Actor Alan Alda teaches a new generation of researchers how to communicate with the public
By Daniel Grushkin | August 5, 2010
This is what happens when you cross doctoral work with improvisational acting: A line of fifteen PhD students face each other in an imaginary tug-of-war. "Make sure you're all holding the same rope," says linkurl:Valeri Lantz-Gefroh,;http://www.stonybrook.edu/theatrearts/faculty/full_time/lantzgefroh.html their drama coach and a theater professor at SUNY, Stony Brook. "You don't want to hold a shoelace when the person in front of you is holding a python."
Researchers play imaginary tug-of-war as part of the workshop Image: Daniel Grushkin
The line of researchers lurches back and forth across a lecture hall. "Put a little more elbow grease in there," shouts linkurl:Deborah Mayo,;http://www.stonybrook.edu/theatrearts/faculty/full_time/mayo.html Lantz-Gefroh's colleague. Finally, the young researchers collapse into laughter as one side claims victory. Among theirs is the distinctive laugh of linkurl:Alan Alda,;http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000257/ who's watching the tug-of-war from the sidelines. This strange fusion of serious science and absurd play-acting is the famous actor's brainchild. He believes that it's a first step in teaching scientists how to communicate with the public. Which may sound like a stretch -- at first.
The students are part of a daylong seminar on communicating science to non scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Prior to the imaginary tug-of-war exercise, they stood before each other and delivered short, off the cuff, introductions to their research meant for public consumption. Their talks were stilted and confused. Some swallowed their voices as they spoke. Others talked at the wall behind their audience.
Asked to describe their emotions during their presentations, one researcher complained, "It felt like I was almost insulting myself by dumbing it down." Others nodded in agreement. The doctoral students were playing out Alda's criticism of the science community. Alda believes scientists have been unable to make themselves understood by lay audiences. And as a result are failing to inform the public and policy makers.
Researchers do a mirroring exercise Image: Daniel Grushkin
"We need to talk to the public," Alda says. "This is holding back the country, and it's holding back the world from making progress on what we now know." He encountered this failure to relate ideas repeatedly when he interviewed hundreds of the world's top scientists about their discoveries for Scientific American Frontiers, a show that ran on public television from 1993-2005.
A 2009 linkurl:poll;http://people-press.org/report/528/ conducted by the Pew Research Center reflects Alda's concern. Though the public ranks scientists third after military personnel and teachers in their contribution to society, only half of Americans believe in global warming and a mere 32 percent believe in evolution. Meanwhile, scientists complain that they're not being heard. Half say that news media oversimplifies their findings, and 85 percent say the public doesn't know enough about science. The numbers show a clear gap between the esteem that scientists hold in the public and the knowledge they're able to transmit.
For Alda the problem starts at the most basic level of communication. "The affect, facial expression body language -- these are things that you wouldn't think are part of a scientific presentation," he says. "Emotion is so important. In scientific communication emotion is probably trained out of us, but there's no reason why it can't be included. Science is a great detective story, especially when you're talking to the public. You want them to get involved in this interesting, emotional tangle."
Last year, in an effort to start addressing the issue, Alda helped form linkurl:The Center for Communicating Science;http://www.stonybrook.edu/journalism/science/ at Stony Brook University. One of major thrusts of the center is to teach scientists to connect with their audiences by applying the training that made Alda a star on M*A*S*H and winner of five Emmy Awards. Alda began his career in church basements performing the then-cutting-edge improvisational techniques of linkurl:Viola Spolin.;http://www.spolin.com/violabio.html Last summer he began training drama coaches to adapt the techniques for scientists.
Throughout the three-hour session, the doctoral students perform improv exercises like tossing an imaginary ball and adlibbing skits. Alda believes that after six months of classes like these, scientists will automatically become more natural and effective speakers. The idea is to get them to be less self-conscious and more animated with their body language.
At the session's conclusion the students re-explain their research. This time they pretend to have an imaginary audience -- for example, one explains his science to a make-believe child, another stands before an invisible congressional committee. The rest of the group guesses the identity of the audience, and gets it right every time. It's a remarkable transformation.
