Climate Change Communication – The Up Goer Five Edition

Image courtesy of Flickr user “njtrout_2000”, used under Creative Commons.

Reddit has a sub-reddit called Explain Like I’m Five, where people are attempt to explain often complex topics in simple, easy to understand language. The “like I’m five” part is often unsuccessful, but the idea is great.

Via Chris Rowan, people in the geosciences on Twitter have been talking about xkcd doing something similar, with the Up Goer Five. Basically, the challenge was to explain a spacecraft in relatively good detail in only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.

This is a site that lets you try the concept out. Here is my first attempt at an explanation of the climate and energy challenge:

What is Going On?
Our home is changing because of some things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power. One of the big changes is that we are warming up. What happens as we warm up is important! Some changes might be good: time for food growing may be longer. But lots of changes will be hard: where and how much or little rain we get, how hot and cold it gets, how much stuff is under water, how bad the air is to breathe, and a lot more things will all change. How we live, how we eat, and how we plan for things very much are tied to how things are around us. Big changes are hard to go through.

How Can We Know What Will Happen?
We can try to figure out what stuff might happen as we keep burning more and more stuff for power, and warm up. We can use computers to look forward. We can look at small changes from now and over the past couple hundred years, and think forward in time. We can even look way back into the very long ago past, at times when things warmed up or cooled down a lot, and learn from that!

Is It Too Late?
The important thing to know is this: what we do going forward matters very much to how things will change. Making very big changes to our home, or changing it less, is something we can decide. We need to think very carefully about how much we want to make our home change, and think about all of things that might happen as we change it. There is a lot we don’t know about what will change, and that makes it hard to plan for change. It may be safer to make little change, especially as we learn more about the bad stuff that happens with big changes.

What Can We Do?
There are a lot of new great things we can use for clean power that changes our home less. We can use the sun. We can use the wind. We can use water in many different ways. We can even use the same power the sun uses for its own power! All of these new ways of making clean power will keep our home more like it is now, and make it change a lot less than burning stuff for power. We can also use less stuff and power, and use the stuff and power we do use for doing more things. That will let us use less power to do the same stuff we do now.

How Do I Help?
What kind of home do you want? What kind of home do you want for your kids and their kids? Keep that in mind as you decide what to do. If you want to help, you can use less stuff and power, and tell people you want to use more of the things that use new clean power. You can also ask people who decide things to think about our home when they decide stuff, and to help us move to new ways of making clean power.


This is an interesting exercise, and it might help if your intent is to de-technobabble a talk, or use wording that is friendly to translation software. As a communications tool, though, I don’t think it’s all that great. What makes ideas and concepts meme-like depends somewhat on simplicity, sure. But all of the other things that make ideas sticky are hamstrung by this. It’s really hard to use imagery, analogy, expectation-confounding, and all of the tools that make memorable ideas with such a limited vocabulary.

What do you think?


8 responses to “Climate Change Communication – The Up Goer Five Edition

  1. reasonablemadness

    Hmm, interesting idea. But I don’t know if the restriction to the 1000 most common words is a good idea and makes the text more understandable for kids.

    For example just take the your first sentence:
    “Our home is changing because of things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power.”

    Of course you mean our planet, but how is a child supposed to know, that home doesn’t refer to their house? With “stuff from the ground” you mean of course oil and coal. But how is a child supposed to know that?

    I would think most children at age 5 know that cars run with gas. I’m not so sure that they know that those things are “stuff from the ground”.

    This restriction to the most common 1000 words makes it IMO more complex to understand the text, because you must circumscribe a lot of words a 5-year old might know and the circumscription is more complex to understand, than just using the word.

    If you look at understandability of texts you can find IMO two extremes:

    1) “Technobabble”, which means the overuse of technical terms and foreign words which makes it difficult to understand, because most people don’t understand all that terms. Obviously a text which contains a lot of such things, is hard to understand, for lay persons as well as children.

    2) The other extreme would be, if you reduce your vocabulary to an extent which is too small. For example if you just use the most common 10 words, you can’t say almost nothing useful. With 100 words you can say more, but you would have to circumscribe so much things, that the text will be also very difficult to read.

    The “optimal” text is IMO somewhere between those extremes, e.g. a text that uses only very common and easily understandable words, but doesn’t reduce it’s vocabulary so much, that you get the problems from (2). If one has to use a word which might be complex, it explains what the word means. And I don’t know if 1000 words is the right amount of words, perhaps the most common 2000 or 3000 words would be much better, because you would need to circumscribe a lot less things, thus making the text more understandable.

    So instead of talking about “stuff from the ground”, which is just nebulous and unclear, one could just explain to the kid, what oil and gas is and then use those words in the text. But that isn’t allowed in this 1000-words-only-approach and I think that this a restriction, which makes the texts harder to understand.

    And last but not least is the complexity of words just one aspect of understandability. An easy sentence structure, grammar and short sentences are as important as well.

    So IMO a text optimal for kids at age 5 is not per se a text which uses only the most common 1000 words. It should use as many common and easy words as possible, and only for very important things, which might not be clear to a kid at that age and where the constant circumscription of that thing would be more complex, you explain the word and use it from there on.

    • I would think most children at age 5 know that cars run with gas
      Not in the UK, they won’t (let alone non-English-speaking countries). Parochial thinking doesn’t help when trying to communicate.

  2. Pingback: The Up-Goer Five Thing, Where Learned People Explain Hard Stuff With Easy Words | Smart News

  3. Pingback: Climate change explained in words even Glenn Beck could understand | Grist

  4. @reasonablemadness

    I largely agree. I’m not sure whether the exercise is meant to be for kids or just people with a very, very limited vocabulary. It’s easy to assume those groups are largely overlapping, but kids are actually pretty amazing at picking up jargon and divining new words from context.

    Someone with a basic “Language X-to-English” dictionary might be more the hypothetical audience. Not sure.

  5. I had a go at using the text editor upgoer 5 to explain anaerobic digestion at a sewage works feeding a CHP engine with biogas; then my wife had a go writing about pernicious anaemia!
    In a funny way I think the exercise is mainly for the person writing the explanation, rather than the reader. It’s an interesting discipline to pare down your vocabulary to something that is really non-technical. Maybe it will help future communication efforts having done that. But I agree, the vocabulary limit of 1000 words introduces more confusion and ambiguity. 3000 would probably be good.

  6. Here’s my attempt at an ‘up-goer five’ conversion of my 2007 blog post Dvorak: ‘old’ is the new ‘new’:

    How to explain a thing when you are not able to use the word that is its name is very hard! In fact, it’s even worse than that. It turns out that I can’t even use the name of the thing that the thing that I want to talk about needs!

    So, the first thing I need you to know about is the thing that allows me to enter words into the computer. On top, there are over one hundred keys. (It is a ‘keyboard’.)

    Perhaps ‘Dvorak’ means nothing to you. Perhaps the name reminds you of a man who died a long time ago; a man who made music.

    The ‘Dvorak’ I talk about is a ‘keyboard’ that uses the same keys as a normal one, but laid out in a different way.

    The keys in a ‘keyboard’ are laid out in a way (‘QWERTY’) that doesn’t make much sense. This is because this ordering was needed to deal with a problem, one that
    went away a long time ago. ‘QWERTY’ was made for the thing that made the type – not for the human!

    In a working day, the hands of a person using a ‘QWERTY’ ‘keyboard’ might move 84,480 feet! If that person were using a ‘Dvorak’, however, the same fingers would move much less.

    There are many ways in which a ‘Dvorak’ is better than ‘QWERTY’, but I don’t have time to explain them to you now. Sorry!

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