On a cold Chicago night in February, 2014, I watched the actor/director/writer Alan Alda deliver the plenary address the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
His subject was the state of science communication.
Mr. Alda, who, for eleven years hosted the Scientific American Frontiers show on PBS, gently noted that scientists—on the whole—were not very good at explaining their work to the rest of the world.
As the program’s interviewer, he’d seen how they’d frequently transformed the simple into the needlessly complicated, how they often spoke in jargon and how, in the quest to put a “serious” veneer on their work, they could make exciting discoveries seem incomprehensible.
At the end of the day, this type of fuzzy communication threatened the entire scientific enterprise because it alienated potential supporters, Mr. Alda believed.
Science, he reminded the audience, was a mostly publically funded endeavor and legislators have “difficulty…giving money to something they don’t understand.”
That evening, Alda electrified the crowd. His prescription of communicating “in plain words that are entirely accurate,” won a hooting, hollering, foot-stomping ovation.
The mood, however, was quite different the next morning.
As I covered the various panels and presentations that are the heart of any AAAS Annual Meeting, plain words were rarely heard.
I saw speakers deploying language so dense that only others in their discipline were likely to understand them. At some events, presenters read from PowerPoints, or from their papers. Often, the presenters talked at each other rather than to each other. Sometimes, they didn’t speak on topic, at all.
It was depressing—especially when one realized that the very researchers mumbling jargon had recently been cheering Mr. Alda’s call for clarity. Maybe it was easier to stay with the familiar, even when you know it’s not effective? In the taxi to O’Hare, I remember thinking it would take a cataclysm for this to change.
Well, here we are in the Spring of 2017. The cataclysm has arrived.
Today we have a President who believes that vaccines might cause autism and that climate change is a hoax designed to make American business uncompetitive. His proposed 2018 budget will slash funding for the National Institutes for Health by almost 20 percent, the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. Devastating cuts are projected for the Energy Department, NOAA and NASA.
So now, even more than three years ago, the research community has urgent reasons for convincing their fellow citizens of the value of their work. If science professionals--many of whom were able to go their entire work lives without such engagement—fail to persuade, their jobs could vanish.
With all this in mind, Neil Shubin and, Alan Alda will be joining me on stage at the 92nd Street Y on April 9th, to discuss, “How Science Can Save Us/How We Can Save Science.”
Our speakers are certainly doing their part.
Professor Shubin is the University of Chicago paleontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fossilized fish with limbs—the ancestor of all land animals. Shubin holds the title of Robert Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, but he’s not afraid of going popular.
His book about the search for Tiktaalik, “Your Inner Fish,” was a 2008 best-seller. Three years ago, Tangle Bank Studios, produced a three part PBS documentary based on the book.
These days, Shubin is responding to the communication emergency by traveling to red states, where he gives talks on evolution at high schools and community colleges.
Now, Alan Alda isn’t a scientist, though—as the joke goes, he’s certainly, “played one on television.” (“M.A.S.H.)
Since he was a teen-ager doing summer stock, Alda—now 80, has been a communicator. That’s what actors do: tell stories.
Some years ago, it struck him that the techniques of improvisational theatre, could help scientists with their communication problem.
The result of that insight was the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University where the faculty fuses journalism, theatre, hard science and social science into a program of study.
Among things: they teach scientists how to become better listeners, more empathetic story-tellers and, at the end of the day, effective communicators.
Part 2 of this conversation will continue at the 92 Street Y on April 13th when I talk with Rebecca Skloot about how she turned a little known bioethics story into a best-seller and a movie, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
We’ll be live-streaming both events over the internet. There’ll be no jargon spoken. That’s a promise.