Alan Alda Helps People Fall In Love with Science at Stony Brook Event

Melissa McCall

JRN520

Mobile Reporting Assignment

Alan Alda wants you to fall in love—but not with a person. The actor, director, writer and former host of PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers wants you to make a real commitment and fall in love with science.

“As far as the public is concerned, we’re on a blind date with science,” Alda said, as he began his “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” lecture at Stony Brook’s Student Activities Center earlier on Thursday, February 19, 2015.

And that’s just not enough. It’s time for everyone from children to teachers to soccer moms to connect with science so they can be more knowledgeable about the world around them.

“If we get the scientists to get comfortable with communicating with their fellow players,” Alda said, “when they turn to the audience, the audience is their fellow players and the people respond to them.”

Alda’s path to get to the point where he’s leading lectures like this one has been long. From 1972-1983, he was the star of “M.A.S.H.”, a television show about a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea. After M.A.S.H. ended Alda focused his career on the big screen before becoming the host of PBS’ “Scientific American Frontiers”, a show designed to educate the public about advances in science and technology.

After years of conducting interviews, Alda concluded that scientists had a real problem communicating important information, because even he had a difficult time understanding some of the scientists.

“Our ability to communicate is of the essence in science,” said Alda.

In fact, it may have been the communication skills of Chilean physician that saved Alda’s life.

In his tenth year of hosting “Scientific American Frontiers”, Alda got sick while shooting an episode on top of a mountain in Chile. Alda was surprised at how clearly the physician was able to explain the surgery that ultimately saved his life.

Since that epiphany, Alda has become an evangelist for the cause of better scientific communication.

The Alda Center for Communicating Science, which was founded in 2009 and is physically located within the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, is one of the many fruits of Alda’s labor of love. Dedicated to helping scientists effectively communicate information about their work, the Center teaches graduate-level science students at Stony Brook and collaborates with universities and institutions across the nation.

“Our mission at the Alda Center is to become national leaders in shaping the way scientists are educated,” said Howard Schneider, Dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. “And they can understand the importance and value of being excellent communicators.”

At tonight’s talk, many of the attendees agreed that clearly communicating important research and findings is of the utmost importance.

“Scientific findings are worthless if people don’t understand them,” said William Signorile, a sophomore biology major.

Signorile said that he knew of Alda from his role on the hit 70s-era television show, “M.A.S.H.”, but came to the speech because he wanted to learn more about what scientists are doing and to hear more insights from Alda.

Conor Odell, a sophomore biochemistry major, who attended with Signorile, agreed.

Odell said Alda’s speech was important, because as a scientist himself, he wanted to be able to communicate to non-scientists.

In addition to discussing why science communication is so important, Alda also demonstrated some of the skills he promotes, such as connecting with your audience, with a little help from the audience.

In the middle of his lecture, Alda asked for a volunteer from the audience to carry a glass of water from one side of the stage to the other.

“Now you have to carry that glass back across the stage and put it on that table,” Alda said, “but don’t spill a drop or your entire village will die.”

The volunteer made back the trip without spilling a drop.

“Okay, so which trip across the stage was more engaging?” Alda asked, “It’s crytal clear: everybody knows there’s no village that’s going to die, but just saying that puts that virtual risk in our heads. It’s enough to make you say, ‘I hope she doesn’t spill that’. Is she going to be able to do it?”

Alda’s message of improving scientists’ communication skills resonated with scientists and non-scientists in the audience, alike.

Dr. Evelyn Bromet, an Stony Brook professor and epidemiologist, knows first-hand the dangers inherent in miscommunicating science.

“I have been conulsting with radiation scientists in Japan, because of Fukushima,” Bromet said, “and they have exactly the problem he’s talking about which is, they don’t know how to communicate with the public.”

Bromet explained there was a disconnect between the people who are communicating with the public about radiation exposure and the scientists who understand the risks.

“The scientists who understand it’s inconceivable there are going to be health problems for Fukushima can only speak in tongues.”

As a scientist herself, Bromet was happy about the Alda Center’s mission.

“I think it’s all incredibly relevant and right and I think it’s fantastic that stony brook is doing this.”

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