Get onboard Up Goer Five

Sometimes social media can seriously dent your faith in fellow humans – jeez, there have been more than enough examples in recent weeks, and I’m not going to rehearse them again here.  But then something happens to remind you that it can be a fantastic tool for spreading ideas, building on them collectively and creating something which might just have some kind of broader value than a lol-of-the-day.

One recent example was the #overlyhonestmethods twitter hashtag.  For me, its main effect was to brighten a late night train journey home.  But several people made the point that it was an excellent bit of science communication, reminding readers that SCIENCE is done by ordinary humans who, like everyone, get bored, mess around, make mistakes, have in-jokes and want to get out of work on Friday afternoons.

And now there’s Up Goer Five.

It started late last year with a comic by xkcd, which attempted to provide a blueprint of the Saturn V rocket – and by extension, to explain the whole Apollo programme – using only the thousand most common words in the English language.

(Side note: having touched on textual analysis in my Digital Resources for the Humanities module last term, I was curious as to which corpus Randall Munroe of xkcd used to get his thousand words.  Apparently it’s this one, although there doesn’t seem to be anything to say exactly how it was derived.)

At the time, the main product was this rather wonderful tumblr, which sadly doesn’t seem to have been updated since November.

But then, Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, devised this simple but effective text editor, which tells you as you type whether you are using anything outside the thousand permitted words.  He challenged people to explain hard ideas while not breaking the rules and to post the results.  Happily people have begun doing just that.

Here’s one by Rachel Klippenstein, detailing the wonders of Saturn and some of its moons.  And here’s Ben Goldacre talking about (yes!) randomised controlled trials (who would’ve thunk it?).

Aside from anything else, Up Goer five is a great tool for focusing your own thinking – if you can’t work out a way of explaining a difficult concept in simple terms, does it imply that in fact you don’t completely understand it yourself?

What is disappointing to me is that, so far, it mostly seems to be only science that is being written about – and it’s certainly not the case that scientists have a monopoly on hard ideas.

Over Christmas, I followed the great debate over the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince (I gave me own views as a comment on Emily Winterburn’s blog).  One of the things that riled some participants in that argument was the feeling (fair or not) that the History and Philosophy of Science camp couldn’t articulate their position clearly, briefly, and without technical language.  I’d love it if some brave HPS experts would take the challenge of devising an Up Goer Five explanation of – say – paradigm shifts or falsifiability.

Another example.  In my Archives & Records Management masters we have a Concepts & Contexts module which includes a lot of archival theory and academic writing.  It’s the first time since my undergraduate degree that I’ve run into post-modernism and I had forgotten how impenetrable a lot of it is.  You’re constantly faced with words like ‘structuration’ and ‘meta-narrative’.  You reach the end of an article not having understood more than half of it – and with a nagging suspicion that the author didn’t understand more than three-quarters.  I ended up siding heavily (though not entirely) with Alan Sokal in believing that at least some of the time the Emperor is most definitely wearing no clothes.

Archival theory also has its own specialist terms and concepts which can be a real challenge to grasp.  One is the ‘records continuum’  (it’s a way of looking at the life of a record – I still haven’t fully got my head around it and I am not going to attempt to explain it here).  Early on in the course, an essential reading was an article by a leading Australian proponent of this methodological approach, Frank Upward.  He sets out his take-no-prisoners approach early:

“In face-to-face discussion with those who have been perplexed all I have ever been able to do is shrug my shoulders. It is a tool for perceiving complexity and is already a simplification that, in my experience, is understood or rejected intuitively. You cannot have an easy discussion across a paradigm shift.”

Well, that’s just great. And, in fact, isn’t it also something of a cop-out?  Here is someone deeply convinced that an idea is highly useful to everyone in the archives profession. Is he really saying that it can’t be expressed simply?  And if it can be, then surely those who are its strongest advocates should be doing so, in order to get it into wider usage?

So, I’d like to see an Up Goer Five explanation of the records continuum please!

What I’m saying, I think, is that in recent years there has been a great effort to explain science in simple terms.  The fact that so many have quickly jumped on the #upgoerfive hashtag with explanations of scientific ideas fits with that.  But I want to see the same kind of thing happening in the humanities, social sciences and other academic areas.  It would be wonderful if people working and studying in those areas could get onboard Up Goer Five.  Selfishly, I’d also like to see examples from the archives profession.

I’m going to have a go at defining what an archive is and what an archivist does – as this is something that I find I’m forever explaining to people.  I’ll post the results here.



  1. This is brilliant! And I completely agree that trying to explain something simply is a good way of testing how well you’ve really understood it. When I first read this, my immediate reaction was that I didn’t really know much in the way of complicated stuff, and perhaps the challenge would be better taken up by someone with an indepth knowledge of, say, the issues surrounded ‘scientific method’. But thinking about it, I think it could be more useful than that. Just a thought, but I wonder if writing Up Goer Five explanations for broad themes in the history of science might actually help the process of research in making you/me/anyone really think about and reduce to the essentials why a topic is interesting and important. Does that make sense? I’m going to have a go. I just have to work out what I mean by broad theme…

  2. That definitely makes sense. I think what it does is force you to break everything down, and not use any specialist shorthand. It stops you from just referring back to other concepts which assume prior knowledge. You really have to build your argument or explanation from the ground up. I think maybe it’s that which makes your thought about broad themes definitely worth a look: you’d expect that those should be the point of access for an outsider, so yes, you should be able to explain them in this way. It’s like an extreme version of “in layman’s terms”!

