Bridges peak in the middle

There is a common confusion among humans between doing something that is fun and doing something that it useful. Put as directly as that, it seems silly – “I can tell the difference between fixing my flat tire and putting plastic wrap across the toilet seat” – but it’s a bit more subtle than all that. As my example, I’m going to use a current internet “fad” (which may be gone by the time I post): Randall Munroe’s “Up-goer Five” exercise.

In short, Randall Munroe of xkcd wrote about how the Saturn Five rocket boosters worked using only the thousand most common words in the English language. This led Theo Sanderson (among others, I believe) to make a text editor that would flag any words that did not fit into this criteria, which led to others describing their careers, research, or simply common scientific principles in the same manner. It becomes clear, very quickly, that a thousand words (or ten-hundred if you prefer, since “thousand” doesn’t even make the cut) is remarkably limiting.

Now, some things to consider. The thousand-word cutoff is arbitrary, a nice round number yet not representative of much, since just about anyone’s vocabulary surpasses this number before they hit kindergarten. So reducing any explanation down to this level doesn’t really have a target audience. Second, in order to do this, one must simplify the subject described to the point where it has little, if any, meaning whatsoever. Some of them may seem descriptive, provided we already know what is being described, but presented to anyone who does not (and needs that thousand-word simplification to begin with,) they accomplish, well, probably not a damn thing. Take Jaime Sterns’ entry:

I use very strong light of different colors to study how the smallest pieces of stuff stick together and change one another. My focus right now is to understand new kinds of stuff that might be used to make a space car go when it’s in space, so we can make better, safer, space-car-go-stuff for less money.

Or maybe Jennifer Wang’s:

In my job I take care of flies and try to make them different by putting something into flies that are not babies yet to make the babies different from their parents. I also watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies.

Ask yourself in what way these descriptions can help anyone understand what it is the writer is actually doing. While you’re at it, you can edit your own block of text to field the inevitable questions of why colored light shows how things stick together, and precisely what “do it with” means to boy and girl flies…

Am I missing the point? Is this all supposed to be just fun? Perhaps, though it’s a lot of trouble to go through to produce something just for giggles. The moment anyone attempts to justify these efforts as something more than amusing, however, the problems arise. There is already a well known, and significant, problem in science journalism where research and new discoveries are presented in over-simplified, misleading, and often wildly inaccurate manners. I feel safe in saying most people in the US think “cancer” is a specific form of illness, rather than a very broad term like “bacteria” – otherwise we wouldn’t see so many mentions of “the search for a cure for cancer.” Dumbing science down rarely leads to greater understanding, because few fields of science are able to be described in so simple a manner – that’s kind of why PhDs take more than an afternoon seminar to obtain.

Is there a real need to reach a greater audience in scientific topics? Absolutely. Does this audience need something limited to the most common words in English? Absolutely not – no one does, really. While many topics will benefit from the removal of ‘jargon’ and words that are very specific to their field, there is a difference between climbing down to an audience, and reaching down to bring them up to your own level. In fact, it’s even misleading to use “up” and “down” in this manner, and this might even be part of the problem – the goal is translation, using a language that the audience understands. And online, there’s little reason to remove many of the specific terms at all, since it’s remarkably easy to link sources that provide greater explanation as needed, and those who have no need for those links do not have to wade through a word-salad targeted at elementary-school levels.

Moreover, this approach is quite likely to breed the highest level of understanding. Those interested in the subject can easily pursue it in greater detail, and let’s be real: you only need to hear the definition of any given term once. We have such words specifically to streamline communication, and everyone can benefit from the expansion of their vocabulary. Not to mention, they become more common the more we use them.

There is a final perspective to consider. Anyone involved in communicating science to an audience not conversant within the field needs to know how to reach them, which is a skill all its own – and they need to learn how to bridge this gap. It’s safe to say that no one will ever have to explain a DDOS attack to pre-schoolers, but knowing the different approaches to reach both high-school grads and the elderly can have distinct applications. Anyone that wants a fun exercise that may also lead someplace could be spending their time pursuing those goals, and accomplish more for it. Bridges are not intended for one-way traffic, and it’s even possible to meet someone in the middle.

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