others, I figured I should give it a shot myself. There is a convenient Up Goer Five text editor that highlights words that are not in the top 1,000. Here was my entry:

All things get sick. Why? We use little water animals to learn why things get sick, how they and their babies change after they get sick, and how them getting sick changes the other animals and things.

Rereading it now, I think it’s not bad, especially given that it was done quickly. It’s pretty short, though. Others were definitely more entertaining. Here’s Rich Lenski’s entry (done before the BEACON Congress):

My team works with really tiny things that live in little bottles. We watch the tiny things change over time – over a really long time. The tiny things that do the best have learned to eat their food faster and faster, before the other guys can eat their lunch, so to say.  Well, the tiny things don’t really learn, but it’s kind of like learning – and even better, the best ones pass along what they learned to their kids.  A really cool guy came up with the idea of how this works more than a hundred years ago. My team’s work shows he got it pretty much right. But there’s a lot of stuff he didn’t know, and we’re figuring that out, too.

Of the ones done at the Congress, some of the most entertaining ones (in my opinion, at least) involved plants. I think part of the reason for that is that “plant” is not one of the 1,000 most common words, so the plant ecologists needed to talk about “big green things” instead. The winning entry at the BEACON session was written by graduate student Colleen Friel, who described her research this way:

We study big green things that use sun light as food and littler things that use some parts of the air as food and live in the ground that the big green things live in. The big green things give the littler things food made from sun light, and the littler things give the big green things food they made from the air. This makes both the big green things and littler things happier. We want to know how the big green things and the littler things talk to each other and decide how much food to give and take.

My students always have a hard time with Rhizobium-legume mutualisms, so perhaps I should update my mutualism lecture to include that description of them? 😉 Some others that I particularly liked are here and here, and you can look through them all by searching on twitter for #upgoerfive and #2015beacon.

Overall, it was a fun challenge, and good be a good addition to future lab meetings where we work on our elevator pitches. What would your Up Goer Five explanation of your research be?

54 thoughts on “Up Goer Five: Can you describe your research using only the 1,000 most common words?

  1. Here’s a quick try at a version for me:

    Humans are changing the world. We make the world hotter. And we change trees into parking lots and places to grow food. This does bad things to the animals and trees who live there. I want to know what we do to them. Are there less of them? Are there less types of them? Where will they live 100 years later? I do this by looking at lots of numbers.

    • I think it’s pretty illuminating (and depressing) that “parking” is one of the 1000 most common words but “plant” is not.

  2. Upgoer Five is fun, but, as Carl Zimmer notes, it’s not a tool for clarity (http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1rjks59):

    “(A)n average six-year-old has a vocabulary, by some estimates, of 16,000 words. And an average adult’s vocabulary is around 60,000. So Up Goer Five is only useful if you are going to talk to pre-schoolers. For an audience that’s any older–even second grade–I can’t see how it can help.”

    • If the workshop Meg attended was anything like the one I attended, I think the goal is to make scientists aware of how many big words known by few people we use. Up goer five is certainly taking things to the other extreme. But that has pedagogical (to us scientists) value. I don’t think anybody proposes placing up goer 5 statements on NSF websites or anything.

      • Ah, I see that my comment below should’ve gone into this subthread. So to anyone reading this subthread: look down. I’m with Carl Zimmer on this one. And against Brian on the exercise even having pedagogical value for scientists. And just for good measure, I’m also against Zen on the exercise even being much fun, though that probably just shows that I’m not fun. 🙂

  3. Excellent Monday morning procrastination:

    Trees and other green things grow lots of places around the world. In some places there are lots of trees, in other places there are lots of other green things, and some times there is very little green at all. I use pictures taken from space and from the sky to look at all the green and brown stuff and to ask why there are trees in some places and not in others, and why some times of the year things are green but some times they are brown. Trees and other green things are important because they eat parts of the air, move water, make food for animals, change how wind moves, and sometimes make the land darker, all of which matters as the world gets hotter and rains change. If green things make the land cooler, they are good, if they make the land warmer, they might not be so good.

  4. Ok, I’m going to be a grouchypants contrarian on this one. The reasons why I’m not a fan of this exercise:

    -The constraint serves no useful purpose. Forbidding use of ordinary words like “plant” accomplishes nothing, not even avoidance of jargon or teaching you how to avoid jargon. Even small children know words like “plant”.

