Alan Alda on Clarity

Today’s New York Times features an interview with the actor Alan Alda, who, it turns out, has had a lifelong fascination with science. Not enough, apparently, to keep him from his successful acting career. But enough that he has brought his experiences as an actor — essentially a storytelling vocation — to help scientists communicate better. It’s all a great example of the power and importance of clarity — something people in all sectors, not just science, can benefit from.

alda“[S]cientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity,” Alda tells the Times. “They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.

“If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do? I heard from one member of Congress that at a meeting with scientists, the members were passing notes to one another: ‘Do you know what this guy is saying?’ ‘No, do you?’”

For many years, Alda addressed this problem by hosting a popular television series called “Scientific American Frontiers.” His approach was to interview — really, to have a conversation with — top scientists, allowing them to put something of their own personality into their explanations of their work. “Over the years, I must have done around 700 of these interviews, and I felt that in doing them I had stumbled onto something that could help solve a big problem the science community faces,” he said.

Along the way, Stonybrook University established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which “works to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline,” and where Alda offers services as what he calls a “drive-by lecturer.”

He says that what he teaches is “clarity, it’s not dumbing down. But it’s also talking in a way that’s relatable, where you can speak in terms that a person understands in an personal way.”

“[W]e don’t do comedy improvisation or making things up,” he adds. “The object is to put people through games and exercises that force them to make contact with the other player. You have to observe the other person, anticipate what they are going to do. You almost have to read their minds. We teach other skills too: how to distill their messages, how to do on-camera interviews, how to speak on panels. These are all things scientists have not been trained for and it’s useful for them to know.

He was a big science fan as a kid and “when I was in my early 20s,” Alda said, “I started reading every article of every issue of Scientific American. At the time, I’d been reading a lot about the paranormal and telepathy, and I thought Scientific American would help me know if any of that was true. There, I discovered a whole other way to think, based on evidence.”

For the last few years, the Stonybrook Center has run a project called “The Flame Challenge.” “It’s something from my childhood,” Alda explains. “When I was about 11, I got obsessed with what was happening in a flame. I tried to figure out why they were so different from anything else I had ever seen. It gave off heat and light and you could put your finger through it — it didn’t have substance, apparently. There was nothing like it. So I asked a teacher. ‘It’s oxidation!’ she said, flatly. No elaboration. It shut me down.

“So we started a contest for scientists: Tell us what a flame is in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The point was to challenge scientists to explain something difficult in words that were both easy to understand and accurate. The first year we had 6,000 entries — kids and scientists. Now we have 20,000. This year, the question is ‘What is color?'”

All this is brilliant and, as I said, not just for scientists. It’s for everyone who knows a lot about a subject and has to explain what they know to others who don’t — which, for most people, is most of the rest of the world. It’s about boiling complex ideas to their simplest and most understandable essence and being conscious not just of what you’re saying but how you’re being heard.


Image above from NYTimes video interview.

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