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Opinion

Op-Ed: Patt Morrison asks: Alan Alda

Allan Alda

US actor and science advocate Alan Alda speaks at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, 1on March 10.

(Mick Tsikas / EPA)

Movies and novels about scientists tend to trade on the socially inept genius who can win a Nobel Prize but not the girl, and on science itself being inscrutable and mysterious. Real science is nothing like that, but how do we know that if scientists can’t tell us? Alan Alda, the actor, writer and lover of science, has a university center in his name that’s committed to teaching scientists how to describe their work to the rest of us. He’s taking that message to science’s inner sanctum – Caltech – on Wednesday, April 6, and doing the same right now, right here.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW ON THE ‘PATT MORRISON ASKS’ PODCAST>>

Why are there so few scientists who have a public profile?

My guess is it has something to do with the fact that people don’t see science as having a place in their lives, which is an odd thing, because more and more as time goes on, we’re swimming  in a sea of science. But I guess we’re like fish: if you said to a fish, What do you think about all this water? the fish would say, What water?

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And what we’re stuck with is relying on science more and more, having to make more and more decisions based on some understanding of science, because our health depends on it, possible the future of the species, and we’re not conversant with it.
 
You were the host of the Scientific American series on PBS. Did you have an epiphany about scientists and their ability to communicate when you did that show?
 
I did and it might be what you don’t expect. It wasn’t that they weren’t any good at  communicating, which is the stereotype – it’s that they could communicate so much better when they got a personal connection to the people they were  communicating with. We had a very free conversation; it was almost like an improvisation. I didn’t know what they would answer, they didn’t know what they would answer. We were just trying to, both of us, trying to get me to understand what they were talking about. And as a result, I saw something happened to them in that interaction. They became much more who they were really were in real life. They weren’t lecturing me, they were really trying to make another human understand this complicated stuff. And what I came away from it believing is that we could train scientists to communicate in a way that is comprehensible and connected to the people they’re talking to.
 
One of the great science communicators was Richard Feynman, the Caltech Nobel laureate. He understood that there seems to be some resistance by scientists to being able to explain their work in lay language.
 

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He was a model of presenting the scientist as a human, a fellow person who was very smart but very human and was just like the rest of us in many ways. And Fineman also said something like this, and so did Einstein say something like this – if we can’t make it clear to somebody else, then maybe we don’t understand it as well as we think we do.
 
A lot is dependent on science -- not just the practicalities of what we do, but if you can’t explain yourself as a scientist, how do you get a research grant?
 
I think it’s probably especially hard if you’re doing basic research which doesn’t have an immediate payoff that’s visible or predictable.

For me a good example of that is 100 years ago; Einstein did all that work on general relativity, and those few people who could understand it thought it was really interesting but they didn’t see it had any connection to their daily lives. A hundred years later, we’re all carrying around a GPS system in our pockets and our iPhones. And that GPS system wouldn’t have been possible without an understanding of general relativity and the ability therefore to track the time as its happening in the satellite.

But if you can’t even interest people in the knowledge in the first place, or in gaining that knowledge, you’re not going to be able to afford to do it. So of course I couldn’t agree more that if scientists can’t explain their work to the general public in a way that gets them excited about it, gets them involved in funding it, they’re not going to get the funding.

But you know, there’s something else that the public misses in that process, and that‘s the pleasure of watching these great minds at work.  There’s something extraordinary about their ability to take the smallest piece of information, a little bit of data, and figure out through measurement tools, through analysis tools, something on a much more important level, on a bigger scale. To me, it’s like a great detective story, and we shouldn’t be deprived of that any more than we should be deprived of music or sports, things that we more easily get pleasure from.
 
You saw the consequences, I think, in a session of Congress where members of Congress were asking questions of scientists who probably had something important to say and they were flummoxed.
 
I wasn’t there at the time but I was told by a member of Congress about it. There was a panel of scientists talking to a panel of representatives in Congress, and the members of Congress were passing notes to one another, and the notes said things like, Do you know what this guy is saying? And the guy would pass back the note, No, I have no idea, do YOU know what he’s saying?

