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.
Besides offering presentation and media training courses, Alda pioneered the use of improvisation exercises - like those he learned in the theater - to help scientists read and connect with their audience, rather than slip into “lecture mode.” Stressing that they provide “training, not tips,” Alda said the multi-hour improvisation classes introduce techniques that participants have to practice and hone over time. Alda also came up with the idea of “The Flame Challenge,” an annual contest his center runs in which scientists try to explain a complicated concept to an 11-year-old. Entries come in from around the world and are judged online by thousands of 11-year-old students. The contest sprung from Alda’s own experience when, as an 11-year-old, he asked his teacher what a flame was and she said, "oxidation." He was not educated or inspired by that answer, and he created the contest to demonstrate the power and importance of clear, simple language.
(This year’s contest question is: "What is color?" The deadline is March 1 to submit entries and for teachers to sign up their students to serve as judges.)
At the workshop Alda noted that information is more likely to be remembered when it’s associated with emotion, and encouraged scientists to open themselves up more, show some emotion and share their enthusiasm for their research. “Every scientist has to have passion; the work is just too hard,” he said.
Alda’s own passion for science was evident, as was his deep reservoir of knowledge and profound respect for people, regardless of their level of scientific awareness. At one point he showed a video montage of average “people-on-the-street” baffled by basic scientific questions. The video was hilarious (if a little depressing), but Alda was not going for a cheap laugh. On the contrary, he stressed the respondents’ intelligence and decency, and argued that they demonstrate why we need more science education and public discussion in our increasingly technologically complex society. When prompted by an audience member to characterize people who “deny” science, Alda eschewed judgment in favor of tactics, urging that we search for common ground with people of different views in order to foster trust and dialogue.
In his entertaining and enlightening presentation, Alda showed himself to be a science maven, a sublime performer and a true humanitarian. I walked away thinking of him as a wise and gentle man, and feeling subtly challenged to be more of one myself.
Funny, it turns out I really do want to be Alan Alda when I grow up.
The author interviewed Alda the day after this lecture. An edited portion of the conversation will appear in the Spring 2014 edition of the Stanford Cancer Institute newsletter, SCI News, due out in early April.
Previously: What journalists look for when seeking outside comment from scientists, Alan Alda on communicating science. Yes, M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce, Challenging scientists to better communicate their ideas to the public, Want to become a better science communicator? Try explaining science to a child and A conversation about the importance of conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences
Photo by CBS Television