Hiding Clear Ideas Behind Unclear Words

November 30, 2017

Chances are you know someone who thinks science is simultaneously complicated and boring. What a feat for a subject to be both at once, and what a challenge to convince such a someone that science is worth their time and attention. Some try to overcome these barriers by emphasizing how cool or relevant new results are, but unintended side effects from these approaches can deepen the void rather than bridge it. A scientist who feels that their research has been sensationalized and misrepresented can feel used and close off. Readers faced with overcomplicated language and oversimplified ideas end up with the sense that science is just a cycle of random concepts that will eventually contradict itself. The result is a lot of frustrated scientists, poorly informed readers, and oh so many articles about the nifty quirks of chocolate.

But a lot can happen when scientists are challenged to distill their own work for public consumption. Just asking a researcher to explain their work to the public – or asking any expert to explain their passion to a novice – often suffers from a vocabulary-based disconnect. To be frank, it is just really hard to remember just how many words that seem common to you are actually specialized. Looking to some success stories can show the power of taking those words away. Consider two approaches that come at the problem from opposite ends of the spectrum: One limits only how many words can be used, and the other limits only which words are allowed. Both offer a fun and low-stakes reason for scientists to step out from behind the academic curtain.

The Ig Nobel Prizes (a facetious wink at the prestigious, global awards) are an annual event honoring improbable research. While the event itself nods at the stranger side of a life in research, the 24/7 lectures are a true highlight. Researchers are asked to give two lectures: The first is a 24-second technical description of their work and the second is a 7-word summary that anyone can understand. Limiting things to 24 seconds might seem like sufficient motivation to boil ideas down to their core, but wielding the full power of technical language shows how experts can turn even 24 seconds into a challenge of how rapidly a listener can absorb and process new information. It is long enough for a scientist to be thorough, but short enough for any novice to try engage without zoning out. But the best moment comes at the end of the technical bit, where the shift to the blunt 7-word summary brings everything together and makes the latter land like a gratifying punchline.

Consider the 2017 24-second summary of bots that includes phrases like “uncanny valley” and “juxtaposed the EDA channel with a digital input channel.” Then enjoy the power of these seven words: “Robots that talk are perceived as stupid.” The 2016 lecture on fluid dynamics shined a light a subject that most people don’t even recognize: “If it can flow, we can study it.” My favorite, however, has to be the 2012 summary about electro muscular incapacitation. Conclusion: “You really don’t want to be tased.”

Limiting Word Choice: The Up Goer Five

What started as an amazing xkcd comic that provided a jargon-free description of the Saturn V rocket has turned into a challenge for researchers everywhere. The original comic takes something so complicated that it is usually a punchline – rocket science – and tries to describe it in the plainest language possible. More specifically, using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. Thousand, of course, is not one of those words, so the description creatively refers to it as “the ten hundred words people use the most often.”

Anyone who has ever played Taboo can understand the premise. How can you get your team to guess the word stamp without saying words like mail, post office, send, stick, or envelope? My brother found “The small, colored square that goes in the upper-left corner of the white rectangle that you put in the box at the end of your driveway” quite effective. For the Up Goer Five, the concepts of staged rocket parts that are progressively used and discarded are explained as “Part that falls off first” and “Part that goes along to give people air, water, computers, and stuff. It comes back home with them but burns up without landing.” It also explains the caveat “Another thing that is a bad problem is if you’re flying toward space and the parts start to fall off your space car in the wrong order. If that happens, it means you won’t go to space today, or maybe ever.”

The idea has spread from this first comic to have books, hashtags, and even conference sessions where science is explained using only the ten hundred most common words. There is even a text editor that highlights any off-limits words, so that anyone can try their hand at this kind of communication. To get in the spirit, I have even used the text editor to write my conclusion for this piece:

It can seem really, really hard to explain things without long words. But too many people think that being confused by words and being confused by ideas are the same thing. Making yourself use words you might not usually pick can show you that sometimes the words are the problem and the ideas are just fine. Maybe that new idea will help stop you and other people with lots of school from thinking that someone else is less bright or able than they actually are.

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