To those faculty hiring committees who asked me to explain my PhD dissertation, Finitude, Transcendence, and Ethics: Sartrean-Niebuhrian Resources for Understanding Difference and Dominance, in layman’s terms: I regret that this explanation is coming so late, but here it is, using only the most commonly used 1,000 words in the English language.
Cedar Riener (follow him @criener), an enterprising psychology professor, has begun a Tumblr, Up Goer Your PhD, collecting doctoral dissertation abstracts written in layman’s terms, as described above. His project is a riff on this brilliant layman’s diagram of Saturn 5, otherwise known — when one is limited to the most common 1,000 words — as “Up Goer 5.” People using Up Goer to explain a variety of other complicated concepts can be found on Twitter at #UpGoerFive. Many Up Goer projects turn out to be hilarious, and they’re fun to create, too.
But there’s a serious point here as well. Jargon (including technobabble, neurobabble, and other babbles) can be efficient shorthand when conversing among other experts. But let’s be frank: it can also conceal some serious B.S., not only from our readers, but also from ourselves. Why? We often believe that we understand concepts better than we actually do — sometimes called the Illusion of Knowledge (disclosure: the interviewee is my husband), or the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. Many studies have found that people often overestimate how well they understand complex phenomena (even distinct from general overconfidence bias). In one set of experiments, subjects were often unable to draw a functioning bicycle, despite having previously reported that they understood bicycle mechanics. In another, subjects displayed similar overconfidence in their understanding of devices, procedures, natural phenomena, and movie plots.
In addition to being fun, being forced to “up goer” your writing on a complicated subject is an extraordinarily useful exercise. It’ll keep you honest. Try it with this handy text editor that lets you type your layman’s explanation into a box, and tells you when you’ve used a verboten word. When you’re done, there’s a button to click that lets you permalink your Up Goer creation and tweet, Facebook, or blog it — but the button only appears when you have avoided all verboten words. In some contexts, this could also be an excellent teaching tool. Give it a try: it’s harder (and more illuminating) than you think.
Postscript 1: The original dissertation abstract from which I was working is here. It's been a while since I wrote it, and I confess that as I began to up goer it, even I wasn't sure, at points, exactly what I'd been talking about. (When you live and write long enough, I suppose you have this out-of-body experience more and more often.) With some effort and recollection and the help of the Up Goer text editor, however, I satisfied myself that my dissertation was not, in fact, B.S. There was a there, there after all. On the other hand, I now sort of feel like my 5-year-old could have written it. Tradeoffs.
Postscript 2: A bit of nerd humor about empirical versus non-empirical methods.