Up Goer Five – I’m looking at you economics

Some time ago I was introduced to the Up Goer Five: http://xkcd.com/1133/ and was completely taken with it. The basic exercise was to explain the Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most often used words. There is a spinoff tool that you can dump a chunk of text in to and have it highlight the words that don’t make the limit. Then you have to reword your text to try and still having meaning without using prohibited words. Great exercise. From a design perspective the Up Goer Five demonstrates simplicity and elegance, two things that you often hear with regard to good designs. Simplicity can be incredibly hard.

I think I was so taken with it because we are surrounded by so much BS that’s main point seems to be to cloud rather than clarify.There may not even be intent and in some cases, it comes from using discipline specific shorthand or lingo. I think a case can be made that whatever gain there is in communication shortcuts is lost in clarity of communication. In my experience you can have a roomful of experts that are in violent agreement about a point, so much so that it is taken as a given. When you do an exercise that aims to make sure that the point has a common understanding in simple terms, you often create violent disagreement. How is that even possible?

This is a long way of getting around to where I would love to see the Up Goer Five applied: Economics. (Possibly just Macro) There maybe some other area that might be better but if so I don’t follow it. They should start handing out PhDs to anyone that can apply Up Goer Five to a concept in economics and get say 80% agreement in the profession that going forward it will be the standard explanation for that concept. Perhaps there are some concepts that this would be easy for and you’d end up with some easy PhDs but that would be an incentive to get this going right away. Economics is nothing if it isn’t about incentives. There may be some disciplines that match it (love to know which) but I don’t think there are any that exceed economics in having so much said, so many obfuscatory terms thrown around, so much name calling, and so much disagreement often on what the profession terms the most basic concepts, let alone the more advanced stuff that relies on agreement in basic concepts. This strikes me as a discipline highly in need of a reboot and I think a library of economics concepts as explained in Up Goer Five language is the place to start. Sure it will be hard but my challenge would be if you are a practitioner and can’t sit down and hammer out an acceptable Up Goer Five version of a concept, do you really understand that concept?

Full disclosure: I’m not entirely certain I could write this blog post using the Up Goer Five though I think that lack of certainty may stem from lack of patience.

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