    -The constraint is arbitrary. Depending on what you happen to work on (and so what words you’re forbidden from using), you can come up with a sort-of decent explanation of your work, or a pretty poor explanation.

    -The constraint is both too restrictive, and not restrictive enough. Writing under over-stringent restrictions accomplishes nothing except to show that the restrictions can be overcome. But the “up goer five” restriction isn’t even that challenging to overcome, as evidenced by Meg being able to do a reasonable job off the top of her head. It’s not like writing a novel without using any word containing the letter “e”, where the resulting writing isn’t good by any ordinary standard but is impressive by its mere existence. So in terms of restrictions on writing, the “up goer five” restriction falls in “restrictiveness valley”, I think. (This is the point on which I’m guessing I’ll get the most pushback. Meg’s post basically highlights the entertainment value of the exercise. If you know what Rich Lenski or Colleen Friel does, it’s funny to hear it boiled down almost beyond all recognition. I only find these explanations slightly amusing, which I’m guessing puts me in a small minority.)

    -The resulting explanations are pretty poor as explanations. Many are sort of similar to how I’d have “explained” my research to my son back when he was three. Which frankly isn’t really “explanation”. For instance, Rich’s explanation punts on natural selection, which is a pretty big thing to punt on when you’re trying to explain the LTEE.

    -You could argue that poor explanations lead to good explanations, by sparking curiosity and inviting follow-up questions. Andrew Gelman makes that argument about overly complicated graphs–they work because they make the viewer curious about what the heck they mean, and so cause the viewer to spend the effort to figure them out. But I don’t think “up goer five” explanations “work” even in that way.

    -The resulting explanations tend to make science sound sort of trivial, at least to my ears. Some of them sound uncomfortably like a rude, unfair question a colleague of mine got at his PhD defense. (“So, you’ve shown that sometimes populations go up, and sometimes they go down. What have we learned here?”)

    Ok, I just reread what I wrote, and even to me it sounds like I’m *way* too bothered by this. So let me clarify that I’m not that bothered by “up goer five” explanations. I just don’t see what people see in them.

    You don’t need my permission to call me a party pooper and tell me to take my grouchypants elsewhere, but you have it. 🙂

    • You should try it before you knock it!

      I guess I just fundamentally disagree that these are contorted and overly complex representations of our research. While I do agree that the occasionally need to find alternatives like “big green thing” to “plant” or “places to grow food” instead of “farm” adds very little value, I think the overall gestalt is some very plainly communicated ideas that are much more likely to connect with the average person, than the grade 16 level sentences we usually use to communicate to make our selves feel superior (average reading level in US is grade 9 and most things that reach wide audiences are targeted at grade 7). Aside from making an effort to reach people (which I do think scientists are obligated to try to do), I think it helps to elucidate the core simplicity as well as the core motives and human connections behind research. Yes trying to reach age 4 (not grade 4) vocabulary is an exaggeration, but when people have spent the last 9 years of their lives training to aim at grade 16 a little shock therapy is a good thing!

    • Hey Mr. Grouchypants, until someone comes up with a jargon-free normal-English-only dictionary, this is as good as it gets for getting people to translate from jargon to non-jargon English. There are other jargon-awareness exercises, too. But the point isn’t the outcome of the exercise. It’s the process. Having to think of ways to say things in simpler language is useful for all scientists. Sure, you probably won’t have to de-jargon “plant” regularly*, but getting into the habit of examining your language and seeing if it’s overly complicated is a good one.

      * However, I *have* gotten into an argument with other scientists about whether the average non-scientist thinks that “plant” encompasses “tree” and “shrub” or not. We needed to decide how to word instructions to volunteers in our citizen science project. Should we write “are there any plants blooming?” or do we need to specify “are there any trees, shrubs, or plants blooming?” This was a serious and non-trivial issue. So even the word “plant” can have jargon-y issues.

      • “There are other jargon-awareness exercises, too.”

        Seems like you just conceded my point (and Carl Zimmer’s). Why not spend the time doing some other jargon awareness exercise, or more broadly communication training exercise, that doesn’t have the obvious limitations and downsides of Up Goer Five?


        “until someone comes up with a jargon-free normal-English-only dictionary, this is as good as it gets for getting people to translate from jargon to non-jargon English”

        I disagree. Surely we don’t need a list of (say) the 30,000 most common English words to be able to figure out if we’re using any jargon that would be beyond the average middle schooler. For instance, what about this exercise: take a middle school science textbook covering your field out of the library. Spend 10 minutes perusing it. Then come up an elevator pitch for your work that’s pitched at the same level as the textbook.

