Alan Alda on Communicating Science

Our guest on this episode of the ECS Podcast is Alan Alda. You might know him from the 1970s and 80s because of the TV show MASH or in the last few years from appearing on The Blacklist, The Big C, or as Uncle Pete on the show Horace and Pete.

He hosted the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers for 13 years. Alda is a film and TV director, screenwriter, and author; as well as a six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner.

He is also the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, the goal of which is to help scientists learn to communicate more effectively with the public. His latest book is: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

Alan Alda talked to Rob Gerth, ECS’s director of marketing and communications.

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Below is an excerpt from the conversation:

Rob Gerth: Many people know you from your film and television career. You’re an actor, writer, and director; but you’ve been into science for over 20 years. What peaked your interest in the sciences?

Alan Alda: When I was a boy I was interested in the sciences. I remember as a kid always trying to figure out why things were the way they were and how they got to be the way that they were. And not just things in nature like the flame at the end of the candle. I was fascinated with that, but I was also trying to figure out why adults said the things they said and why they behaved the way they behaved.

It was very interesting to me to observe these people and that just continued in my life. My attention to it increased when I started reading Scientific American, the magazine, and when I was asked sort of randomly asked to host the television show, Scientific American Frontiers. I said, “Yes, on the condition I could actually interview the scientists and not just read a narration,” because I really wanted to hear from the scientists about their work, and I wanted to understand it better, and that kind of lead to what I do now, which is to help scientists communicate better.

What I realized when we were doing that show was that we were doing little improvisation where we had a connection between us where the scientists were really talking to me, trying to get me personally to understand what their science was about, and I wasn’t asking them standard questions, especially, questions that I might know the answer to. I was asking them about things I didn’t know the answer to and they had to make me personally understand what their answers were.

So they weren’t making little lectures to the camera. They were just dealing with me and I began to realize we were improvising, and my background as an actor could really be helpful in helping scientists become accustomed to making that same personal connection with an audience that they were making with me on the show. I was able to use my background as an actor to help scientists, and then that extended to helping doctors and other medical professionals, and now we’re even helping in business with leadership and teamwork because we’ve seen teamwork improve.

RG: Did your experience with Scientific American Frontiers directly lead to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science?

AA: When we finished Scientific American Frontiers, I thought it would be a good idea to train students of science while they were becoming good scientists to also become good communicators. I thought it might be interesting to try using basic techniques that are found in improvisation, which bring people together that help them establish a channel between them and the communication channel that’s open and not one where you spray information that the recipient of your learning, but you engage them. You read them like a book and you can find out by taking cues from them whether they’re getting what you’re saying or if they’re going off in the wrong direction. And that kind of attention to the person you’re trying to communicate with is an obvious solution to communication in the best way, but it’s almost always ignored by most of us. It has to be learned and retrained over and over again. It sounds obvious: pay attention to the person you’re communicating with. And it is obvious, but it’s not that easy to do.

RG: Your book, which came out this summer, is called: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. it’s a great book. It cites a lot of research, which I love. I didn’t know what to expect. I was expecting it to be about scientists, but it really turned out to be about relationships. Do you mind me saying that?

AA: No, I think that’s true. In the eight years the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has been in existence, we’ve trained over 8,000 people, so we’ve had a chance to see what works best and to see what effect it was having. And the effect it was having was more than on communicating science or medicine. One senior scientist, a leading figure in his field, said, “I communicate better now with everyone, including my wife.” And one scientist recently said to us, “This training has saved my marriage.” So getting responses like that, I began to realize that whenever people are trying to communicate with somebody else about anything, whether it’s parents trying to get their children off of dangerous drugs or a couple trying to understand each other and get over the bumps of relationship, or employees and their bosses, salespeople, the list goes on and on.

It almost seems that any interaction between two humans is communication that can be enhanced, that can be made much more effective, and the wheels will turn more smoothly. Misunderstanding will diminish and hostility can diminish. I’m just reading two different diplomats who said they didn’t see how you could do diplomacy without taking the other person’s perspective into account. And that’s exactly what we teach. What’s this person’s perspective that I’m trying to communicate with? Where are they? How can I get to where they are so I can engage them and share this information with them instead of blasting it at them. It was kind of an aphoristic way to put it. The other person becomes your communication partner, not your communication target.

RG: A certain percentage of the population doesn’t believe in climate change, and a certain percentage does. Do you think that’s something that if the communications were better at the very beginning of talking about climate change, that if the scientists communicated more clearly, that the understanding would be different today?

AA: There’s so much around climate change that ‘s hard to understand, so anything I could say about it is just a foray into it and really my opinion. Our center is beginning to study this question. Not only the communication of what we know about it, how we formulated our arguments up till now, and I say argument meaning not so much to convince people to argue them into it but to reveal to them the factors that it’s in everybody’s best interest to pay attention to. But one of the problems is that it’s not merely a question that some people believe in it and other people don’t believe in it. The people who are worried about climate change have scientific data and there’s a normal amount of skepticism about that data because scientists are professionals skeptics. They’re not just skeptical about climate change because it sounds weird or they don’t trust it. They are skeptical about every scientific find. So that keeps them from saying it’s 100 percent true that such and such will happen. Because almost nothing is 100 percent true. There’s always some chance that something is a little bit off.

But on the other side, people who are said not to believe in it are not all people who don’t believe in it. Some of them are people who find it not helpful to their bottom line and they won’t believe them. And some deniers who claim to be skeptics are not really skeptics, and not skeptics the way the scientists are skeptics who are skeptical about their own conclusions, their own hypotheses. That’s what I mean by saying they’re professional skeptics. They don’t just take a position on something and stick to it, they challenge their own ideas. And they have peers challenging their ideas. The deniers just take a position that if we have to change our fuel or something like that, that’s going to cost me bucks and I’m not going to believe it’s true. But then the people who are really not informed about it need much better communication.

And then I think it’s a problem with trust. Everybody trusts somebody when they get information. When I read a science journal, I’m trusting that scientist has done good work in the lab. I’m trusting that the peer review was done by qualified people because I don’t know enough in that specialized field to judge for myself how good the documentation was, how good the data gathering and so on. So I trust. Now, you take somebody else who doesn’t trust the scientific process, but trusts Aunt Tilly because Aunt Tilly seems to always know what’s she’s talking about. And that’s a problem. We have to gain the trust of those people on behalf of science so that they understand that of all the guesses we can make about how nature works, a scientist has a much better chance of doing it than Aunt Tilly who comes up with opinions. Science is not just another opinion. And that’s one of the basic things that I think we have to communicate to a lot of people, how science works.

RG: It seems that scientists are becoming more vocal and more visual, especially talking about events like the March for Science. And certainly, the skills that your center is teaching would come in handy. Do you think it’s a good things for scientsts to get more involved politically and make their voice heard?

AA: I think it’s very important for scientists to make their voices heard, to talk carefully and engagingly about their science. Accurately as well as engagingly. Everybody has to make their own decision. But I’m not so sure that I personally feel it’s a good idea for scientists to become political. They need to address politicians. They need to try to help politicians understand what they’re doing. But I worry that political demonstrations make science look like another opinion or even worse, another special interest.

Science isn’t done for the special interests of the scientists so that they can get rich. Most scientists are doing a public service by doing this, by following their curiosity. What people need to hear from scientists is what the science is about and why it’s important to them, but I’m worried that science might look like a special interest and be treated like one by other special interests and politicians. Science is too important for that.


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