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Can you (and should you) explain your science in ten hundred words?

“US Space Team’s Up-Goer 5” Source: xkcd: A webcomic about romance, sarcasm, math, and science

By Xoco Shinbrot

Scientists are often accused of ignoring and isolating the public by using commonly used jargon within their field. Scientists are typecast to spit out “statistically significant results” to an empty-headed public expecting their research to be understood. It simply isn’t true though that scientists don’t consider how to convey their research to the public; many are understand that explaining highly complex concepts clearly to others outside their field is a real challenge that takes more than simple language but also skill, creativity and finesse.

It makes sense then that there was a huge response from scientists and journalists around the nation when Up-Goer Five text editor came online. The text editor, created by Cambridge-based geneticist Theo Sanderson and inspired by a brilliant xckd comic (see image), takes simple language to the next level: it challenges you to explain, for example, the mechanics of NASA’s rocket launcher, otherwise known as “Up Goer 5”, using only the ten hundred most commonly used words. Clearly neither “rocket” nor “launcher” made the list.

Using the text editor, scientists can see whether their research statement or abstract uses simple enough language to make the cut. The editor will gently remind you when you’ve typed something that’s outside the allowed ten hundred words, “Uh oh! You have typed a non-permitted word.” The editor even underlines the word in red, like Microsoft Word does, when the word is not recognized by its dictionary. I needed to give it a whirl. I started with my own research statement:

“I study the socio-ecological outcomes of a community-based monitoring and a payment for watershed services projects in Latin America. This research is important for understanding the appropriate program design to improve adaptive capacity for climate resilience, as well as changes to environmental knowledge, behavior, and civic engagement. In recent years, I have developed a strong interest in collaborative research as well as science communication.”

Here’s what Up-Goer 5 had to say:

“I study whether and how state-led water plans make water better by changing how people work with the land. Some state plans focus on paying those who own land to grow trees and/or keep trees on their land so that others can have clean water. Others focus on getting people to look at their waters every week to understand changes. This is important for understanding how different state plans can change the way land and water are used. I am also interested in how people talk to others outside of their field.”

It seemed to work out fairly well, but as I went on to other topics it started to get trickier. I noticed that basic words like “plant” or “forest” or “mountain” were not allowed. Plant became “green things”, forest became “trees” and mountain became “up high.” Was the editor really helping me communicate clearly, or was it dumbing down the parts that mattered? Take for example the research statement of my friend and a fellow writer Yamina Pressler. Before reading, you should probably know that neither soil nor dirt is a “permitted word”, which is a real problem since she’s a soil ecologist:

“Yamina is a PhD student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, Soil and Crop Sciences Department. She received a B.S. in Environmental Management with an emphasis on plant biology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Yamina’s interests include soil ecology, carbon cycling, soil organic matter, global change and science education. Her current research focuses on how fire affects soil carbon cycling by looking through the lens of the soil food web. In addition, her work includes a component of science education research in students of all age groups in order to understand how students learn complex concepts in ecology and soil science.”

This is what Up-Goer 5 had to say about Yamina:

“Yamina is far along as a student in a higher up college in the field of land and food. She did her college work in how to change the land and world, looking especially at how green things grow. She has interests in the land, how the land takes in things from the air, living land matter, world change and how students learn fields of study that are hard to understand. She now works on land, how land is made, and where those two fields meet. Now her studies focus on how fire changes land by looking through the eye of the land and food relationship. Also, she works with students of all age groups in order to understand how students learn hard ideas in the fields of land and water.”

Okay, let’s step back a moment. Did anyone else understand what Yamina’s work is about with UpGoer 5? Because I’m in the dark. It seems implausible that substituting simple language could actually make information more complicated, but there it is. This gets back to the question of how words get considered common, and perhaps it is because they hold multiple meanings. Words like “land” can mean anything from soil, to private property, to the Earth generally, and without differentiating between them can be down right confusing.

Not only are they confusing, but common words actually strip scientists of their ability to relish the exciting variety of topics within which they work, and give the reader a paler and blurrier vision of what scientists do. By encountering new and field specific words (which are defined), readers can get a view into a new world through the eyes of a scientist. And isn’t that what all writers since the beginning of time have tried to do, to reveal their treasured views of reality?

How are foresters, land managers, or plant biologists supposed to talk about their work and reveal their views of reality when they can’t use words like “impact” or “effect”, let alone the words “plant”, “forest”, “flower” or “grass”? Who is going to see a new world through the eyes and the words of a climate scientist, when he can’t use the words “greenhouse” or “gas”? Isn’t science about revealing a new glimpse on reality, and how are we going to describe it if we can’t use uncommon words?

The concept of Up-Goer Five is well-taken: clear prose can give the non-academic audience a general sense of what is being discussed. But when colorful rainbow of language is muted to only the primary colors, who will even want to look?

Xoco Shinbrot is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at CSU. In her free time she scribbles, edits, and runs EcoPress.

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