    • Here’s another downside to Up Goer Five, pointed out to me by a correspondent: it trains you to talk down to your audience, which is a huge no-no in science communication.

      I should emphasize that I agree 100% with Brian that what scientists think of as “simplified” explanations of their work often will sail over the heads of non-scientists. And I agree 100% that all scientists should be able to explain their work to broad audiences. But I agree with Carl Zimmer, and disagree with Brian and Margaret that the “shock therapy” of Up Goer Five is a useful corrective to scientists’ tendency to talk over people’s heads.

      In the same amount of time it takes you to come up with a “good” Up Goer Five explanation of your work, you could come up with a good (note the lack of scare quotes) explanation of your work in the form of an elevator pitch aimed at the general public (i.e. aimed at the middle school or junior high school level). So why bother with Up Goer Five? I’m happy to grant that scientists consistently overestimate the vocabulary or technical complexity the “general public” can grasp, and that they consistently overestimate the importance of the technical details of their work over what Brian calls the “core motives”. I just think that learning to explain your work to a toddler is a bad way to correct those tendencies, compared to all the other ways one might correct them.

      • I’ve watched people do what you suggest in the last paragraph. It is hilarious just how much big jargon they still use when they smugly think they have just simplified their message to the general public level. You can debate whether the core dictionary should be 1000 words or 10000. But some automated checking is needed. Even our colleagues are not great substitutes because they have the same biases we do.

        I suppose a more realistic exercise would be to write a paragraph and run it through an online analyzer of the grade level of the writing (these exist), and to keep rewriting until it is about 6-7th grade level. But that is more boring!

      • @Brian:

        “I suppose a more realistic exercise would be to write a paragraph and run it through an online analyzer of the grade level of the writing (these exist), and to keep rewriting until it is about 6-7th grade level. But that is more boring!”

        Well, this answers Margaret’s “nobody’s come up with a science-to-general-public translator yet, so Up Goer Five will have to do” argument.

        And you’ve just conceded my (and Carl Zimmer’s) entire argument, I think. What’s really going on here isn’t that Up Goer Five is all that useful. What’s going on is that lots of scientists find it fun, and don’t really care that it’s not a very useful exercise (especially not compared to alternative, less fun exercises).

      • Haven’t conceded anything. Both up goer five and online assessments of reading levels have existed on the web for some time. I haven’t seen any major movement behind scientists trying to assess the reading level of their elevator speeches or otherwise. I’ve seen a fair amount of energy into up goer five. You can debate reasons. But anything that gets scientists to consciously think about how much work they have to do to break out of their jargon filled insular worlds is a good thing. Aside from what people are actually choosing to do, there are lots of reasons I think repeatedly rewriting until the number 6.5 comes out on a grade level assessor is less pedagogical (to the scientist trying to avoid jargon) than up goer five or its ilk. Just for example, grade level assessment formulas tend to be be based on averages and will let a few horrendously long words through if the overall text length is long enough, which is not the best tool to realize that long jargony words are crutches that truly can be 100% eliminated. And unlike up goer 5, reading level assessments cannot typically pin the problem areas in you writing to give real time feedback. I have actually run my writing through both up goer 5 and grade level assessment software. I think you ought to try both before you declare a winner.

      • Again – nobody said you should use a 4 year old vocabulary in actual real-world communication. However, using a 7th grade vocabulary is NOT talking down to people and most scientists sincere attempts at trying to communicate from the public is so much more in danger of sounding snobbish and elitist than it is talking down it is hard for me to worry about this.

      • @Brian:
        “However, using a 7th grade vocabulary is NOT talking down to people and most scientists sincere attempts at trying to communicate from the public is so much more in danger of sounding snobbish and elitist ”

        I agree completely. But it seems to me that that’s an argument that being forced to use an average 7th grader’s vocabulary would be “shock therapy” for many scientists. Seriously–I bet many scientists would be shocked to discover how much you have to simplify to explain things to a 7th grader. And “explain your science to a 7th grader” would be *useful* shock therapy. Shock therapy without the downsides or pointlessness of trying to explain your work to a pre-schooler.

        So it seems to me that what’s needed is for somebody to come up with a fun exercise to train scientists to talk to 7th graders. Doesn’t have to be a list of the 20,000 (or whatever) most common words. Just *some* sort of entertaining exercise. Surely that wouldn’t be *that* difficult to come up with?

