Scientists are suffering from a curse. At least, that’s what Alan Alda, the actor, director and writer who is well-known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the television show M*A*S*H, said tonight during his talk, “Getting Beyond a Blind Date With Science” at Stony Brook University’s Student Activities Center. The curse: knowledge.
“It’s when you know something so deeply in its complexity that you forget what it is to not know it,” Alda explained.
And this curse is having dire consequences. It is preventing scientists from communicating effectively with the public, and the result of this is that there is a lack of interest and awareness in all the exciting things happening in the world of science. Especially in the medical field, this lack of knowledge and communication could lead to patients not fully understanding procedures they may have to undergo, which can cause them to feel more fear. It’s something that Alda is passionate about changing by teaching scientists the importance of expressing their science so that the public can not only understand but relate to it. The talk was given to a large crowd of students, teachers and scientists from the Stony Brook area to encourage them to learn more effective ways to share discoveries and scientific concepts in a digestible and compelling way.
“As far as the public is concerned, we’re really on a blind date with science,” Alda said, and what he wants, is for the public to fall in love. “We have to get past attraction, we have to get past infatuation and we have to get to commitment.”
“We have to get past attraction, we have to get past infatuation and we have to get to commitment.”
The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is trying to change this communication breakdown between scientists and the public. The Center was started six years ago after Alda challenged the President of Stony Brook University to make science interesting and accessible to the public. Alda told the audience a story about how he had to undergo a complicated medical procedure and the only reason he understood the terminology his doctor used was because his character on M*A*S*H had performed the same procedure. Alda has been a major player in the quest to bring science to the public. He has been the longtime host of the PBS program Scientific American Frontiers as well as other science shows. In order to achieve the goal of effectively communicating science to the public, the Alda and the Alda center are currently training the next generation of scientists and health professionals to build a stronger connection with the public by engaging them and building their commitment to science.
For Jonathan Borrelli, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolution at Stony Brook, science is about the method of problem solving. “Being able to ask interesting questions, going through the scientific method, testing predictions, getting results and expanding my knowledge,” he said.
Borrelli explained that something that really excites him about science is networks. “We can organize so many things in biology and computer science because they all show very fascinating patterns,” Borrelli said.
For Mary Alldred, an ecosystems scientist, the unraveling of the mystery of photorespiration sums up her fascination with science. But without the ability to communicate these mind-blowing concepts, scientists lose the attention of the public.
To demonstrate this point, Alda called a member of the audience up to the stage. He asked her to pick a song from a list of songs that everybody could recognize, without revealing which sound she picked, and then tap the tune into the microphone. As the woman drummed the tune on the podium for everyone to hear, certain that people would be able to figure it out, the curse of knowledge that Alda had mentioned became undeniably clear. Even though she thought the song — “The Star Spangled Banner” — would be easy to guess, less than half of the audience could identify it.
Alda explained that in order to break this curse, scientists have to put themselves in the shoes of their audience so that they’re not only speaking at a level they can understand, but also a level that is emotionally compelling and interesting. Science has to become less of a lecture and more of a conversation.
“Science literacy in the United States is fairly low. If we as scientists can get better at disseminating our results and communicating to the public, then I think we can help that problem,” said Borrelli.