Alan Alda is a director, writer, and widely-acclaimed actor. But to those in academia, he is also a Visiting Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, an advisory board member for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and long-time advocate of scientific communication (1).
Over the course of his acting career, Mr. Alda has won various accolades, including six Emmy and six Golden Globe Awards for his portrayals in the hit series M*A*S*H and The West Wing (2). His occasional role as director and writer when on the set of M*A*S*H also won him three Directors Guild of America awards, establishing his excellence as actor, writer, and director (2).
Despite his incredible success in M*A*S*H and The West Wing, Mr. Alda would go on to assert that “best thing [he] ever did in front of a camera” was in fact his hosting of PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers – because beyond his career in television and film, Mr. Alda is also driven by his lifelong interest in science (1). His involvement in Scientific American Frontiers provided him the unique opportunity to interview hundreds of scientists. From these interviews, Mr. Alda soon discovered that scientists are often unsuccessful in conveying their research to the public.
In order to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public, Mr. Alda played a key role in the creation of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has led workshops to help scientists communicate science in a more effective manner (1). Because of his contributions to science, the Montgomery Fellows Program at Dartmouth invited him to campus. In an interview with the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, Mr. Alda reflects on his experiences in promoting science communication and shares his thoughts on the impact of presenting scientific research as stories.
Can you talk a little bit about your work with Scientific American Frontiers and how you got into it?
Well, they just wrote me out of the blue and asked me if I’d be interested in hosting. I thought that they probably meant would I do an on-camera introduction to the show and read the narration, which didn’t interest me, because I wanted to talk to the scientists and learn from them, find out what their work was about. So I said I’m interested in doing it if I can talk to the scientists on camera, because then I knew that I could spend the whole day with them. So they took a chance on that because they knew that I wasn’t a professional interviewer. That actually was what worked for the show. Because I was just a curious layperson, and I didn’t give up until I understood what they were saying.
Why were you so curious about science to begin with? I understand that you read Scientific American from fairly early on.
Well, I’ve always been very curious. Once I started reading about science, it got obsessive, and I was more and more curious about what more there was to know. But it’s very disorganized, my understanding of science, because I never studied it. It’s just always an amazing, beautiful thing to read about. It’s just like a hobby. But now, that interest has grown to something where I see I can be helpful to scientists in helping them communicate better.
In your lecture yesterday, you showed the video of the people in Long Island trying to answer questions about science. I was wondering if you had any ideas about how it might be best to communicate to people who probably aren’t going to science lectures. How can we get them more informed about science?
One of the reasons I want to help scientists better communicate in their own voices is so they can go out to the public, so they can go on television, and so they can write pieces for magazines and newspapers – and speak in a language that people can understand. The more that science makes its way into the public consciousness, the more people will see it as part of our culture. It’s not an alien thing. They really are on a blind date with it, and it’s something that they don’t know much about. They don’t know if they can trust it. So we need to warm up that relationship and get people connected.
Why did you choose to collaborate with Stony Brook University?
I went around the country trying to interest the presidents of universities in starting a program for science education to include communication education. Stony Brook was the only one that was interested of the ones that I talked to – I didn’t talk to many. Once we started to do the work there, we showed that it was helping scientists and that the time was well-spent. And we’ve seen a lot of other institutions getting interested in it. What we’re now trying to promote is communication courses for credit, workshops where graduate students, post-docs, and even faculty members can work out to develop and improve their skills. No matter how good you are, you can always improve. I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve improved what I’ve been doing a great deal.
Are you teaching at their journalism school right now?
Yes, I’m called a visiting professor, but I don’t have regular classes. Sort of a drive-by teacher. But I mainly do a lot of work like this visit to Dartmouth, where I do workshops, where I try to help spread the word. Mainly to demonstrate what it is that we’re trying to do. Partly because I can’t just describe how it works. It’s one of those things that just has to be experienced. I’ve had a wonderful visit to Dartmouth. It’s been very effective.
What makes improving communication especially important in science? Why not do it for politics or law?
Yes, that would be a good idea. Everyone needs to communicate better. [Laughing] But I can only do two thousand things at once.
Especially with legal jargon.
In fact, there are websites that help you clean up your legal jargon. There are programs where people are encouraged to do that. I think we’ll start with science, which is quite enough. Math is hard too. People just hold their heads when it comes to math. Math is very hard because none of it is in words. Almost none. At least a lot of science is in words. Although many of them are not common words.
Do you think there’s potential for the center at Stony Brook to eventually grow to fields beyond just science?
