Press and Pop Culture

Up Goer Five vs. Saturn V Rocket

The recent Up Goer Five struck me at first as an interesting exercise in translation and in escaping the gatekeeping rhetoric used by so many disciplines to mark inclusion and exclusion (and I wondered how jargon I use would fail Theo Sanderson’s online text editor). Initially, the challenge to translate your technical jargon into common words seemed to bifurcate the world into experts and non-experts (FYI, expert is not one of the 1000 most common English words). I was uncomfortable with an implicit condescension in this challenge.

Henry Cowles’s “Up Goer Five and the Rhetoric of Science” prompted me to think about how jargon functions not just as a form of gatekeeping but perhaps also inhibits communication between experts within the same field.

Then Matthew Francis defended expertise and jargon, provided it was explained clearly and sufficiently, and was appropriate for the context and useful for conveying the content. Francis asks that we think carefully about choosing and defining our terms. On this model, language can be a mechanism of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The worry about communicating knowledge seems more common amongst the sciences, or at least a vocal minority of scientists (see the recently launched The Incubator: Hatching Conversations about Science), than it does amongst historians of science. What would happen if historians of science thought seriously about communication? To what extent does the rhetoric and jargon historians of science use inhibit communication not just with non-academics but with other historians? I think about how often historians of science have had to justify being called a historian. Do other historians—those who study politics, or religion, or culture, or literature, or whatever—have to defend their identity as historians? Could historians of science begin producing texts that invited smart, interested people read them?

“Up Goer Five” is no less opaque than “Saturn V Rocket” nor does not solve the problem created by “Saturn V Rocket.” Like all expressions, “Up Goer Five” and “Saturn V Rocket” require explanation and make sense only in a particular context and to particular audiences. Jargon itself is not the problem here. The absence of explication is the problem.