      • @GP: I think you underestimate the power of fun. I would not have posted my entry had it not been fun. There are volunteers that have provided me with tens (and maybe hundreds) of thousands of dollars worth of science data because I make it fun for them to do so. Fun is a powerful motivator.

        The best alternative (fun) de-jargoning exercises I know of need to be done in person with a group of people not all from the same scientific discipline. Not so easy to do. This exercise is easy and can even be done online.

        Unless you’re arguing that this exercise is *harmful* (you aren’t arguing that, are you?), I think it can be seen as part of a portfolio of exercises scientists can use to work on basic scientific communication.

      • @Margaret:

        “I think it can be seen as part of a portfolio of exercises scientists can use to work on basic scientific communication.”

        I think that’s probably the best argument for Up Goer Five–the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Not useful in and of itself (at least I don’t think so, but I suppose your mileage may vary), but useful because it’s fun and so hopefully draws people into other, more useful but less fun de-jargoning exercises.

        “Unless you’re arguing that this exercise is *harmful* (you aren’t arguing that, are you?)”

        No, at least not very insistently. Carl Zimmer is absolutely right that there’s an opportunity cost to spending time on Up Goer Five. But the cost is probably small–I doubt anyone spends hours on it, do they? And I think that if one took Up Goer Five too seriously one could draw the wrong lesson from it and end up talking down to one’s audience and patronizing them. But I agree with Brian that in practice that’s probably not a serious risk.

  5. My entry (on a pretty easy topic):
    I look at when the leaves on trees change color in the fall. Sometimes the leaves change earlier and sometimes they change later. I also look at when the leaves come out at the beginning of summer. The time when leaves come out and when they change is because of how hot or cold the air is. Because our world is getting warmer, the time when leaves come out and change color is also changing. So, some tree leaves are coming out earlier because the air is warmer earlier in the summer. But not all trees change in the same way. We are learning about the timing of different trees as the world gets warmer. And we are learning how that timing can make the world get warmer more slowly.

    This is worth doing just to see what’s in there and what’s not! ‘Summer’ and ‘fall’, yes! ‘Spring’ and ‘winter,’ no! ‘Leaves’ yes, but ‘leaf’ no. No ‘weather'(!) or ‘temperature’. And one can cheat: I doubt ‘timing’ is a common word, but as a derivative of ‘time’, one can get away with it…

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  7. I work with small flying animals with six legs, and how their love-making body parts change over time. With this change, any one part can look very different in different kinds of animals; I try to find out which ones are the same. When I find this, I think about how the parts work, and about the reasons why they look like they look.
    A second thing my work means is that I often find new kinds of animals that I get to tell other people about for the first time. This is fun, but also important since there are so many kinds of animals we don’t know yet.

  8. I remember trying this when Meg first tweeted about it, and getting quickly frustrated (I think my main problem was trying to distinguish between males and females). But I tried it again today, and here’s what I have:

    “I study small animals that we used to think stay in one place, and find love in that one place. But we saw from their babies that many of them had found love in far off places. So I am looking at how these animals move across the land and through trees–do they actually stay in just one small place? Turns out they don’t: some of them move across very large areas. This might matter a lot to who gets to be a father of new baby animals, and what these animals will look like as time moves forward”

    In the time between these two attempts, I’ve found myself in lots of “elevator pitch” situations, and perhaps that practice led to this being easier the second time around! In turn, I’m probably going to use this very basic framework to shape my elevator pitch going forward.

  9. As someone who does human subjects research with children, this actually seems like it would be an extremely useful tool for writing a child assent form…

  10. I gave it a try (and even posted it here: https://marinescribble.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/68/ ). It sounds a bit cynical… Anyway, here it goes:
    I study animals that live in the water and their relationship with other living things around them. I also study how we can kill them in a way that allows enough of them to make babies so that we can keep killing and eating these animals for ever. What happens around these animals is important for their life, like if it is too hot or if the water is full of food or without much food or if they have to fight with other animals for food or which animal eats which one and how much, so Ι need to study that too; also sometimes the way we people kill these animals living in water is not good, because too many babies are killed or not enough animals are left to make new ones. If there are only a few of these animals left there are also big problems for the people who go and catch them every day to make a living, because they lose their jobs or don’t have enough food or are not happy. Also, today, there are also so many not obvious ways that we, humans, can do things that change the water around us, that we have to study these changes too and find out how things living in water are changed and if they live well or not. My job is very nice: it is to learn all these things, to tell people who did not know them about them and to try to find other things that we did not know before!

