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Alan Alda: Good Communication Can Keep Scientists and the Public in a Committed Relationship

News, AM14 Alda, teaser, 16 Feb 2014


Alan Alda delivered a plenary lecture at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Atlantic Photography

CHICAGO—At the AAAS Annual Meeting, Alan Alda offered some advice to scientists looking to get "beyond a blind date" with the public. Like a lot of relationships, he suggested in his plenary lecture, this partnership needs some work.

Before a standing-room-only audience, the actor and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University said researchers seeking to communicate science should remember the three stages of love: attraction, infatuation and commitment.

Attraction is the first step in drawing nearer to a potential partner, and scientists may think they can start the wooing with words. They often persist in this belief even though studies of personal relationships show that body language and tone of voice are more important factors in attraction, Alda said.

At one point during his 11 years as host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, Alda interviewed a researcher who started speaking in a colder tone and using more complicated words when she stopped answering his questions and turned to the camera to give a lecture. She wasn't the only one to behave like this, he said. When the scientists focused on his questions, "they were focused on my understanding, and that brought out their real humanity."

Scientific jargon usually comes across as perplexing rather than impressive, Alda said, suggesting that researchers should strive for "plain words that are entirely accurate."

To illustrate this, he showed a video of Long Island, New York residents scratching their heads over the terms "nanotechnology" and "cosmological physics." Some members of the U.S. Congress also struggle with jargon and therefore are faced with the "difficulty of giving money to something they don't understand," Alda cautioned.

"I can't tell you how many scientists have told me that they also don't share the same language with one another," he added. He said these missed opportunities could undermine the collaborations that have become increasingly important in solving complex problems.

The second stage of love is infatuation, where emotions rule over everything. Alda urged scientists to look for ways to bring emotion into their communication, citing research that indicates strong feelings can help create lasting memories. As part of the Stony Brook science communication program, students can take an improv theater class to help them look for and share the emotions connected to their research.

But "if you want commitment, you're going to have to listen to one another," Alda said. At this stage in the relationship between scientists and the public, he noted, there are no quick tips to follow and no substitutes for the practice and effort that goes into having a true conversation. "If we want commitment to take place, we're going to have to get aware of what's happening in the other person's mind."

He encouraged audience members to enter the Alan Alda Center's Flame Challenge as part of that conversation. Co-sponsored by AAAS, the annual contest asks researchers to answer a science question in a way that interests and enlightens an 11-year-old child. The challenge was inspired by Alda's own curiosity about what a flame was when he was 11, and the entirely unsatisfying answer of "oxidation" given by his teacher.

When scientists have an in-depth understanding of something, they sometimes forget what it is like not to know it at that depth, Alda said, comparing it to a tune heard inside one's head. "It's very hard to believe when you hear the melody, that they're not hearing the melody too."