"When we give a speech we think of ourselves as being the only ones speaking, so everything is on us. But communication goes two ways. It's so important to be able to land what it is you're saying on someone across the room," Lantz-Gefroh says. "You're communicating back even though you aren't talking. It's about the whole exchange."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Lenin's Embalmers;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57216/ [12th March 2010]*linkurl:Meet your Lizardbrain;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/56264/ [8th January 2010]*linkurl:Edutainment;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55958/ [2nd September 2009]
I have been teaching/translating science to the general public and students of science for over 35 years. Alan Alda can act very well, but he doesn't know beans about science. I have used his televised "science" bits as examples of a well meaning man making a mockery of serious science. Sorry about that, but that's they way it is.
Richard Clinnick,\n\nThis project of Mr Alda's is an excellent idea. Many scientists are tongue tied and nearly all of us have had the "interesting" trained out of us with respect to talking about our work. \n\nLay people are just people like you and I - assuming you're a science professional. We owe it to non-scientists to be clear, relevant, accountable and worth listening too on our research. The tax payer covers most of my salary.\n\nOpen your mind a crack. You might find you learn something new.\n\nTom Therramus
The public opinions of Global Warming and Evolution are cited as examples of science poorly communicated. Could the problem be that the public hears lots about these topics from people who are not practicing scientists. In the case of global warming, the presentation of science has been co-opted by political activists (Al Gore) who want to emphasize human activities as a contributor to observed temperature increases and push their public policy agenda. The case of evolution is marginally better as the most vocal advocates, for example Richard Dawkins, have a science background. However, I see most of these science advocates tell the public to believe our conclusion because we are scientists. This appeal to authority in our presentations as opposed to simply communicating the evidence and logical leading to our conclusions will only undermine societies faith in scientists as honest brokers of knowledge. Lastly, the public recognition that science contributes to society is based on the advances made by experimental science (physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, etc.) as opposed to the more modest contributions of the historical sciences (geology, aspects of evolution, aspects of global warming). I believe that the public appreciates new medicines, communication technologies, etc. more than a scientists view of the origin of life or how today's temperatures compare to those 200 years ago.
Alan Alda's a fine actor and director and has done a considerable amount to bring science to the world at large. However, if we need to raise the awareness of scientific process and thought and if we'd like to draw more people into the sciences, do what most other attractive professions do - raise scientist salaries. The bait-and-switch approach of high grad student and postdoc stipends preceding the poor salaries of university research profs is not lost on young minds. the professions of physicians, engineers, lawyers etc are not attractive to bright youngsters because they pay their trainees well, but because of what the professionals are paid. Ditto about the public viewing scientists and the science they preach as just a doddering bunch of dreamers.
Alda conveys a sense of interest and excitement about science that comes from one who appears to love the subject, hence amateur. We need to generate a better understanding among the general public, so that our profession is not viewed as those strange people in white lab coats. There is nothing wrong with presenting material with enthusiasm. I'm sure most of us can still identify the profs that lit the fire that drove us to science as a career.
Not all people are good at public speaking. It is a skill that can be learned but dramatic training isn't the answer. Giving more seminars might be. In my department the grad students don't even give them yearly.\nI think a good science tv show would help educate the general public. I am from Canada and grew up watching David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things." \nScience needs to be simplified to be explained to the lay person, ie your mother or colleague from a different department. The amount of simplification depends on the audience. The only failure of scientists might be that we don't have an 'elevator speach' for every lay person we come in contact with who wants to know what we do.
Most scientific presentations are dry and boring to non-scientist. The scientist can relate better to an audience if they told them a story instead of boring them with details. For example, telling a ghost story around a campfire loaded with scientific hypothesis and data would unequivocally go over much like the proverbial 'lead balloon'.\n\nThe presenter should capture the audience attention like a good detective story of 'who done it and why'.\n\nRon Fong
Unless you are communicating to other scientist, most people are not interested in how the science was done but what does it mean. Always start with the meaning of your science, your audience will let you know how far you can go into the details, you have to pay attention to their feedback. You do not need acting experience to follow this simple rule, just common sense and practice.