No, no plan at the moment. We’re very busy just trying to spread the word on science. Because our hope is to have affiliations and partnerships with universities all across the country that have programs like ours where we can show them what we’ve learned, and they can show us what they’ve learned. And we can spread that new knowledge about how to teach communication all over the country so that it can cross-pollinate itself. And I guess you know that we’re going to be partnering with Dartmouth. We already had a meeting a couple of hours ago where we started to work out how we’ll communicate with one another and how we’ll set up our partnership. And I can’t tell you how exciting this is for me. I mean, this is a magnificent institution, and we’ll be trading really high-class ideas. I’m really looking forward to it. When you do a workshop, it’s a lot like a lab. You develop ideas that you didn’t know existed before – ideas to develop these new techniques and pass them on to others, to excite other universities’ imaginations, and then to develop even newer, more effective techniques. We’ll gather a lot more, we’re really excited.
Someone mentioned during the lecture that with global warming, sometimes scientists only convey the why they believe it; he said that what makes it hard to start a serious debate about global warming is that not everyone can understand the how that scientist came to that result.
That’s a good observation. The problem is you start getting into detail about your data and how you collect your data and analyze it. You got to find a way to distill that into chunks that they can follow, and that’s an interesting problem. And without destroying the accuracy of it, you have to be accurate about what you say but make it comprehensible to people who haven’t studied it. They’re not ready for the raw data.
How you know is a very interesting thing. For instance – this is more important – if you think about how data is collected for global warming, there are some very interesting stories about that. People braving bad weather, people flying over glaciers. There are interesting stories about how they do that. I covered some of those stories for Scientific American Frontiers, and if you can think of ways to deal with the “how they know” as a story, you can find a way to make it accurate and interesting at the same time. That’s the case for almost any science. Usually the facts aren’t as interesting as the stories behind them if a person’s hearing it for the first time without any training.
Do you think another potential issue then is that there can be information overload, that if we start creating interesting stories around every single person’s perspective on global warming, people will be so overwhelmed by stories and information that it becomes hard to understand?
That could be, but so far we have very few stories. It’d be nice to hear some stories. You don’t make something untrue by telling it as a story. It doesn’t become fiction. You find the interesting, true elements that make it a story, and you tell it in that sequence. You’re telling the truth, but you’re telling it in a way that people find interesting and exciting. A story always has a hero who’s trying to accomplish something against obstacles and either succeeds or fails. The hero gets a payoff, either a payoff of success or a payoff of tragic failure. And that’s a story. That’s the outline of every experiment. It’s the outline of every discovery; any scientist’s life tends to follow that path. If you pick out those elements, you can find yourself telling the story easily.
Do you think there’s a risk of sensationalizing science information and people getting wrong information just because the media is trying to make it more interesting?
Of course that’s a danger. And that’s one reason why it’s valuable for scientists to be such good communicators that they make sure that they tell their stories accurately, and make sure they’re not misunderstood by people trying to pass on their work to a public that doesn’t have their training. But there are a lot of really good science writers that don’t do that. They’re trained to tell the real story about the science. Sometimes, though, it’s done in quick bites in evening news or they misinterpret it. But the more scientists can communicate in their own voice, the less sensationalism there is.
What exactly is the nature of the partnership between Dartmouth and your center at Stony Brook?
We’re going to trade information. We can help with their own program and help them become a part of a larger network.
What other institutions are a part of that network?
The American Chemical Society is already affiliated, the University of Cincinnati, and two or three others that are probably going to, but I shouldn’t talk about them until it’s official.
How did the partnership come about, then? Why Dartmouth?
As far as I know, from the work we’ve done here, people have come to our summer institute where we invite people from many universities. And the idea is for them to get a taste of our institute through three or four days and then decide if they want to go back to their university and start up a similar program. I think that’s the beginning of the relationship. There may have even been interest before that.
Haven’t you been to Dartmouth before for Brains on Trail?
Brains on Trial, and before that, Scientific American Frontiers. Maybe 20 years ago with Mike Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist.
You were up here before for an episode of Scientific American Frontiers?
Yes, I was interviewing a brain scientist called Michael Gazzaniga for a show called Brains on Trial. It showed for a couple of weeks on public television and it’s on the web now.
There are many people on the news that are very resistant to science for religious reasons, such as people that don’t believe in evolution. Do you think that more effective communication with science would help to bridge that gap a bit? Or do you think that the resistance is stemming from something other than lack of understanding?
My guess is that good communication would help; the ability to communicate flexibly, not only in one way, would be helpful in getting around points of resistance that now seem insurmountable. And that’s what this training does. It makes you very flexible and able to speak about your science in many different ways and get it to still be the same science. It’s very helpful because it helps you be able to talk to many different audiences.
1. Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Alan Alda. Available at
http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/alan-alda-2/ (29 October 2013).
2. Alan Alda’s Bio (2013). Available at http://www.alanalda.com/alan_alda_actor_bio.htm (29 October 2013).