Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science

Alan Alda posterActor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it). But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public. Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better. Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another. To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.” I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience. She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. After years of hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS (1993 to 2005), Alda has gathered a number of tips on communicating science. Using a conversational tone is one, of course. Story telling is another, he told the crowd in Indianapolis. But not just telling any story. Alda contends that the way to effectively tell science stories is to include drama. Alan Alda brochureTo illustrate this point, he asked for another volunteer. This woman was instructed to carry an empty water glass across the room. Then Alda filled the glass to the brim and asked her to repeat the journey without spilling a drop. “Now which one of those was more engaging?” he quipped after the audience had waited breathlessly for the woman to gingerly cross the room. All scientific discoveries have an element of drama to them, Alda contended. Scientists need to find it (not necessarily overexaggerate or embellish it) and then tell their stories to the public, he added. This got me thinking: Why become a scientist at all if you aren’t going to make an effort to communicate your findings? A quote on the front of a brochure handed out at Alda’s presentation quoted him thusly: “Communication is not something you add on to science; it is of the essence of science.” Granted, not all scientists can write well or speak in public well. But they can pass their results on to others who can (colleagues and science journalists). This is imperative to scientific and societal progress. Still, some scientists don’t seem to want the aggravation. They just want to get back to the lab bench. I tweeted the quote on that brochure during Alda’s talk. For the most part, it was well-received. But I got one response that surprised me: What caught me was the word “manipulate.” Perhaps including the drama of discovery to your science story is a form of manipulation. Maybe starting it with a narrative to help readers connect with the human element is too. I would reserve "manipulate," though, for bad science journalism or bad science communication where aspects are overhyped or information is just plain wrong. We need tools like storytelling to help the public connect with science. As Alda said, to evoke an emotion in your audience is not only a way to get them to remember your message but it’s also a way to help the audience “get” your message. It’s a way to move past that blind date, toward a second date and maybe even commitment. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts.   Other reading on Alan Alda and science: C&EN Talks With ... Alan Alda Alan Alda Wants YOU ... To Describe A Flame

Author: Lauren Wolf

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  1. Step one–step out of the beaker.~,:^)

    The main thing scientists, who for the most part are interested in communicating, need to do is to understand that if the work they are doing is practical and useful, it can be explained in simple terms without the bells and whistles of “adding drama” or the “human element.” Also, scientists need to realize that journalists, lawmakers, …people, work on deadlines. The researcher’s aversion to speaking before all the data are in is a communication killer. I have an Insights article next week addressing another problem–the popular intellectual standoff between science and religion/creationism and evolution/gobbledygook and reason, which, because of its sheer childishness, has drawn science communication into the irreconcilable standoff in contemporary political dialog. Of course, I hold Richard Dawkins up as an extreme impediment to science communication in this regard–talk about manipulation! I enjoyed reading this, Lauren, and I appreciate what Alda is up to.

  2. Hi Rick, thanks for the thoughts. I definitely agree that, fundamentally, the first thing scientists need to work on is using simple terms. Alda mentioned that while he was filming Scientific American Frontiers, he noticed that when he was in conversation with some scientists, they did much better than when they turned and faced the camera. It was then, he said, that they went into “lecture mode” and started using jargon.
    Looking forward to your Insights!

  3. The problem is, I think, that many scientists who are willing to speak plainly are also very concerned with what other scientists will think of how they express themselves in a public forum. They don’t want to be perceived as “dumbing science down.” They fear being ostracized or peer-reviewed or something, and stick to their comfort zone, which is “lecture mode.” I think the culture has to change to support more direct communication. Everyone has to work up the courage to let go of the side of the pool.