on January 27th, 2014 No Comments
As a teenager, I wanted to grow up to be Alan Alda. Actually, I wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce, the wise-cracking Army surgeon Alda played on the iconic television series M *A *S * H. I loved M*A*S*H, and Hawkeye was The Man. He was the funniest character, the best surgeon, and the biggest partier and, whenever the show got serious, he displayed the most passion for people and justice. (And since I was a gangly kid with red hair and acne, it probably didn’t hurt that Hawkeye got all the women, too.)
This came back to me when I attended Alda’s recent lecture on the importance of science communication held at Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. The talk was part of a two-day workshop conducted by the staff of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to teach Stanford scientists how to more effectively speak and write about their work.
I couldn’t help but smile when he ambled out to greet the capacity crowd. It’s Hawkeye! He was a few decades older (aren’t we all) and had swapped olive drab fatigues for a natty gray suit, but his voice and smile were the same, as was his distinctive, infectious laugh.
For more than an hour Alda used personal anecdotes, video clips, audience participation and a lot of humor to argue that too many scientists are holding themselves back – as well as science itself – due to their inability to explain their work in clear, understandable language. Whether speaking to policy makers, the public through the media, potential funders, or even scientists from other disciplines, the meaningful exchange of ideas and information is too often lost in incomprehensible detail and specialized jargon. (Alda got a big laugh with a story of a multidisciplinary collaboration that dissolved due to an argument over the correct meaning of a “probe.”)
The consequences are serious, though, with government research budgets under constant pressure and large portions of the population blithely disregarding scientific consensus on issues like climate change and evolution. Alda challenged the scientific community to do a better job educating policy makers and the public, and his center provides some unique tools to do so.