  11. In the interests of moving the conversation in a different direction, here are a couple of questions (inspired by a correspondent). The first and third may be too big for a comment thread, but I’ll throw them out there and see what happens.

    1. To what portion of the “general public” should scientists be aiming to “reach out” or explain their work? Who exactly is the audience? (and is “audience” always the right term?) After all, the average reader of popular science books and articles probably could easily grasp an explanation pitched well above 7th grade level (if not at collegiate or postgrad level).

    2. It seems to me that what gets lost in Up Goer Five-style explanations are concepts, especially abstract ones. You can convey what you do in some very literal sense, but it’s hard to go beyond that. Again, witness Rich Lenski punting on natural selection. Arguably, what scientists need to practice most at communicating is the stuff that’s hardest to explain. This problem seems like it goes beyond Up Goer Five, extending to any exercise in simplification in which the goal is convey *something or other* about your work in highly simplified terms. Usually, the “something” that gets conveyed will be whatever is easiest to convey. This came up for instance in Meg’s post on elevator pitches, when she said she found it easiest to pitch her work as having an applied angle. Put bluntly, how do we all get better at communicating conceptual, fundamental research to a non-scientific audience without being hypocrites (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/ecological-forecasting-why-im-a-hypocrite-and-you-may-be-one-too/)?

    3. What sort and amount of communication training should be part and parcel of any PhD program in science? And if your answer is “a lot” (say, a term-length course or its equivalent), then please also say what you’d axe from the PhD programs with which you’re familiar to free up the time.

    • I’m just going to address #1 at the moment: I’d say that the audience varies depending on your venue. Most people aren’t blathering their science off into the ether. If you’re going to talk to a 3rd grade class, then third graders is your audience. If you’re making a video to put on your website, then your audience is people likely to come to your website — probably adults already keenly interested in your topic. In my experience, my audience is generally science-interested, higher-than-average educated adults. I write a lot of blog posts as part of citizen science ventures, and when I ask scientists to guest blog for me, I ask them to write as if the person reading is “someone who is smart and interested, but not a science professional; think about how you would explain your science to someone in your family or a good friend who is not a scientist.”

      I think most scientists communicating to adults are actually writing for an educated audience that is already predisposed to be interested in science — people who already read Popular Science or National Geographic or Discover or the science section of their local newspaper. Those are the people who are actually going to read/view/listen to you. Getting the attention of people who don’t care about science is much, much, much harder, and probably shouldn’t be the focus of most scientists’ time and effort. This latter group is, unfortunately, the majority of the so-called “general public” that many scientists *think* they’re talking to, but aren’t.

      • “I think most scientists communicating to adults are actually writing for an educated audience that is already predisposed to be interested in science — people who already read Popular Science or National Geographic or Discover or the science section of their local newspaper. Those are the people who are actually going to read/view/listen to you. Getting the attention of people who don’t care about science is much, much, much harder, and probably shouldn’t be the focus of most scientists’ time and effort. This latter group is, unfortunately, the majority of the so-called “general public” that many scientists *think* they’re talking to, but aren’t.”

        Yes to all of this.

      • @Margaret: I wrote a grant proposal as a grad student that was evaluated by a group of women who are very well educated but not scientists. It was an interesting exercise in thinking about how to explain things clearly to a general audience. I had my sister read it through as a test audience, which was really useful. She fit the “smart and interested, but not a science professional” target audience.

        When we do lab meetings related to elevator pitches, we work on several versions. One thing we cover is trying to figure out quickly, when you meet someone new, what version of the pitch you might want to give. If you’re meeting someone at ESA, you can assume a base level of knowledge about ecology. If you’re meeting someone who is out fishing at a lake, you should start with an explanation for a non-scientist, but be prepared to shift it it becomes clear they are knowledgeable about the area.

    • Regarding #1 I agree with Margaret that the audience hugely depends on the venue. But let me just introduce two elements to spice up the discussion: Even though Jeremy is right and the 1000 words is fully arbitrary and unrealistic as a reasonably useful challenge, there are some occasions that a similar approach is needed: (a) trying to introduce your work to persons who are not native English-speakers (especially when they’re not from your specialty or not scientists at all), (b) the attempt to generalize the importance of a work/study, attempting to give the big picture: I sometimes try to write a sentence/paragraph of an Introduction or Discussion restricting my “specialist” wording to make it easier not only to grasp, but also “user-friendly” to scientists not belonging to my specialty.
      Another important (?) issue in my opinion is that depending on the audience our approach to explaining what we do changes (we explain things differently to different speakers) and this exercise is a nice (& fun) way to try to think simply, but not omitting anything important (should I propose the term childlike here?) again.

