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Alan Alda’s Quest to Put Story to Science


Science scares people. All too often, I am confronted by the perception of science as an institution of white-haired professors mixing colorful concoctions in underground laboratories. (Because, let’s be honest, most of the things chemists mix don’t have interesting colors). In the lab, the science is only as good as the data. On the street, however, it’s only as good as the story it tells.

Alan Alda, an actor and director known widely for his role in the hit TV series M*A*S*H has redefined himself in the past two decades as a crusader for science communication. Between 1993 and 2005, he hosted Scientific American Frontiers, a PBS series that delved into leading edge research and breakthroughs in science, medicine, and engineering. Now is he a visiting professor at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism where the Center for Communicating Science was renamed in his honor.

Alda speaks at the "Stars of Stony Brook" gala in 2013 where he was honored for his central role in creating and growing The Center for Communicating Science. / Credit: Sam Levitan

In February, I had the opportunity to see Alda give a talk at the AAAS annual conference in Chicago. His premise was simple but powerful. Once in a while, you find yourself on a blind date with science, pulled in through media, personal interactions and daily experiences. Perhaps your attention has been momentarily captured by a headline detailing NASA’s latest endeavor. Perhaps you’ve been lured into a stimulating conversation about the future of energy. Perhaps, while cursing the layers of salt residue on the sidewalk, you wonder how exactly it melts ice in the first place. And so the blind date unfolds, tentatively at first. Sitting across the table, the first impression is formed before the conversation even begins. We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in the world of communication, the first impression is everything. How often have you sat through a talk or conversation knowing on some level that the content is interesting, while feeling no connection at all? The magnet, the attractor, the ‘hook’ entraps the unsuspecting audience before any conscious response.

During his talk, Alda said that one experience from his years hosting Frontiers left a particularly strong impression on him. He recalled an unscripted interview with a young scientist whom we will lovingly christen Dr. Jekyll. Alda described a warm, personal, interactive exchange between himself and Dr. Jekyll, with research expertly weaved into a fabric of accessible explanations and real-world impacts. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde, PhD. Having made a mental connection to a lecture given some time earlier, Dr. Jekyll lapsed into a scripted monotone directed exclusively at the camera. Alda’s attempts to pull the interview back to its previous interactive state were short-lived, and Mr. Hyde triumphantly narrated a PhD thesis from start to finish.

Alda teaches improv to students at Stony Brook in order to help them talk about their work more spontaneously and directly, to pay dynamic attention to their listeners and to connect personally with their audience. / Credit: Wasim Ahmad

All too often, there is a disconnect between science and communication. And why wouldn’t there be? Papers are published in peer-reviewed journals, inaccessible both in terms of language and cost. The bigger picture lies hidden beneath tables, graphs and paragraphs upon paragraphs of dense, technical jargon. On the front lines, TV shows like MythBusters and Daily Planet bring science to a wider audience, but they do not replace the need for researchers to communicate their own work. Without this, science exists as a dichotomy, largely divided between the ‘scientists’ and the ‘communicators’.

Like the medic he portrayed on M*A*S*H, Alda came prepared with his diagnosis: the curse of knowledge. From first glance, the phrase seems to contradict itself. How can knowledge ever be a bad thing? Fundamentally, it’s not the knowledge itself that’s the curse—it’s understanding something in enough complexity so as to forget what it was like to know it at any other level. A rocket scientist is more than qualified to explain space flight to kindergarten class, but there’s a reason why that job is left to the teacher. Coupled with the often rigid and impersonal processes of scientific inquiry, the result is a communication gap between the scientific institution and the general public.

Courtesy of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

So how do we make science exciting? So exciting, in fact, that even 11-year olds can’t tear themselves away? Again, Alda has the answer. Three years ago, he created the Flame Challenge, a contest where 11-year-olds judge scientists’ answers to complex questions. The first year, Alda posed the question, “What is a flame?” (see the winning entry). He had presented this same question years ago to his teacher, who had replied: “It’s oxidation.” He was less than satisfied with the response, describing it as equivalent to replacing one name with another. The teacher could just as well have called the flame ‘Fred’ and left it at that. Last year’s question – what is time? – was judged by over 20,000 students from around the world. The consensus? “It’s good to be funny, but you don’t have to be silly. We’re 11, not 7.” Judging is currently underway on this year’s topic: “What is color?”

Without a story science has little power to engage hearts and minds. To illustrate this, Alda performed a simple demonstration during his talk in Chicago. He asked for a volunteer, gave her an empty glass and told her to cross the stage and place it on the table. This she did, a little perplexed but with no questions asked. He then handed her a second glass, this one full to the point of overflowing. He asked her to repeat the task, and told her that if she spilled a drop, her village would be destroyed. The audience laughed in response and she began her trek across the stage. The auditorium was hushed and alert. Halfway through, the glass tipped slightly and the audience gasped. Finally, the task was complete and the glass, minus a few unlucky water molecules, rested on the table. The achievement itself, said Alda, was inconsequential. The key lies in the story. The first glass is insignificant. The second is a matter of life or death. The suspense and tension Alda had created with a few simple words fundamentally changed the audience’s perception, experience and memory of the event.

Science is blessed with a wealth of knowledge that is constantly growing and evolving in response to emerging issues, questions and realities. Yet the process of scientific inquiry ends not with publication but with communication. In Alda’s mind the answer is clear – the greatest achievement is not in the discovery alone but in its sharing. Where research lights a torch, it must be passed from one pair of hands to another. In so doing, science can build and maintain a strong relationship with its audience, fuelling the excitement of the public and engaging the next generation of inquisitive minds.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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