Educating the public is a bigger challenge than learning acting skills. \n\nIf the climate change debate has taught me anything, it's that the public in general chooses their politics first, and then lets that choice dictate their beliefs. \n\nIf someone says they *know* global warming is a hoax, I can predict their political affiliation with 99% accuracy. Careful weighing of evidence will never occur when people select only the facts that support their preferred ideology. \n\nChoose your fight: climate change, vaccinations, energy policy, evolution, environmental regulation; it all comes down to politics. \n
Actor John Cleese has two delightful free podcasts - The brain explained and The scientist at work - that exaggerate the way he, and many followers, see scientists.\nBut my favourite is the Jeff Vintar penned dialogue between Will Smith (detective Spooner) and Bridget Moynahan (Dr Susan Calvin) in the movie iRobot when the scientist responds to the detective's question: "So Doctor Calvin, what exactly do you do around here?" The doctor answers with a 27 word-long jargon-loaded sentence that stops the detective in his tracks. He has to repeat the question again "So, what exactly do you do around here?", to which she answers "I make the robots seem more human." \nThat is the "elevator speech" all of us should have ready when asked the same question.
Theater, as well other arts, is a multi-dimensional way of constructing knowledge and pedagogical relationships. Science and art are part of the same process of knowledge, they should never had been separated. In this sense we are minds separated from our bodies, which makes a incoherent, sole-discursive, too theoretical knowledge, making a world of virtuous geniuses over misery and exploitation of the most.\nTheater and poetry can help us to reencounter our bodies with our minds. Our matter with our dreams.\nPlease refer to our experience regarding theater and science, an adaptation to street theater in Rio de Janeiro of 'Life of Galileo' by Bertolt Brecht: The Earth is not the Center of the Universe (http://www.archive.org/download/TheEarthIsNotTheCenterOfTheUniverse/libretto_English_8_07_10.pdf)\n\nWe need it more. Bravo and merde alors!\n\nThe TupiNagô Lab for Art and Science (tupinago.blogspot.com), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
I can totally appreciate Alan Alda's efforts to get scientists to communicate better.\n\nBut what about the scientists themselves? Why can't a scientist be at the helm of this effort? With Mr. Alda, once again we have a person whose perspective of science is from the entertainment industry. I'm sure in all his projects he strives to keep the education content in there, but undoubtedly there are always nuances left out because only a degreed scientist would be aware of them.
Although I am not a scientist, the use of acting ( "to feign or counterfeit") to explain science is a slippery slope that should not be encouraged. Are we all just simply waiting for verification of the Higgs Boson to save the day?
I do not think it is the responsibility of a scientist to communicate his work in a fashion that the general audience will easily understand and be delighted. As a scientist I made the experience a couple of time and each time I have been extremely disappointed. The problem reside in the fact that scientific concepts are often difficult to understand and require some intellectual effort from the auditory in order to grab the importance and the beauty of what the scientist has to present or propose. Unfortunately most people are not willing to do so and I bet that Mr. Alda is one of those.
Students are scientists in training. Let them pen science blogs and learn to communicate with the public and their students peers through a practical approach. That's one way to master teaching stills needed later on in an academic setting.\n\nAt least half of the difficulty in communicating science is print media and their woefully science-illiterate writers. They parrot what they are told by university, government and private research institutional PR/media representatives - who are also largely science-ignorant.\n\nThe other half is science-illiterate K-12 teachers, who were given watered-down science and math courses in their education degree curricula. It's well known that the Education degree is by far the easiest to master at the undergrad level. That feeds forward into generations of American public who are unable to apply critical thinking and reasoning skills to understand science advances and their application.\n\nMaybe Mr Alda is preaching to the wrong crowd. It is not the job of scientists and engineers to learn 'how to play scientist'. That's the job of the PR and media writers and public school educators.\n\nEducate them how to training the public to 'think like a scientist', please.
Dear god. Most scientists have the emotion beaten and tortured out of them by the time they finish a doctorate. The infighting, backstabbing, lying are bad. Finding out that a significant number of scientists are simply professional intellectual thieves is bad. Being victimized is bad. \n\nNo, the emotion isn't just trained out of us. We are gutted. Our hearts and guts have been dissected and removed.
I can't agree more with this approach, teaching scientists to be more effective communicators. I learned very early on in my academic career that it was extremely important to pitch a lecture at the appropriate level, too low was boring, too high the audience did not understand and rather than thinking I was brilliant and knowledgeable, they thought I was an idiot and didn't know what I was talking about. It's not a matter of talking down to people, it's finding their intellectual comfort zone and teaching what you have learned in a clear and understandable way.