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This is tragic! They had taken time out from their work to fly to Washington to explain their work hoping to get funding for it, and yet they couldn’t explain it to people who were intelligent enough to understand some pretty complicated things.
 
Carl Sagan, the great Cal Sagan, probably one of the founding science communicators, who did it to, well, billions and billions on television – he did not exactly have the respect of his colleagues.

No, in fact it’s sad that he was denied admission to -- I think it was the National Academy of Science at the time, because he was thought to be too popular and therefore not a serious enough scientist. I think that even in the last few years that has begun to disappear as an objection.  I have a colleague at the Center for Communicating Science that I helped start who says it’s not communication when you write a paper on your  work – it’s communication when somebody understands it.
 
The stereotype of the scientist as nerdy, as socially inept -- how much of this is true, how much of it is part of the problem?
 
I think it’s been a real problem for a long time, that you show the mad scientist. I think it dates back at least to the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley, which was prefaced by the Ludditism of fear of the Industrial Revolution, fear of new things in science.

And each generation has its own version of that. And it’s all based on some extent on a sensible caution about is this tool you know, is this bandsaw really only to be praised because you can cut circular things out of wood? Or is it liable to cut my finger off?

We do have to be careful about our tools and respect what they can do, in positive and negative ways. But we don’t have to go crazy about it. Science ought to be listening to the public and vice versa, but they ought to be speaking the same language.
 
Science has also become politicized, as we’ve seen with the climate change issue. What are the public’s responsibilities when it comes to science?

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It’s politicized when you decide that certain people only understand science a certain way and they see it in competition with other things that they know or believe in, whereas actual science has a system in place of professional skepticism. That’s the way science moves forward. And sometimes it takes a step back and says, Wait we don’t think so -- yesterday it looked like this, today it looks like that.

Some people get frustrated with that and think science can’t make up its mind. But that’s the wonderful process that science goes through to try to understand a little more clearly how things work in nature. So it’s after MORE truth, not THE truth. But there are people who are maybe more impatient about having THE truth, and those people can be used politically. But that’s the nature of politics.
 
The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is at Stony Brook University in New York. Are there other universities and colleges that are picking up this model?
 
We now have 17 affiliated universities and medical schools in the United States and a couple of days ago, I came back from Australia where we got our 18th affiliation.  So it’s a real partnership across the country and beginning now around the world.
 
Your fascination with science, and your frustration with science, began with a fire.
 
When I was 11, I was fascinated with the flame at the end of a candle, and I wondered what it really was, what was going on in there? So I asked the teacher, What’s a flame? And all she would say to me was, It’s oxidation. Now I had a new thing I didn’t know what it was: I didn’t know what a flame was, and I didn’t know what oxidation was.

So many years later, I started a contest for scientists, and it’s been joined by scientists around the world, to explain difficult things like what is a flame so 11-year-olds can understand it. And 11-year-olds -- real 11-year-olds -- are the judges. And each year now, 11-year-olds around the world suggest a new question. This year it’s, What is sound? They’re pretty expert at the answer to the question and are now judging the scientists on how well they did in answering the question.
 
There must be a lot of nervous scientists as you’ve got 11-year-olds sitting in judgment on them.


 
It’s a good experience for the scientists because it seems easier than it is when you set out to do it. And more than one teacher has reported back to us that the classroom has said, I wish we could learn everything this way.
 
If that long-ago teacher had given you a better answer about flame than “oxidation,” is it possible you would have found yourself in a lab instead of on a soundstage?
 
I kind of doubt it.  I think I found my way by hook and by crook to what I’m really suited to. I think throughout my life I’ve learned things about talking to an audience, conveying a story to an audience, and I can really help do that with scientists, because the thing I had when I was 11 I still have with me, which is my curiosity.

I think it was Mark Twain who said, It’s not what we don’t know that’s not so good, it’s what we know for sure that isn’t so.

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