      Something that seems irrelevant but in my opinion is worth introducing to the discussion regarding point #2: As I’m a marine fisheries ecologist I work much with fishermen and on many occasions the “simple” discussions of the sort of what I do/why I do it, turn to more general issues. So we may begin talking with the fisherman about where the red mullet is spawning this year but could end up discussing about e.g. the effect of climate change on fish populations. In occasions like these I have observed that the challenge is not a matter of abundance of technical terms or vocabulary richness (e.g. you can explain tolerance ranges and other concepts in simple wording -yes, indeed, NOT in the 1000 words limit, Jeremy is right) but attempting to “translate” the vast empirical knowledge the fishermen usually have into concrete scientific logic that can be linked to hypotheses and answers. Sometimes the logic I need to do that is somewhat similar to the sequence of approaching/explaining things that I write above (the “simply but not omitting anything important”).

  12. So here’s another argument for Up Goer Five: the very fact that’s it’s a debatably-valuable exercise in scientific communication makes it a good starting point for a conversation about scientific communication–who’s it for, how should it be taught, etc.

    Kind of like my argument in an old post that unrealistic, oversimplified limiting cases are a good starting point for teaching about modeling in ecology. In part because they spark conversation about what one wants out of a mathematical model (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/on-the-value-of-simple-limiting-cases-lotka-volterra-models-and-trolley-problems/)

    This very good comment thread strikes me as evidence for this argument. 🙂 Though we don’t have a control thread using some other science communication exercise as its starting point. 🙂

    • Methinks that any list of bestselling pop-science books will prove that they are not lacking technical terms, but are popular because they are so good at explaining complex scientific issues in a way that even uninitiated readers can make sense of the basic technical terms thereafter. (I’m sure Carl Zimmer knows why he’s critical about up goer 5.) Thus DNA, gene, mutation etc. have long since become common language.

      Secondly, I do not think that terms that have made their entry into a general dictionary are the kind of jargon one thinks of as “lab jargon” that nobody except the inhabitants of certain labs understand (see examples above).

      Thirdly, I learned nothing from the above exemplars and found most of them silly rather than funny (sorry–am with Jeremy and Carl here). You are not going to interest laypeople in your science by talking to them as if they were stupid.

      • @Joachim:

        Yes, agreed. This gets back to Margaret’s and my recent comments about the likely audience for scientific communication.

      • “any list of bestselling pop-science books will prove that they are not lacking technical terms”

        Yes exactly. Technical terms are important and IMO you *MUST* use them in all science communication because they have specific meanings that aren’t available in everyday language. All you have to do is explain what they mean. It takes time, but it’s worth it because now you’ve given your audience some of the special terms they need to understand your topic.

        The biggest problem is that scientist have a habit of using tech/jargon when it’s NOT necessary. Aside from possibly being confusing to the audience, it’s just plain bad writing / speaking. The rule is to use the simplest language that makes the meaning clear.

        Beyond that, many scientists load their language up with meaningless NON technical terms and overuse modifiers (“very different”) so that what they say comes out sounding like plain old blather:

        Scientist: “I would posit that such an observation would lead to very different conclusions” (audience hears: wa wa wa wa, wah wah wahhhhh)

        So in my view, scientists don’t need or need very few special “science communication” tools. They just need to be better at NORMAL writing and communication.

  13. So in light of the recent discussion of the importance of tailoring one’s communication to one’s audience, here’s a thought: part of the problem with the Up Goer Five exercise is that you’re doing it without an audience in mind (or with an implausible audience in mind–toddlers). But I rather not have the conversation turn back towards “is Up Goer Five a good thing or not?”, so let me pose the following questions:

    Is there such a thing as learning to “simplify” one’s communication, or avoid “jargon”, *independent of any consideration of the audience with which one will be communicating*?

    More broadly, is there such as thing as “learning to communicate your science”, *independent of any consideration of the audience with which you hope to communicate*?