  3. I really like the Upgoer 5 approach – I am a great believer in the principle that, if you can’t explain your ideas clearly, you don’t really understand them. It’s an excellent discipline to take the time to put your ideas in clear language. And too often, language is used to obscure a lack of honest thought, and to create an illusion of authority with no basis in reality. George Orwell says as much, very clearly in his essay Politics and the English Language:

    I was lucky that I studied archives before post-modernism had much effect on how the subject was taught. When I first read Frank Upward’s essay on the continuum as a paradigm shift I experienced a growing sense of bafflement – I could see that a great deal of thought had gone into it, but it didn’t actually seem to make sense. Having reread it carefully a couple of times I have come to the conclusion that it is actually saying a lot less than it thinks it is. The tell, here, is Upward’s reference to it as ‘a tool for *perceiving* complexity’. It perceives complexity, but that doesn’t mean the complexity is there. I could be simply creating an illusion around what is actually very simple.

    What I found most frustrating in the essay was the lack of any practical examples of what he was talking about. This makes it impossible to test his ideas against practical reality. I’ve been doing records management for 25 years and I cannot remember any situation in which the approach he discusses would have helped. In fact, it doesn’t seem to match how records are actually used in the real world. For instance, he quotes the statement that ‘records are in a constant state of becoming’. This is exactly the opposite of the approach of most EDRM systems which assume that an essential part of the process is the moment when a document is declared as a record. That’s a practical system which people use every day. Part of the work of an archivist or records manager is precisely that of stopping records ‘becoming’.

    Another point is that he seems to think the ‘lifecycle’ concept of record keeping is outdated. But actually, it’s not just a very useful metaphor in understanding how records are kept – I’ve used it plenty of times to explain records management concepts for people, and it’s one they readily grasp – but it also is a recognition of an absolutely key point that his blathering on about ‘spacetime’ seems to overlook – information decays over time. Orwell’s essay, for instance, is still right on the mark and yet some of the language and ideas are so obviously dated. Technology and social change means that records cease, little by little, to be fresh and useful – just think how many assumptions are subtly overturned by the arrival of smartphones. If you want to manage records, then, you can do so with an eye to time, or to space – but not both.

    I would love to see an upgoer5 version of the essay by someone who actually understands the continuum concept – if it’s possible, then perhaps I’m wrong. But in the meantime, I have to conclude it’s a piece of hot air, with nothing to say and taking a lot of words to say it.

  4. Thanks for that Rodney. I assume you came to my blog for the Gove post, and stayed for the archives! I wasn’t expecting any more comments on this post and it was a pleasant surprise to see yours.

    Thanks also for the Orwell link. I have been meaning to buy an edition of his collected essays for a while, as so many people speak so highly of them. I have briefly dipped into Politics and the English Language just now, and it looks good. I have a copy of Ernest Gowers’ “Plain Words” which I don’t refer to as often as I should; he makes similar points I think.

    One of my coursemates said that she listened to an audio presentation of, I think, Sue McKemmish talking about the continuum model. She said that this made a *lot* more sense than anything else she’d read. I’ll alert her to this thread and perhaps she can post with details of it.

    My own view was that the continuum was did perhaps have something to say about records having the potential to exist at two points on the lifecycle simultaneously (i.e. still current for some purposes, but at the same time perhaps of historical/cultural interest to another group) but, yes, I tend to agree that there is a lot of over-claiming.

    More broadly, as we’ve gone through various strands of archival theory/thinking on the course, my feeling is that there has been a lot of sound and fury arguing points which actually make little or no practical difference. Meanwhile, the amount of literature on some really big theoretical questions for archives, arising out of technological and social change, is ridiculously small and – in some cases – far too shallow in its analysis. For example, I wanted to read more on:

    – What impact should the ever-cheaper costs of data storage, combined with the ever-increasing sophistication of search algorithms, have on appraisal decisions? Should we be keeping far more?
    – The strong trend is for declining numbers of physical visits and increasing numbers of online visits to archive collections. What are the implications of that?
    – Does the greater potential visibility of online records compared to physical records have implications for ethical decisions about what is made open/kept closed (I went to a good seminar on this recently)?
    – The breakdown of the boundaries between records and other types of content.

    There is a real prospect of archives, as a profession, losing control of records to IT professionals and others. In my view, this is partly because (generalising wildly and unfairly!) a generation of theorists spent their time and research grants noodling on about arcane questions rather than facing up to the challenges and opportunities brought by technological change – which truly does represent a paradigm shift!

    Anyhow, as I say, thanks for the comment!

  5. exTRCcox · · Reply

    I use the “up goer five” principle all the time in teaching. I make students draw flowcharts and pictures to tell me why they’re doing calculations a particular way. If I can’t give a lecture entirely without visual aids I feel I haven’t done it properly (though NB in last year’s 48 hours of lectures written from scratch, only about 4 didn’t feel like failures – pity I won’t ever get the chance to give most of them again).

    But it’s amazing how many scientists hide ignorance behind jargon. After a year of repeatedly asking a colleague “why do you use that method? here’s all the 30 years of published and statistically-significant evidence for why it doesn’t do what you need” all I got was “well I think you’ll find it works perfectly well, and I can’t be bothered finding literature for you to read”.

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