Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. Or The Rage Confounder.

Thing Explainer Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Read July  2016
Recommended for people who dislike language, writing and communication

We all have one, that person we’d prefer to get along with, but every time they open their mouth, so much stupid erupts that low-level irritation shifts into rage.

That about sums up my experience with Thing Explainer.

Every time I picked it up intending to read a few ‘cartoons explaining concepts like helicopters, the cell, elevators or the auto engine, I’d end up either generally annoyed or quite specifically angry. Thing Explainer fails on so many levels for me, it was shocking. I went into it hoping for the grown-up version of The Charlie Brown Question and Answer Book, and instead found cartoon explanations of things I still don’t understand, such as how all the parts of a car work together. I understand that it was supposed to be funny, but I was hoping for informative as well.

It wasn’t.

Language is meant to communicate ideas. Generally, more complex ideas require more specific words to convey meaning. Remember when you last talked to a two or three year-old and everything with four legs was ‘dog,’ everything that flew was a ‘bird’ and every time someone cried they must be ‘sad?’ When we are just beginning to understand words represent things and concepts, simple language suffices, but as we grow in age and sophistication, we learn words can be more specific in representing object and idea. The more we grow in experiences and want to convey information with accuracy, the more we need that vocabulary.

But specificity does not have to be incomprehensible. For instance, in explaining what leukemia was to someone who was just diagnosed with it, I first had to teach about red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. I taught these common terms, so that we all understood what it would mean when the nurse says, “your red blood cells are low and you need a transfusion.” To explain, I didn’t have to use vocabulary like ‘erythrocytes,’ ‘leukeocytes’ and ‘thrombocytes;’ simple descriptions such as “white blood cells fight off infection” and analogies like “soldiers fighting against an enemy invader” explain without being incomprehensible. But the terms ‘cells,’ ‘transfusion,’ ‘infection,’ ‘red,’ and ‘white’ are non-negotiable in learning the concepts related to blood. You have to understand them to understand communication about body processes.

I tested The Thing Explainer on something I know: Cells. Our body’s cells are reduced to “Bags of Water.” Inside the bags of water are other bags such as the ‘bag filler,’ the ‘bags of death water,’ ‘bag shapers,’ ‘little builders,’ and ’empty pockets.’

I found myself mentally trying to translate his terms into appropriate terminology: nuclei, mitochondria, lysosomes and Golgi apparatus, except I ended up irritated because endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes sound alike with his description and I couldn’t remember what Golgi bodies do. How is this even helpful? How does this help anyone understand the cell? DNA? Cancer? Genetics? It doesn’t.

I tested it on something I didn’t know: the automobile engine. “The Fire box computer watches how the fire box is working, and decides how much fire water to add to the air it sends in.” Did this help? No. As he used the same words to explain its as to describe it, it’s a useless explanation, like describing a circle as a ’round shape.’

There were occasional exceptions. The periodic table of elements was mildly amusing with descriptions like “green burning air that kills,” “air in bright signs made from colored light,” “the rock that makes up beaches, glass and computer brains,”  and at the end, “stuff that lasts for the time it takes you to close and open your eyes.” However, for it to be funny, you have to know the table and elements off the top of your head. So, not so much for almost everyone.

It took me a lot of reflection to pinpoint the source of my rage: while Munroe disingenuously suggests that he is explaining ‘complicated concepts in simple words,’ he does so in such a way that the reader needs to understand the concept well to interpret his illustrations. This approach simultaneously insults the person who doesn’t understand using the illusion of ‘common words,’ while creating an in-joke for people knowledgeable about those concepts.

The other reason it made me angry is my impression that like many people, Munroe is confusing ‘complex’ with ‘incomprehensible’ or ‘pretentious.’ He gives it away in the forward (“Page Before the Book Starts”) when he says “I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn’t know the big ones.” A truly gifted person would be able to communicate with clarity instead of relying on circuitous explanations and false construction of word limits (he includes his personal emails in his source for the “1000 most common words”). Instead of actually communicating, what he did is replacement code sophisticated concepts into simple words, so to understand his comic, one mentally replaces “fire box” with ‘engine.’ Really, the opposite of explaining things: he would have done just as well to use symbols (which is what he ends up doing for the evolutionary tree). Except it is supposed to be funny when the reader knows the replacement code.

I’m not laughing.






About thebookgator

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2 Responses to Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. Or The Rage Confounder.

  1. neotiamat says:

    I forget who coined the phrase, but I think it applies very well to Munroe. “A stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

    This kind of attitude is endemic in academia, rather to the detriment of everyone involved. It’s a gatekeeping mechanism. The point isn’t to educate, but rather to establish authority by means of secret speech and knowledge — using language to divide rather than to bring together.

    • thebookgator says:

      Nicely put. I wanted to work that concept in further, but thought I had gone on quite long enough already. There is academic vocabulary gate-keeping for certain and one of the fascinating things about the book Bad Feminist is that the author (an academic) absolutely avoids it and writes in conversational speech. It was disconcerting to read, and yet I get it; it is about accessibility. There is perhaps a finesse of thought that is lost, but sometimes it is worth it.
      This is pure–and perhaps petty–speculation, but I think Munroe conflates vocabulary with intelligence. Even more petty, I suspect he might be one of those people that never liked language arts.

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