    EDIT: part of the reason I ask is that I sometimes see people say that they blog or tweet about their science because it’s important to “communicate your science to the world” or “to the public”. Some (not all, or even a majority, but more than a few) of these people don’t seem to have thought much about who they’re trying to reach. Or else have a mistaken idea about how they’re likely to reach (e.g., thinking they’re more likely to reach a broad and diverse cross-section of people than they actually are). Or else they have thought about it, and their thought is more or less “I don’t really know–or even care–who I’m trying to reach, I just think undirected ‘outreach’ is a good thing in and of itself.” Admittedly-anecdotal impressions here, so take them for what their worth, which may not be much.

  14. As a fan of XKCD, thanks for this post—it was super fun! My quick and feeble attempt:
    “Some things do better in when together with other things. In this world, things are stopped from becoming too much better. Sometimes space stops them, sometimes eating or using the same stuff stops them, sometimes time between things happening stops them. I use numbers and things that act as numbers to try to understand how 1. pairs of things change over time and 2. all the ways that things in this world stop being better until they take over the world.”

  15. Just killed a bit of time by searching for reviews of Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer, a compilation of Up Goer Five-style explanations (but with diagrams, I believe). Found this blog post from someone who’s looked at a lot of Up Goer Five attempts, and who sides with Brian/Margaret/et al. against me/Carl Zimmer/Joachim/et al. The argument as I understand it is basically that Up Goer Five explanations *can* properly convey the essence of one’s work to adults as well as small children–including abstract concepts–but that it’s extremely difficult.


    There’s a good Origin-inspired attempt at summarizing natural selection in there, and an eloquent attempt at conveying the vastness of geological time. So I’ll grant that, at their best, Up Goer Five explanations can work for educated adults.

    I still think you’re much better off with other exercises for learning to convey the essence of your research. But *if* you’re going to have a go at Up Goer Five for anything beyond entertainment purposes, I’d say that you should be prepared to work at it. Which of course is another way of saying “be prepared to keep trying even after it stops being entertaining”. Which of course isn’t likely to happen in many cases, for reasons discussed earlier in the thread.

  16. Here is my PhD thesis topic:

    I studied small animals with six or six and two legs. Those animals live in areas where humans grow green things for bigger animals to eat. I wanted to know how the number of the small animals changes with the work of the humans. And also if some types of the small animals like it more to be on areas where humans work a lot. I found that smaller types and types which fly better like it more. The number of different types of green things in the area is also important for the small animals because some only eat one type of green thing.

  17. Pingback: Friday links: Brian and Meg vs. Jeremy, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  18. I’ve been teaching scientific communication for over a decade now and what I’m reading here is quite surprising. Communication about science is not about limiting vocabulary to some arbitrary number of words or a reading level. It is about translating ideas from one domain of experience to another. How this is done depends on the target audience. Are we talking with pre-schoolers, high school students, an expert in another discipline, or stakeholders? We can teach tricks and do exercises with students to help them become accustomed to this effort of translation, but ultimately, like learning another language, it takes a lot of practice in front of real people. Most graduate students have to be confronted with real audiences to appreciate this. For example, I like to use different types of interview exercises with my students. Then they report back on the experience. I ask them to identify where their audience(s) got lost (and how they knew this) or what kinds of background information they didn’t anticipate needing, did they have questions they could not answer, etc. An approach to teaching that weaves together basic training in learning styles, graphic design, and communication skills is essential to provide the fundamentals of good practice.

    • I’m with you on this Jennifer! I particularly like (and agree with) your point that ultimately there’s no substitute for practice in front of real people. But apparently, that sort of practice isn’t what most scientists are looking for, unfortunately. They just want to have a laugh using a convenient online tool, trying to explain their research to nobody in particular using a toddler’s vocabulary.

      I think Up Goer Five is harmless fun if it’s treated as such (and in fairness, I think that’s how many people do treat it). And I could see it being a useful exercise to help teach scientists to talk to pre-schoolers. But like you, I remain surprised and puzzled that so many very sharp people whom I really respect (and with whom I ordinarily agree) seem to think Up Goer Five is something much more than just a bit of silly fun. I’m sure that lots of lab groups are having meetings these days in which everybody tries the Up Goer Five exercise. Which I think is a waste of time.

      • While I agree with Jennifer and you, Jeremy, on the general points, I do not even think that up goer five is necessarily a good tool for bringing ones communications down to pre-schooler level. For example, anybody trying to explain the meaning of “insect” to a real child will usually refer to insects that the child already knows, e.g. bees, butterflies, beetles, and let the child do the intellectual transfer to generalise the concept and exclaim triumphantly that the fly zooming by is also an insect. The child gets the meaning of “insect,” but it may nevertheless grow up to be ignorant of the fact that insects do, indeed, have six legs and that anything with eight legs is a spider or mite. That’s “advanced” zoological knowledge.

