Alan Alda on communicating science to the public

Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 12:25 PM Bookmark and Share
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has a new paper out on 'Science and the Media' (PDF). Alan Alda wrote chapter 3, and has some good advice for scientists (emphasis mine):
The effort is not to oversimplify science. We need clarity and vividness, but not — please, not — dumbing down. Some of our great science communicators have shown that there are deeply engaging stories in science (science itself is the greatest detective story ever told) and that it’s possible to be personal and passionate about the study of nature without losing respect for the precision and accuracy at the heart of that study. Richard Feynman was both fun to listen to and precise. Even when he explained something in simple terms, he usually let you know that it was often more complicated than that. And when you were ready, he let you in on a little more of the complexity.

Feynman was one of those extraordinary communicators that nature produces from time to time. But they occur by chance. Why should effective, inspiring communication of science be left to chance? Science is rigorous; can’t we be just as rigorous about teaching its communication?

Is it too much to hope that there will be a time when the skills of communicating science will be taught as a regular part of the science curriculum, and not as something added on for a few hours at the end? Isn’t good communication fundamental to science? How else can it be successfully replicated, funded, and taught?

But don’t let my high-flown arguments fool you. This is really a selfish plea. I’m too old to learn all the math and chemistry I need to understand the subtleties of the Higgs particle or the intricacies of reverse transcriptase. Even if I did, I’d only have access to one small part of the whole. I want to stand next to you scientists and gaze out at the entire horizon, while you point out what to look for.

Every scientist reading this has a deep passion for science. I implore you: let your passion out. Share it with us. Warmly, with stories, imagination, even with humor. But most of all, in your own voice.


Posted by: Unknown | 10/16/2010 6:26 PM

So, my take is that if Alan Alda doesn't want the science 'dumbed down', there's a great place to read about it, scientific journals. When we try to communicate with the public, it's important to take a different tack, methinks. Not that dumbing down is necessary per se, but a different language is called for when you're writing a letter to the editor.

Posted by: russ | 10/17/2010 3:00 PM

I think Alan Alda was just talking to hear himself talk. The general public has no interest in the details of science and certainly has no interest in spending the effort to learn enough to be able to understand even one small field.

He seems to be trying to place himself alongside 'first in class' scientists for fun - just so he can say, 'Oh yes'.

Must be the current craze for an actor to jump on board - similar to their dabbling in politics and thinking people care about their thoughts.

Posted by: Paul | 10/17/2010 3:54 PM

Alda is largely an entertainer - for better or worse - but he does know a thing or two about how to reach a general audience. That's important. Different language is part of what he's getting at, but also a different style of communicating you don't typically see in technical talks and journals.

He touches on an important distinction between dumbing science down and simplifying it - the first has more to do with content, while the second with presentation.

Journal articles are certainly where we should turn first for more detailed content, however articles often fail to present that content in a way accessible to non-experts: too much jargon, too little background information, etc. That isn't just a science-public problem, it's a problem for "interdisciplinary" science as well.

In general, I think striving for clear presentation without sacrificing content quality is a good goal, and worth emphasizing.

Other than language, Alda also brings up the request for more passion, warmth, etc. - to make it more personal and more story-like. This is a suggestion I mostly agree with for pragmatic reasons, however I think it can backfire in some cases and therefore requires some consideration of 1) your audience, 2) the purposes for discussing science with them, and 3) the subject area, and 4) ways in which you might shoot yourself in the foot by adding a personal/emotional/ethical dimension to the science. Sometimes weaving together the science with your personal excitement (or lack of excitement) or particular ethical judgments can simply be a bad idea.

Posted by: russ | 10/19/2010 2:53 AM

Unfortunately the politicians, scientists and actors best known are often not the best in the profession.

For example far more people around the world know of and would read about her rather than a very accomplished actor.

It is certainly not easy to present science to an audience that may have it's mind a┼čready made up on the basis of what they heard in the barber shop or on a bar stool.

R Regan was known as 'the great communicator' for a reason.

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