        Nevertheless, all the up goer five exercises from above that did deal with insects invariably said something like: “I deal with small animals with six legs that can fly …” Some children would probably get fantasies about small monsters rather than make the connection to their all day experience with bees and flies. I also doubt that an adult that grew up to live in ignorance of the six-leggedness of insects could decode this message properly.

        Therefore, I think that up goer 5 is not fit to teach you how to teach pre-schoolers, and I find the argument unconvincing that it only needs an 7th grader version, an up-goer 7, in order to make this a useful tool for popular science accounts.

      • @Joachim,

        Yes, good point. I’m trying to bend over backwards to be generous to the advocates of Up Goer Five when I say that it might be a decent way to train you to explain yourself to pre-schoolers. But you’re absolutely right that the arbitrariness of the vocabulary restriction limits its utility even for that purpose. Children don’t learn words in order of their commonness in English, and so “the 1000 most common words in English” is at best an approximation to a toddler’s vocabulary.

        And I continue to disagree with Margaret’s argument that its convenience and fun somehow compensate for it being unfit for purpose. As I said earlier, I think that’s probably the strongest argument for Up Goer Five as a training tool–but I think it’s a pretty weak argument in an absolute sense.

        I wish people would just admit that Up Goer Five is nothing but silly entertainment (with very rare exceptions, like the eloquent description of the vastness of geological time I noted earlier). It’s not as if one needs to justify or apologize for doing something just because it’s fun!

  19. Pingback: Up Goer Five at AGU Fall Meeting! | ecoroulette

  20. Ok, if you insist on having an entertaining, online text editor-based exercise that might be useful for teaching you jargon avoidance, this seems better than Up Goer Five:


    It color-codes words by their commonness. Still *far* from the most useful training exercise, I think, for reasons we’ve covered already (“commonness” does not equal “probability of being understood by your audience”, for starters). But “explain your work while avoiding red words” or “explain your work using only green and brown words” seems like it could be fun, and might be a least a little bit useful for training you to communicate to various audiences.

    (ht EcoRoulette)

  21. Pingback: Dinnertime Sci Comm (Part 1) | The Greenwald Lab

  22. Pingback: Good jargon and bad jargon | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  23. Via Twitter, an argument that Up Goer Five is a communications exercise analogous to improv comedy: no one expects you to do anything even vaguely resembling improv comedy when you present your work, but the exercise can nevertheless improve your communication skills:

    Interesting argument, which I’m still mulling over. It’s not clear to me if the analogy holds or if it’s only superficially plausible. I guess my first question would be, are there certain ways in which improv comedy training can have *downsides* for your public communication skills, analogous to the downsides we’ve discussed for Up Goer Five?

    BTW, I say this as someone who’s had a bit of improv comedy training and who tried out for (and was cut from) his college’s improv comedy group four times.* Although I wouldn’t say that the small amount of improv comedy I’ve done has helped me as a science communicator. I think improv comedy and my public speaking do draw on some of the same traits. Comfort in front of an audience, comfort making a mistake in front of an audience, comfort with ad-libbing, etc. But I didn’t acquire or further develop those traits via improv comedy. Those traits have either been there as long as I can remember (my comfort in front of an audience goes back to at least kindergarten), or they developed independently of the bit of improv comedy training I’m had. Your mileage may vary on all this, of course.

    *Now you know why my posts mostly aren’t very funny, but why I keep trying to be funny anyway. 🙂

  24. Pingback: Friday links: blog comments = papers, SIR model vs. Beliebers, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  25. Pingback: Saturday blast from the past: Can you describe your research using only the 1000 most common English words? And should you even try? | Dynamic Ecology

  26. I have not been able to go through each of the comments, though the overall discussion seems interesting (heated) due to the back-to-back points raised by everyone. I feel certain we should be plain in our expression while communicating our research in science. However, as scientists, we are afraid of complicating talks with scientific terminology. But apart from these, there are non-scientific terms which could prove daunting as well; if we want to mention progeny of a parent and use the word male of characters x sire more progeny than males of character y,z. then how wany would know the meaning of “sire”. This may not seem an obstruction where the native language is English but where it is not, “fathered” would be simpler. Thus though simplicity is desirous but it would depend partially on the context too.

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